I’m sitting again in her room, this time in a wide, beige sleeping chair. It’s the one I confiscated earlier, while she was napping.
Funny, but after all these visits—the emergencies, the simple procedures, the long, complicated surgeries, I know where the staff keeps the “extras” on this floor: the spare chairs; the tray tables; the empty, broken wheelchairs.
Some of the staff on duty today is familiar to us. People like Moses. He’s the guy—the military vet down in the ER—who knows best how to place the needle through her pale skin. He uses a small-gauge pediatric needle in a particular spot on her hand. Like the Red Sea before his namesake, her blood and tissue heed his commandment to move.
Mom never cries, either, when Moses puts the line in.
If only every nurse were like Moses.
We’re in Mom’s hospital room—just the two of us, and it’s Sunday afternoon. The air conditioner is on full blast, swaying the vertical blinds. Earlier I nearly broke into a full sweat, simply from crossing the parking lot to enter the hospital.
How many times have I crossed that threshold? Over the last five years, she’s done the impossible again and again. I’ve watched her slip unconscious, struggle to breathe, and cry in agony. Yes, I’ve seen her bleed.
And then, a few days later, she’d be back in her nursing home, ordering me to bring fried okra and lemonade.
Mom’s a “frequent flyer” at the hospital. There are no special perks for this designation; no fancy room upgrades or mileage points we can cash in for a trip to Fiji.
We just know more minutiae: the admissions process, the location of the surgical suite, and how to schedule her meals using the telephone. As an added bonus, I know which cashier in the cafeteria will give me the staff discount on my Diet Coke when I wear my navy suit, when I can pass as a doctor or an administrator.
Frankly, the fuss and bother of this particular weekend has left us both grumpy. Mom’s irritated with the food and the staff. I’m irritated with… well, where would I begin? This is rewarding work but it’s also draining. There are the midnight ER runs, the panicky calls from nurses, Medicare’s gnarled red tape, and the logistics of engaging simultaneously in eldercare and childcare. I’m almost tapped out.
Yet, here we are, preparing to face a fresh bump on our journey. We’ve got a new doctor—for a new problem—and he has just sent an ultrasound technician to Mom’s bedside.
“Another damn test,” Mom mutters under her breath.
Earlier this weekend, they admitted Mom primarily for her usual problem: a serious urinary tract infection. There’s so much more going on, however.
Her case is complicated by advanced stage rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease that was left untreated for too long. Her RA has kept her bedridden for years. It didn’t stop with her feet and knees and hips, though. There’s barely any cartilage left in her fingers. The top joints on her thumbs? They’re hanging on by a thread. Sometimes, you can hear the bone hit bone, rattling like a cartoon Halloween skeleton.
A few years ago, the RA turned on her soft tissues, specifically her urinary tract. That was when the recurring, nasty infections began and the giant kidney stones began to grow. One of the stones grew to the size of a hen’s egg.
It took the surgeon hours to remove it.
The new ultrasound tech begins the process by telling us what we already know: Mom is afib. Her heart is acting up. We need to find out why.
“I’m not looking forward to that thing,” Mom says, gesturing with one bony, visibly crippled hand at the ultrasound probe in the tech’s grasp.
“I’ll be gentle,” the tech promises. The woman makes eye contact and smiles at my mother, first, and then me.
I give them both an encouraging nod.
Reluctantly, the patient consents. The tech places the probe over her heart.
My stomach clinches instantly. My breath goes shallow.
Because I know.
I know like I know that water is wet. I know that Mom’s end is coming–faster than she wants, faster than either of us is ready for. I know each test, exam, or scan made on this flight is going to lead us closer and closer to having to deal with what we don’t want to deal with: our last goodbye.
Finally, after some adjustments by the technician, an image comes into view on the portable ultrasound screen.
I see it and think it’s curious how human hearts never look like Valentine candy boxes. No, they look exactly like what they are: moving lumps of muscle.
The tech fiddles more with the machine. A sound fills the room.
It is my mother’s heartbeat.
I’m struck by the fact that this is the same heart to which I listened non-stop for 40 weeks almost 46 years ago. It’s the sound for which I used to listen sometimes, back when I snuggled up close to her as a little girl.
This is the last time I will ever hear my mother’s beating heart. My dying mother’s beating heart.
And I know it.
Is this new ache, forming within me, fear? Is it rising grief? Or is it an elemental, existential epiphany? Should I embrace it, breathe into it—or run?
All I seem to be able to do is sit here, paralyzed in this borrowed beige chair. I just sit.
Sit. Watch. Listen. Wait.