I have been thinking a lot about life and death lately, and all the people I love and miss. Right now I really miss my mom. She died a few years ago from cancer. The whole process was difficult on all of us. Lois and I did home hospice for her in the middle of our living room. Her bed sat in the corner away from the front door. An oxygen machine rested near one wall; it had become a part of the décor. There was an IV stand next to her nightstand and a suction pump under her bed. Bags of liquid dispersed their magical formulas. This one is medicine. This one is food. This one gets flushed down the drain. A mass of transparent tubing was tangled beneath her bed like co-axial cables behind the entertainment center. Each one served a different function. Each had a different route – in & out. IN & OUT... I have never talked about this. That would be too hard. Occasionally Lois will ask me something that goes like this: Do you remember the time when your mom was sick and she was in our living room…adding a context to the subject. I would then mumble a reply reflectively thinking back to those days.
I remember when Halloween came, we joked about the sick old lady in the corner of the room who struggled to sit up every time the doorbell rang so that she could look at all the costumes. Talking to the ghouls and goblins, she would ask them to come over so that she could see them. Without her false teeth she must have sounded like Margaret Hamilton from The Wizard of Oz screaming, "Come here my little pretty, and bring your dog Toto too." Because we lived in multi-level home, it was the only place that made sense to turn into a hospital zone. We recruited Lois' brother David to help us out when we were away at work. He graciously gave up all of his time and came to help immediately. Never once did he show a hint of emotion that resembled complaint or grumbling. It was all a labor of love. I never thanked him for that. Toward the very end, my brother-in-law became my mom's best friend, and I never thanked him for that.
Looking back, my memory is cloudy. I remember the constant heparin flushes and the TPN. I remember the awful noise that the suction pump made. It was a constant reminder screaming, "No good will come from this". Later that proved to be true. Later there would be the phone call and the racing home. Later there would be the ambulance.
My mom was a fascinating woman who led an interesting life. She lived through Nazi Germany and survived. She would rarely talk about it, but when she did she was very somber. You could actually feel the mood of the room change and you had to lean in to hear what she was saying. If you knew my mom than you would know that you never had to lean in to hear what she was saying.
Germany broke her heart. I can picture her crossing the war torn country as she made her way through the Black Forest. I can picture this pale skinny child as she's being tossed over the fence of a concentration camp to steal food. The few memories my mom shared with Lois and I amazed us, but you could tell by the look on her face that they haunted her. She would begin to talk, only to stop and grimace, most of the time never finishing what she began. Before I ever understood what scars were – the ones of the heart – I knew she wore them. They were the lines in her face or the look in her eyes. They are some of my earliest memories. Mom hurts. I would not understand why until years later. By then it was too late. The doors had closed. The sharing of past was over. Drudging up old memories was not her style. She would give me that…"Oh Henry, now why do you want to talk about that" look and move on.
My mom was my hero. She was one of the strongest people I ever knew. In our living room, the weeks had turned into months. At days end we'd gather together, thick as thieves. Reliving the day's events, or talking about old ones. Our daughters wandered about oblivious to what was going on. Grandma's sick was all they knew. The oldest – my mom's pride and joy – had taken to shying away. It was one of those pangs too hard to bear. I winced every time I saw it. "It's all the tubes," my mom would say. And it was.
After the ambulance ride, my mom would spend the rest of her days in the hospital. Our daily living room routine had been reduced to hourly visits on our days off and after work. For weeks this went on. One night Lois picked me up after work. Instead of going to the hospital like we normally did, my mom told me over the phone to go home and get some rest. I could visit over the weekend.
The phone call came early the following morning. My heart sank as the nurse explained to me who she was and why she was calling. All I really got out of it was 'come quick' or 'hurry'. Something to that effect.
When I got to the hospital my mom was unconscious. Her condition had changed during the night. I went in and held her hand. There was no response. The doctors told me her body was shutting down. The best thing we could do was make her comfortable. I wanted to know if she was going to wake up. I was told that she wouldn't. It never occurred to me that I would never be able to talk to my mom again. The thought had never crossed my mind. This moment - the one we knew was inevitable - had finally come, and I was unprepared.
Lois had dropped me off at the hospital. She was on her way to the airport because she was heading to Vegas to cover a story. Without knowing what waited inside, I told her to go. Weeks of planning had already gone in to this trip. Whatever was going on could wait. She would be back in five days.
Thirty minutes later Lois called me from the airport. Thirty minutes later she was at my side. For the next 18 hours that's where she stayed, by my side.
My mom was the strongest and bravest person I ever knew. She was a rock. From the moment she found out that she had cancer, her worry was for me. She didn't want to see me get hurt. When she went through chemo and her hair started falling out, she'd run out of the room to get sick and then apologize for doing it. She would actually come back into the room and ask if I was alright.
My mom was amazing and my mom is my hero.