A Look Inside “14 Days”

PREFACE

“I want Mitch Albom to write me a eulogy,” my mom said in an expectant tone.

“Mother, everyone wants Mitch to write their eulogy.”

“Yes, but he likes me. Ask him to write one for me.”

“Mother, I can’t…I…”

She looked at me with dying eyes, mother eyes. Eyes saying, “just do it.”

“But, I don’t want to ask him for a favor like this. It makes me uncomfortable.”

“Lisa, just ask him. All he can do is say no.”

 


 

FOREWORD

Millie –

Although these are difficult last days, I have no doubt where you are going next. You’ll be in heaven with a first class ticket.

In case you are overwhelmed by the beauty when you arrive and you find yourself temporarily speechless, here is a piece of paper that you can present to whoever is manning the gates, OK?

It can serve as your official introduction.

We loved you every minute you were with us – and will for all the minutes to come.

God bless you on your journey home.

Love,
Mitch Albom

********

Hello, my name is Millie Goich, or, if your records go way back, Mila Birach, born March 5, 1926. You shouldn’t need to look me up. My friends tell me my reputation precedes me.

I’m happy to be here. I was ready to be here. I have been dreaming of this place for a while. I’m 85 years old, and people tell me I filled those 85 years with as much love and laughs as one person can expect from a life on earth. Now it’s time to check out the new digs. If you have any space that looks like Las Vegas, you can sign me up. And if you have any Wizard of Oz slot machines, that would be fine, too. I mean, if you can’t get lucky here, where can you?

As for me? Well. I know this: I had a great life. If you measure your success by those you leave behind and how fondly they think of you, I hit the jackpot.

I count three children, two grandchildren, one great grandchild, and an adoring, loving husband from my time on earth, which is a good life’s work no matter who you’re talking about. My kids tell me I always put them first and never thought about myself. They’re being sweet. But my family really did come first. I didn’t mind. That’s how I wanted to live.

In fact, if you’ve got some families up here you want me to watch after – cook, fuss, whatever you need — I can make the time. Making time comes easily for me. I’ve done it all my life.

I think it comes from being loved. My husband and I fell for each other the day we met, at a weenie roast. Sixty-four great years together. Do you know, after all that time, we still hold hands? I can feel his hand in mine even now. Sometimes you just know. I was blessed that way.

I also got to make a lot of fond and funny memories. I teased people. I gave them a little sass. I loved to laugh. I even worked at a donut shop for a while, and traded some back and forth jokes with the cops. Do you know what cops are? I don’t suppose you need any up here.

My kids tell me I was devoted and dedicated and that I never stopped worrying. Well, they’re right about the last part. You always worry about your children. But I’m hoping now that I’m here, I’ll see there is actually nothing to worry about. It would be nice to get that message to the kids. Then again, we can let them sweat it out, if it keeps them in line. It’ll be our little secret.

I do have a couple of questions. Do you keep up with the Kardashians up here, too? If so, I’m prepared. If not, that’s OK, too. However, if you separate the neighborhoods here by political parties, I would like to sleep with the Democrats. Force of habit. Sorry.

Mostly, you can count on me for cooking, joking, Yugoslavian detail work, moral support and endless love. I am kind of like that song, “When you’re weary, feeling small, when tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all…”

Like a bridge over troubled water. I love that tune. And that’s what my family and loved ones say about me. If they’re right, who am I to argue? All I can tell you is I had a great life, I lived it on my terms as much as I could, and based on all the smiles – and tears – at the end, I must have done something right.

I’m just happy to be here. I didn’t want to get on the bus going south, if you know what I mean.

If God is reading this, thank you for all you gave me on earth – and for the chance I had to give some of it back. I really do see what you mean when you say to give is to live. That’s how I handled it. And I feel more alive than ever.

So…let’s get this second act started, right?

Sincerely yours,

Millie Goich

Beloved wife, mother, mother-in-law, grandmother, relative and cherished friend of too many people to count

 


This is a tiny book about love, and a mother and a daughter and saying goodbye. You might see yourself in this book, or you might just be here to experience the story. Regardless, I welcome you to take my hand and step inside my parents’ house and share in my mother’s final days with me. Thank you for coming. Make sure you take some cookies home with you when you leave.


 

DAY 1
December 11

“Dashing through the snow, in a one horse open sleigh…”

I thought burning my toast was going to be the worst thing that happened today. It wasn’t just the fact that the toast was burnt, it was the last two pieces of bread in the package. I had no back-up plan. While my dad sat at the kitchen table eating his oatmeal, and my dog Angie sat on the floor at his side waiting for table scraps, I tossed the bread in the garbage and cursed my brother under my breath for distracting me with his phone call. My first full day back in my hometown of Warren, Michigan wasn’t starting on a high note. My parents’ toaster was half to blame. Because the toaster didn’t turn off on its own, toasting required staring at the bread through the red-hot slots and, when it looked like it was browned, manually pushing the button to pop it out. My mom and dad never felt the need to get a new toaster. When you’re 85 and 89 respectively, I guess watching things cook isn’t that big of a deal. What else have you got to do? They could see their TV from the kitchen, so while the bread was browning they’d have one finger on the button and one eye on Good Morning America in the other room.

Perhaps if my brother Richard didn’t call with an urgent message to get to the hospital “Now!”, I wouldn’t have started this Sunday with a grumbling stomach and a bug up my butt. My mom had been admitted to the hospital two days prior after a fall at the kidney dialysis center left her unable to walk. I had gone straight from the airport to the hospital the evening before after arriving in Detroit from Los Angeles. My dad and I planned on a leisurely morning at home before joining my mom again at her bedside. Obviously leisurely wasn’t in the plans today and there was some news my brother chose not to share with my dad and me over the phone, but insisted we hear in person. That’s never good. It seems to be status quo in my family. No one tells anyone anything for fear of upsetting them. People in our family have gone in and out of hospitals, have had strokes, heart attacks and cancer, have gone through chemo and remission, all before other family members were told about it. “She doesn’t need to worry,” they’d say in hushed tones, putting their index finger to their lips. My mom had a tumor and 18 inches of her colon removed five years earlier and was home healing before my niece even knew she was sick. She’s sensitive, they say. So they keep the bad stuff from her, hoping she’ll never find out.

But today, while my brother’s urgent “Now!” lingered in the air, I would soon be in on the secret.

“Are you ready?” asked my dad, already standing at the back door with his keys in hand.

“Am I ready? Do I look ready?” I asked, motioning down the length of my body to my pajamas and bare feet. “Give me five minutes,” I added, and went back into my bedroom.

I heard my dad let out a big Huff! as he jingled his keys in his gloved hands, obviously frustrated that he couldn’t leave right away.

My parents always had a way of guilting me into not being late. They were never late. Ever. My mom packed for vacations a week before she was leaving. The airport? She’d leave seven hours ahead of take-off, “just in case.”

So today, as my dad stood in the doorway with his coat on muttering under his breath, I hurriedly threw on the same clothes I wore on the plane the day before, tossed my little dog, Angie, into her carrier bag, pulled a baseball cap over my frizzy curls and headed back into the family room.

“Okayyyyy…let’s go,” I said, rolling my eyes, feeling more like a 15-year-old than a woman on the brink of 50.

As my dad pressed the button to the left on the wall, next to his Parking For Serbians Only! sign, the electric door lifted and the morning sun poured into the garage, followed by a biting gust of wind and a swirl of snow. It had started snowing about an hour earlier and a blanket of white had accumulated on the driveway. The wind whipped the trees and tossed the snowflakes, reminding me why I left this northern climate 16 years ago. Living in Los Angeles for more than a decade, I rarely ventured home to Michigan in the winter. I don’t ski, I’m not a fan of winter sports and I have spent far too many hours on airplanes warding off panic attacks waiting for planes to de-ice before taking off. Detroit was far more appealing to me in May than it was in December.

I buckled Angie’s carrier into the backseat then climbed into the passenger side of my dad’s Jeep Liberty SUV. This was my mom’s side of the car and it seemed odd that I was sitting there and not in the back seat with my dog. Dad in the driver’s seat. Mom in the passenger seat. Kids in the back seat. Isn’t that the way it always was and always should be? I stared at my mom’s used tissue wadded up in the cup holder and got a foreboding sadness as my dad turned the key to the Jeep’s ignition. My dad — a loyal Chrysler employee even 25 years post-retirement — only drove Chrysler products. We rarely mention my Toyota Prius around him. It inevitably brings up lectures of “The Japs” and World War II and buying American and recessions and depressions. I’d rather talk about the fuel efficiency, but he’ll have nothing of it.

As my dad backed down the driveway, the Liberty dovetailed a bit as he shifted from reverse to drive when he reached the street. We headed toward the freeway, the main streets slick from the new-fallen snow. I forgot how nerve-wracking it was to be in a car with my dad. At 89, he drove like a 16-year-old boy. Revving up to speeds about 20 miles over the speed limit, he has always had a habit of racing to the car in front of him, then slamming on his brakes just as he was about to make contact with the car’s rear bumper. This day was no different. Each time he’d speed and stop, my feet inevitably found their way to the dashboard, pushing down hard as the red lights in front of us grew closer. My hand clutched the handle above the passenger door and I could feel my fingernails burrowing into my palm, anticipating the moment of impact that we miraculously missed every time. I knew better than to say anything. My dad wasn’t a fan of backseat drivers and never took to criticism of his automotive handling skills very well. Perhaps that’s a cockiness one develops after building cars for 30-plus years.

Trying to keep my mind off of the driving — and the “Now!” that awaited us at the hospital — I attempted to strike up a conversation with my dad that would bring both of our minds to a different place. Talking to my dad one-on-one was always a very stilted venture. Most of our conversations during my life took place with my mom as a go-between. A sort of translator between the two of us. When I would call home, and my dad answered the phone, before I could even get out a “hello,” he’d say, “Here’s your mother,” and hand her the phone. We never had much to talk about, I guess. And that morning wasn’t any different.

“Soooooo…” I said, drawing out the word ‘so,’ hoping that it would trigger a topic, or at least six or eight more words to complete a full sentence. “I see they remodeled the Taco Bell,” pointing to the fast-food restaurant our family frequented often.

My dad, just as awkward in his response said, “Yeah, it’s been a couple years now. Your mother likes Taco Bell. She likes those Chalupas. That’s some good Mexican food, that Taco Bell.”

“Those Chalupas are good,” I added, wishing we could actually pull through the drive-thru and order a couple.

Before moving to California, Taco Bell was the only Mexican food I had ever eaten. Warren, Michigan — a suburb of Detroit — isn’t known for its ethnic diversity. Nor its culinary dining experiences. With restaurants with names like “J. Edgars On Hoover,” it was a buffalo wings and meat and potatoes kind of town. Blue collar cuisine. Dinner rolls presented in plastic baggies. Three-dollar breakfast specials.

As we continued toward the freeway, we passed my high school. It, too, had received a facelift since last I visited. But the giant dome we once climbed on our senior year and spray painted was still intact. I couldn’t even fathom climbing on top of a building now, let alone destructing property or spray painting without a mask. Even though I knew it was wrong to do back then, the 16-year-old me never thought about consequences. Or heights. Or toxic chemical fumes.

Thankfully the freeway had been salted, as my dad sped down the ramp onto Interstate 696. With my mind completely void of any further conversation, I reached down and turned on the radio. Faith Hill’s “Come Home” poured from the speakers, foreshadowing the afternoon’s topic of conversation.

After a 35-minute drive, we arrived at Grosse Pointe’s Beaumont Hospital. Grosse Pointe, Michigan is located on the shore of Lake St. Clair, bordering the city of Detroit. The two cities are a stark contrast: Detroit, urban and gritty; Grosse Pointe, sparkling in its storied glory. The Grosse Pointes, as they are collectively referred to (they’re so fancy, there isn’t just one, but five communities in all: Grosse Pointe, Grosse Pointe Park, Grosse Pointe Shores, Grosse Pointe Woods and Grosse Pointe Farms), are known for their money and quaint small-town feel. Lakeshore Drive is home to some of the stateliest mansions in the country. Big money. Old money. Dodge and Ford kind of money. I always envisioned myself marrying a doctor or the son of some sort of shipping magnate or furniture store chain owner and living along Lakeshore Drive. I’d have a boat, three children and a lot of brightly colored Lilly Pulitzer clothes in my closet. Instead I moved to California, married a rock musician, found solace in a 1,100 square foot house in the stifling hot San Fernando Valley and never saw my uterus reach its full rental potential. And black became my clothing color of choice. I’ve never ruled out that boat, however.

As my dad slid into a parking space at the hospital, I wiped the sweat from my palms onto the pant legs of my jeans and climbed out of the Jeep, thankful we arrived unscathed. I slipped Angie’s bag over my shoulder and pulled my scarf over my face as we walked toward the hospital’s entrance. “Fuck, it’s freezing here,” I said to myself as the wind seemed to instantly harden the tears in my eyeballs. “Fuck” was the only word one could use to describe Great Lakes winter cold. “Heck” just didn’t cut it. “Yikes” was an understatement. Why did I always forget how numbingly frigid Michigan winters were? It must be some sort of survival mechanism — the same one that makes you forget how crappy an ex-boyfriend was after you’ve broken up. All your brain can remember are the happy times and sunshine.

The sliding automatic doors opened to a whoosh of warm air as we stomped our wet boots on the floor mat and made our way to the front desk. “Millie Goich,” we informed the receptionist, as she gave us our guest badges to gain admission to my mother’s floor. Shielding Angie’s bag with my elbow so the security guard wouldn’t see I was bringing a dog into the hospital, the three of us headed upstairs to room 216.

Like a tiny rag doll sitting in a giant hospital bed, my mother looked like she had aged 20 years overnight. Her 70-pound body was swimming in her nightgown. A giant black and purple bruise, caused by the port for her kidney dialysis, covered her chest. Her once thick head of pepper and salt hair (still more pepper than salt) seemed sparse, the curls gathered to one side revealing an oversized ear on the other. A shoulder bone poked through the upper arm of her nightgown. Her collarbone was so pronounced, it looked as if you could rest a book on it. She was so fragile, I hesitated to even lean on her when I bent over to kiss her cheek. I settled at the foot of the bed holding a shivering Angie in my arms, and my dad sat at my mom’s right side holding her hand. My brother, 14 years my senior, who had been at the hospital since earlier that morning, was sitting in a chair across from us. “How’d you sleep, Mother?” I asked, as cheerily as I could, while fixating on the solid blue circles under her vacant eyes. “Have you tried to walk yet?”

Most of my adult life, I called my mom by the formal name of Mother. I’d refer to her as, “my mom,” but always called her Mother. Both my brother and sister called her Mother as well. And my dad, Father. I don’t know how that started, or why. We weren’t a fancy family. We were from Detroit, for goodness sake, not a wealthy, aristocratic suburb. But it’s what we called them and it stuck. It was uncomfortable to refer to my parents in any other way.

Ignoring the questions in front of her, my mom — never one to mince words — replied in her Edith-Bunker-meets-Fran-Drescher-voice, “I’m done with dialysis.” Not “Hello.” “How are you?” “How was your morning?” But, “I’m done with dialysis.”

My eyes darted to my brother for clarification, then back to my mom. “You don’t need dialysis anymore?” optimistically misunderstanding the underlying meaning of her statement.

“I’m done with dialysis. I don’t want it anymore. She waved her hand dismissively in the air and said, “Just let me go. I want to go.”

My head started processing the information like the inside of a computer. Stringing together ones and zeroes. Processing. Processing. Trying to grasp what that meant.

‘Go. Just let me go.’ She was saying she wanted to die.

My. Mom. Was. Going. To. Die.

I got it. I totally understood. She was saying she could no longer live with the fatigue and nausea and discomfort that the three-day-a-week treatments burdened her with. Who could blame her? One good day, one bad day, another good day, another bad day, a third good day, another bad day. At 85, she was finally ready to call her own shots. Who was I to argue? Though I understood it, it would be days before I could actually wrap my mind around the truth of it all.

I often wondered how this particular movie would end. Would I receive a late-night call from my brother saying my mom had passed away? Would my dad call in tears saying my mom didn’t wake up one morning? For years, every time the phone rang in the middle of the night, my heart would race, fearing someone on the other end would tell me my mom was gone. The end had finally been written. And I was strangely okay with it. For now.

I wondered if this is how my mom thought she was going to make her exit. Did 17-year-old pixie spitfire Mildred Birach — voted Best Dressed her senior year at Southeastern High School in Detroit, with her perfectly manicured nails and platformed, open-toed shoes — ever imagine that, nearly 70 years later, she would lie in a tattered nightgown in a hospital bed calling her own death sentence? Do any of us ever think about that day? We’re rarely privy to our final fate. And it’s probably best that way. Millie Goich most likely wouldn’t have imagined it would have been her kidneys that ended it all. Cancer maybe. Some complication from all those years of smoking, perhaps. But kidneys? Probably not.

But what she did know was that she was ready to roll. My mom was going to die. We weren’t sure when it would happen, but knew it would be at some point in the near future. It was something I couldn’t quite comprehend when it was plopped right there on my lap in front of me. The person who let go of my hand when I took my first steps, the person who released the back of my bicycle seat when I pedaled on two wheels for the first time, the person who grounded me when I got drunk on Mad Dog 20/20 in high school, the person who sat on the kitchen floor with me when I sobbed my eyes out over a boy,  the person who told me I was the most precious gift she ever received and that she was so glad I was born — that person told me she was done. Fin. Over. The end.

At the announcement, I surprisingly didn’t even shed a tear. I just looked at her and nodded my head in agreement. It certainly wasn’t the response I would have thought I’d have had when my mom told me she was going to die. Years earlier when I first moved to California and started acting lessons, one of the things I learned was how to cry on command. We were taught to think about a sad moment in our past, or the possible death of a loved one, in order to muster up tears. I always used the fictitious death of my mother to elicit a watershed. But today, when it was actually laid out before me, not a tear was in sight. And I tried. Believe me, I tried. But somehow I think I absorbed my mom’s peace of mind and, instead of weeping for the loss I’d be facing, I embraced the sense of calm that my mom finally had found. I looked into her eyes — a shade of grey-blue clouded by cataracts — and said, “I support your decision.” She shook her head in acknowledgement and, emotionless, without saying a word, looked up at the TV as Vanna White revealed three Rs in the puzzle that was a “Thing.”

And with that, I fished through my purse for my phone, texted my boss and said, “I’m not going to be in for a while.”

And so began Day One of what would become a 14-day vigil. Millie Goich — The Farewell Tour.

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