My Mother Is Dying, My Mother Has Died

MAY 11, 2009
  My mother passed away on May 5th at the nursing home. 87 years old.  A long 87 years.  Raised on a hundred acre farm in what is now Romania, part of a German community on the outskirts of the old Austrian-Hungarian empire. Never made it past a 4th grade education because her back and hands were needed to work in the fields along with her brothers and sisters. Her mother had given birth to 14 total of which only six survived.  The good old days. Growing up I heard many stories from her about going to bed at 10 or 11 PM and up by 3:30 to begin the chores.  

  I also heard many other stories growing up, far too many stories, repeated and relived often in real time, of the onslaught of the Soviet Army at the end of World War II, of her family being displaced from their farm, her parents allowed only 200 lbs. of belongings to take with them. Of her sisters and brothers, along with anyone between 15 and 45, being rounded up and transported to the concentration camps in the Ukraine where many were worked and starved to death as the Russians rebuilt their empire. I say she told these stories in real time because she suffered severely from what is now referred to as PTSD.  She was in the camps for 3 years, released only because it was assumed she’d die before returning home.  If you didn’t freeze or starve or die of typhus or tetanus, odds were good that you were close to death by the time it was decided you could leave.  I didn’t grow up listening to fairy tales with happy endings.  I grew up watching my storyteller crumble into hysterical weeping several times a week, re-experiencing her horrors, bearing witness to the cruelty and suffering that happened daily.  Suffering so difficult to imagine that on the few times she ventured to describe it to the neighborhood suburban housewives, their response was to assume my mother was making these stories up. Psychotherapy was not an option to an immigrant with limited command of her new language.  Counseling had not yet permeated society. Her family, which was to follow her to the States to start a new life, was shut out when Uncle Sam put the kabbosh on immigration, further accelerating her sense of abandonment.  Neighbors, comfortable in their ignorance, were useless.  My father, himself an escapee from post-war Eastern Europe, was too ill equipped and broken in spirit to handle her emotional needs, consumed as he was by his own traumas and inner isolation.  Theirs was a tragic and miserable marriage.  Under these circumstances, and with 5 years on my younger brother, I therefore became the designated confidant, listening to her stories on a daily basis, because the truth was she related everything to her experiences in the camps.  Even a sunny sky and a shady tree or the smell of bread could trigger a memory of brutality. Her meltdowns were the worst, and you could see them coming as she built up the momentum in her recollections.  You’d sit helpless and frightened out of your wits watching the transformation, all the while trying to figure out how to calm her down and talk her off the ledge.  Her life was driven by fear and trauma and she was not sophisticated enough to realize the emotional havoc she was creating in her kids.  Her extreme disappointment in my father naturally directed her energies to her two sons, and we were burdened with the unachievable responsibility of providing her with her only joy in life.  Yet she was a classic European who paid attention to appearances, and anyone stopping by the house would never guess what turbulence existed so much of the time  They were, instead, seduced by her infectious laugh and incomparable cooking and baking.  My friends, raised on mashed potatoes and bologna sandwiches, thought they had stepped into an exotic restaurant, so filled were they by delicious goulashes and pastries by the time they left.  She loved to talk and her accent and slightly convoluted English made her an object of affectionate curiosity to these white, suburban, American kids.  

  Her laughter came from a deep appreciation of comedy, what might even be considered low comedy, and she was one of the few women I’ve known who possessed a love and understanding for The Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, The Rascals and the great Warner Brother Looney Tunes. Not surprising.  Comedy rooted in violence and embarrassment.  I don’t remember watching Sid Caesar, but apparently I did with her.  I do remember well Red Skelton.  I thank her for that and owe my sense of humor in large part to her.  

  She was a tough broad.  For someone so driven by fear, she was one of the bravest people I’ve ever known.  She was the anchor in the family, a case study of perseverance and optimism in spite of her devils and nightmares.  She was the one who didn’t hide, behaved counter-phobicly, got things done and faced down neighbors or councilmen or cops.  Her health, so ruined by the camps, left her physical condition very compromised for the remainder of her life, and she underwent countless major surgeries.  She survived late stage ovarian cancer in her mid 50’s with what can only be described as sheer force of will.  She was in her seventies when she had a foot and a half of colon removed and suffered a couple of strokes while under the knife.  Strokes, both major and minor, became regular occurrences in her final 15 years and her partial dementia was the result of a brain that, according to the doctors, looked like a minefield in the CAT scans.

  Unlike my father, whose life seemed to end upon leaving his homeland and coming to the States, who lived in the perpetual past and never spoke much about his life, when he did speak, past 1945, my mother could be present and connected to day to day events, and think in terms of a future.  It was what made her engaging and so full of life when she wasn’t riding the nightmare express. She was very easy to like because she possessed a generous and well meaning heart. It was evident even at the nursing home where the staff loved her and were genuinely upset when her behavior would occasionally turn dark and delusional.  We were humbled by the number of nurses and aides who tearfully expressed their sadness at losing a "friend", not an easy thing to say in the dementia unit.

The 'look' sets in. Eyes completely dark pupils, no whites, sunken deep into the skull. Her breathing had become very watery and we were concerned that the pneumonia would claim her. Suffocation was her greatest fear.
Her last 'conscious' day. My brother and his family came up for a final visit. If was difficult to tell if she was really there. Her eyes had that thousand mile look. She occasionally smiled if my wife, Terri, put her face directly in front of hers. Her arms, seemingly acting on their own, made floating grasping movements. What was she reaching for?
By the morning of the 4th she was fitted for oxygen to ease any discomfort. Her morphine doses were on the low end of the range and apparently were doing the trick keeping her out of pain. Her breathing had surprisingly turned clear and measured. We seemed saved from a messy ending.
Too much was happening to concentrate on any drawing between Sunday and Tuesday. I posted a note to the family and friends (5-3-09): "... my mother was being taken to the hospital in North Adams (the previous week) where she was evaluated for what is described as dry gangrene. Her circulation had pretty much collapsed and medications weren't able to reach her infected legs because there was no blood circulating to those points anymore. The options came down to choosing the least of the evils and making comfort the primary function as any surgery or amputation would have either killed her or put her in agony and trauma, and ultimately do nothing to resolve her critical condition. It was decided after conferring with me, and getting my brother to concur, that it would be best to return her to the nursing home and allow nature to take its course, and keep her pain free. Wednesday (April 29) she was remarkably lucid when Terri and I visited and I took advantage of the moment to call Germany and have her talk to her last surviving sister. They were on the phone about 40 minutes. It was a blessing. Maria understood why we were calling and thanked me. By Thursday she had fallen off the cliff, and there's been no reversal. It's been a rough weekend. My mom's decline in condition has been sharp. Yesterday was more agitated and filled with the sound of the death rattle. Today was extremely calm by comparison. She hardly seems aware of anyone's presence anymore. She can't speak, and just barely nods her head. The doctor estimates a couple days at best. He's been very empathic and when he stopped in to visit her today, sitting on her bed she unexpectedly gave him a big smile, grabbed his hand and kissed it, then drifted back into that far away land and barely responded to his questions ( you had to watch closely for head movement). He came out of the room after finishing her exam and said to Terri in the hallway, "That was heartbreaking." My brother also came up with his family and spent a couple hours in the room. She didn't seem to register their presence much. But she's not in pain and indicates that she's comfortable. I feel that she knows what's going on, seems resigned to her helplessness and is separating in her own way. I remember Donna (my first wife) doing similar in the last week. "
She was put on maximum oxygen intake by the morning of the 5th. We arrived back at the nursing home by 8:00 am. She was gone by 9:45 am.
She had been in a coma since Sunday, May 3rd. Her condition deteriorated far more rapidly than the already rapid predictions of the doctors and nurses. Her temperature was over 105 by the end. But all indications were that she was very comfortable and pain free. Terri and I were there; unfortunately, the boys weren't able to arrive in time, their planes just not fast enough. It had been a truly exhausting week, but for all the suffering the woman went through in her life, her dying was the most gentle, vaporous event imaginable. If you know the Mahler 9th Symphony it went like the final minutes of the last movement. If you had watched it in a movie, you'd accuse the filmmaker of dishonesty and going for the cheap tearjerker. But it was perfect- almost perfect, marred only because the grandsons didn't arrive in time. Even though she was in a coma, I truly believe she heard me expressing love and thanks for all she had done and telling her it was time to be with her mom and dad and brothers and sisters. Her favorite Dvorak was playing, her breathing grew more faint and she expired on the last note of the Dvorak waltz that Terri and I had played at our wedding after I kissed my bride.