My mother died September 30th, one week and two days after being discharged from the hospital, terminal cancer her final diagnosis.
In early September we were talking about her possible discharge home at the end of that month; she was making great progress with her hip replacement rehab, despite continued pain.
We thought we had time ahead of us. She thought she had time.
Then, with a September 15th phone call, our world changed. The resident calling reported mom had terminal cancer. A day-and-a-half later, I’m back east, meeting with dad, mom, doctors, nurses.
Terminal means final; an end. When, exactly, that end would come was unknowable. One doctor tells us four, maybe six weeks. Mom’s nurse urges us to get her home and comfortable soon. I sense an urgency; that time is limited but, at this point, we don’t realize how limited. Our decision to discharge her to the rehab facility she’d been in since mid-June takes several days.
Once we set her discharge in motion, the hospital executes. I plan to drive to the hospital the next morning to be with mom as they prepare her for the two-hour trip back to rehab, but I call and discover she’s already been loaded up in the ambulance and is on her way. I re-calibrate, and head to the local facility where she’ll be cared for, bringing photos and personal items to decorate her room.
When I arrive, a staff member shows me mom’s new room—a single—her belongings on a cart, moved over from her old rehab room. I mount photos on the wall; place vases with flowers around to soften antiseptic edges; reorganize her personal items in the drawer to make it tidy and accessible. I drape her soft pink blanket at the foot of her bed and fluff pillows.
If you want to practice non-attachment and letting go, decorate a room in a rehab facility for a loved one who is dying. It’s never going to be home as you know home, but it can be enough. And you know it will be fleeting.
The bed is positioned with the headboard facing the window. She’ll be able to see the garden just outside and the low mountains beyond. I’m grateful there’s a view. I’m grateful it’s in a facility we’re all familiar with. I’m grateful the people who will care for mom spent time with her when she was stronger and feisty and living. I’m grateful they have that image to hold onto as they care for her in this new costume: that of an old woman, dying.
The ambulance is efficient; it’s not even noon when I look up and see mom being wheeled toward the room on a stretcher. She greets me with a warm smile. It’s familiar, yet also seems different; wispier. I think of old black-and-white photos, the images starting to fade from years of exposure to the sun.
When I saw her four days earlier at the hospital, her cognition was slightly off; close to normal but different enough to notice. Pain meds had become a fact of life for her over the summer, even as she made efforts to limit the quantity. I was glad the meds helped manage her pain; but it was evident they also dampened her quick mind; they slowed things down. They took a bit of my mother away from us.
I smile back, and sense that slightly off feeling again. But maybe it’s me, seeing my mom through a lens that knows she’s dying. Maybe that affects my experience of her.
As I greeted mom in her room that day, it didn’t occur to me that there were not going to be any better days ahead. It seems obvious now, but this was all new; all sudden; there was so much medical information thrown at us and so many decisions that needed to be made under tight time frames. All of it being done with one giant unknown: how much time did mom have?
Also, with more clarity now than then, what would the quality of mom’s remaining time be?
Part of me assumed we’d have at least four weeks. Buried in that was an expectation—a hope?—that those would be four quality weeks. Weeks of meaningful, cogent conversations and expressions of love. Weeks where mom didn’t feel pain but was totally present to us. Reassurances all around; that we’d be there for dad; that she loved us all and was grateful for her life; that she was ready and at peace.
But given her pain and the impact of the drugs, would we—would she—get that?
Photo source: Walk the Goats
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