The change blew in with an autumn wind, scattering leaves — and our hopes — into a darkening sky. “Your mom is close to dying,” the doctor told us. “It’s time for her to be in hospice care.”
On her last night at the hospital, my siblings and I moved our mother’s bed to face the mountains so that she could watch a glorious sunset from the floor-to-ceiling windows. As we did so, we set off alarms and flashing lights, sending a nurse scurrying in to find out what “the crazy family at the end of the hall” was up to. He ultimately agreed that our arrangement was a much better idea and found new outlets for the bed controls and our mom’s morphine drip. “Aren’t I lucky to see this?” said our mother, as the mountains blackened against an apricot sky. “What a perfect and lovely night.”
We didn’t want to move her from her quiet and spacious corner room with that magnificent view, but we had little choice. Rules were rules and the hospital offered “comfort care,” not hospice care (even though the only difference is a code on the medical billing sheet). A caseworker called and informed me of our hospice choices with the tact of a travel
salesman offering cabin options on a Caribbean cruise ship. Then he added (far too judgmentally), “Most people take their parents home to die.”
Of course, I let him have it.
“Oh? Sorry to disappoint you, but our mother wants to spare her grandkids the heartache of watching someone carry her body out of the house. Have a problem with that?”
After filling out another mountain of paperwork (one cannot die in this country without being wrapped in red tape), my mom was transported to a hospice room at a care center, where my siblings and I are now taking shifts to ensure that she is comfortable and pain-free. I convinced the head nurse to round up a cushy recliner to place next to my mom’s bed, and the kitchen staff finally gave me the code for their door lock so that we can help ourselves around the clock to coffee, cocoa and ice.
My mother, gracious and loving through it all, enjoys having me read aloud from “A Year in Provence” to drown out the televisions from surrounding rooms and the constant chatter from a hall intercom, calling for nurses to pick up “line one” with the urgency of an airline announcing final boarding. But mostly, we have shared quiet conversations as she cycles in and out of sleep and asks for more ice in her Pepsi.
“Mama, I love you — this is hard, but I will try to be brave,” I told her yesterday, resting my head on her chest to feel her warmth and hear her heartbeat. “I love you, too, darling daughter,” she said softly, reaching for my hand. “Think of the happy times. Remember your pink canopy bed? I can still see you smiling and sleeping there.”
In her last days, she has only simple requests: soft pillows, plenty of ice water and minimal repositioning of her legs to lessen her pain. She says that she would like me to finish the novel she has worked on for more than 25 years. “Of course, dear mother,” I said. “It will be my honor.”
We are told that she may not make it to see Thanksgiving. So as the sun sets on another sweet day, we will crowd into her room today with her grandchildren to celebrate her life and her love with her favorite Champagne and apple pie.
There will be heartache and tears, but I know that her room will also be filled with a feeling of warmth and peace. We are still a family. Her ligh shines on.