For more than a week now, I’ve been living with the sights, the sounds, the smells of near death, or end of life as it’s called on the palliative care floor at Wilson Medical Center.
I’ve been through this once before, watching and waiting for someone’s life to come to an end. This time, it’s Mama.
The palliative care unit provides a quiet refuge for patients like my mother who are too sick to eat. Too sick to walk. Too sick to talk or even make eye contact.
There’s a different story in every room. Families chat in the hallway, in the cafeteria, in the elevator. We know the lady next door has a big family who visits often. That another farther down has already been on the unit three weeks. We know the family across the hall lost their mother Monday morning after several days of close watch by her family.
Families on the unit have so much in common. We have the same blank look on our face as we get off the elevator on the fifth floor, the same sadness in our heart.
And we all know the same vocabulary: ativan, morphine, diladin. We know the unit our loved one is in provides “comfort care at the end of life.” We know bedbound patients should be turned every two hours and IV needles changed every three days. We know “the patient’s getting no nutrition” means she’s not eating or getting any supplement. That she’s going to die.
We know what it feels like to look into your wife’s eyes or father’s eyes and to see real pain. How hard it is to see your patient agitated and angry. How numbing it is to see fear and alarm in your mother’s eyes when a nurse turns her to a different position. How hard it is to see her emaciated body when a nurse gently bathes here.
We know how hard it is to say goodbye every time you walk out of the room.
I’ve done a lot of thinking and a lot of remembering while sitting quietly at Mama’s side or curled up in bed bedside her. I’ve thought mostly about the good times. About vacations to Virginia Beach, Mama’s buttered toast for breakfast, new clothes spread across my bed when I got home from school one day, family meals with my sister and her family around the kitchen table. I’ve remembered how Mama took loving care of my children while I went to work and how much they love her. How hard it is for them and my nieces to say goodbye. These grandchildren have young, tender hearts and adored their gentle grandmother from infancy. They are growing up too fast watching this process.
In the last week, I’ve heard happy stories about my mama from cousins who love their aunt dearly, and I’ve watched them cry as they looked at her small, frail body curled in a fetal position. “I want to touch her,” a cousin told me yesterday as she stroked her forehead.
I’ve sat with my aunt as she looked at her beloved sister and have fought back tears. She has loved Mama the longest.
As family visits, I realize she’s not just our mama and grandmama, but she’s someone’s sister. Someone’s neighbor of 50 years. She’s the sister-in-law someone made cheese straws with. The aunt who made delicious fried chicken and lemon cake. And they all love her.
My sister and I are suffering greatly. We cannot comprehend that this very long journey with Alzheimer’s is finally coming to an end, that our mother is dying. We don’t want the pain from a new pelvic fracture to torment her any longer or the misery that comes with not being able to communicate to frustrate her again. We know it’s time to let go. We know she’s made it to the “end stage” of her disease.
But we don’t want to lose our mama. We want to continue to hold her hand, to run our fingers through her curls, to kiss her on the cheek and tell her we love her. Although we lost her in many ways years ago, we still cling to the physical: the touch, the smell, the sight of her very blue eyes.
And we cling to the memories of a life well lived.