“I wonder if my first breath was as soul-stirring to my mother as her last breath was to me.” – From “Day 14″ of 14 DAYS – A MEMOIR
The morning never seemed so quiet at my parent’s house. I strained to hear the compressor pumping air into the mattress on my mom’s hospital bed in the living room. “Ker Phhhhhhhhh, Ker Phhhhhhh,” as it drew air in and out of the mattress, keeping my mom’s blood circulating evenly through her body. My mom had a rough night the evening before, waking up at 2 a.m. after soiling herself in her sleep. Not able to move from her bed, she was forced to defecate where she lay. And not wanting to wake anyone, she remained in that position until she finally couldn’t take it any longer. She woke my dad who was sleeping on the couch next to her. My dad started the clean-up process, but overwhelmed, woke up my sister and me to help him clean my mom, remove her nightgown and change and wash her bedding. She was embarrassed and frustrated.
“I just want to die already! I can’t live like this any longer!”
“Mother, we’re here for you,” I assured her. “Don’t be embarrassed and don’t beat yourself up. This is why we’re here. We love you and we aren’t ready for you to die.”
As my mom lie naked from the waist down, I lifted up her legs like a toddler, while my sister slid a pad under her hips. I got a diaper out of the package left by the hospice nurse, and placed it on my mom. Never having children, this was foreign to me. But I had diapered plenty of baby dolls to know the general vicinity of where and how this thing should go on. This would be the way my mom would relieve herself from now until the end. No more portable potty. No more humiliation having to crap into bucket in the middle of her own living room. No more night time accidents. Self-contained bowel movements were much easier to deal with than unexpected explosions. I pulled her nightgown down over her hips and ran a baby wipe over her legs for a final cleanse.
“Just let me go to bed. Okay? Just let me go to bed.” She turned her head away from us and I could see tears rolling down her cheek.
I pulled the covers over her, kissed her goodnight, and my sister took the soiled linens down into the basement to wash. Peeling off my rubber gloves, I discarded them in a plastic bag that I tied up and threw into a garbage bin in the garage. I washed my hands, then coated them with hand sanitizer, something I had been doing at least 15 times a day since adopting the job of caretaker. We all went back to our rooms, my dad retiring back to the couch.
As I walked away, I could hear my mom weeping.
(A excerpt from “14 Days — A Memoir”)
Parent/Child care giving begins in the womb. A mother gently strokes her own belly to soothe her baby’s restlessness, watching what she eats and staying away from anything that might harm her child. When the baby is born, it’s a 24/7 vigil of care — swaddling, diapering, anticipating cries and deciphering what they mean, feeding, cleaning, keeping their child comfortable, happy and healthy.
Parenting doesn’t stop when the child is able to care for themselves. As my mom once told me, “I’m going to worry about you and take care of you until the day I die, so get used to it!” And she did. Until she couldn’t care for me any longer and the tables came to an abrupt turn.
The day the roles reverse is foreign. It’s a clumsy dance of love and responsibility, not wanting to cross any lines of respect. It’s honoring this person who gave their life to you — not to mention literally gave you life — and taking their fragile body in your hands like a newborn, tending to their every need.
I learned a lot while going through this process, including a lot about myself. Perhaps some of what I learned can help you through your personal journey:
1. When the going gets tough, you will get going — No job is too dirty, personal or embarrassing. A part of you steps in that you never knew existed. You never think twice about the tasks at hand and lovingly carry them out, no questions asked. Don’t be afraid. When you love someone, caregiving comes naturally.
2. No one wants to be a burden — Especially our parents. So keep this in mind through your journey. When you feel frustrated, walk away. Go outside and take a walk — breathe in some fresh air. Don’t let your loved one feel your frustration because, through this entire process, they’re burdened with enough frustration of their own.
3. People are good — So many friends and relatives stepped up to help during this time. Some bringing food, others cleaning my parent’s house, many sending words of support, several gathering around my mom’s bed to send her off with words of love. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. And keep a strong circle of love around you. It’s what keeps you going.
4. Hold on to memories — A nurse told us about a patient of hers who recorded messages for her loved ones before she died. My mom loved this idea and asked me to videotape messages for her friends and relatives. Some were recorded with my mom lying alone in her bed, others were recorded with the person at her bedside. After my mom’s funeral, I edited the videos, uploaded them to YouTube and sent individual, private links to everyone she sent messages to. It’s a gift so precious that you’ll cherish forever.
5. Ask questions while you can — At some point during the last 14 days I had with my mother I realized that, when she left, she would be taking a wealth of knowledge with her. Who do you call when you have questions about family, recipes, history, life? You call your mom. Losing this link is losing a link to your past. Make a list of questions, write down the answers. This is your family history. Chronicle it while you can.
6. Laugh…a lot — In light of the inevitable, a lot of laughs were shared during my mom’s last days. We told stories, jogged memories, brought out old photos and laughed until we cried then laughed some more. Not only did it help my mom forget her circumstances for awhile, it helped us get over those moments of stress we were all feeling. Just remember that to laugh isn’t to disrespect the situation. Even at the funeral, laughter helped us all get through. My mom would have wanted that and she’d want that for you, too.
7. Share — Share feelings, share stories, share recipes, share responsibilities, share tasks, share hugs. Whatever love can be exchanged, exchange it. You’ll all feed off of each other and sharing is a way to keep the energy flowing.
8. Be kind — Be kind to yourself, the patient, your loved ones, and those around you. Tensions can run high at this time. Old wounds can open. Siblings can — and will — rival. Remember that you’re all in this together and everyone processes fear, sadness and grief differently. What may be right for you, might not be right for others around you. Don’t lose sight of goodness. Remember to hug.
9. Keep an open line of communication with nurses and doctors — If your loved one is receiving hospice care, and is not in a hospital, be sure to have a list of names and numbers to call should you need them. Coordinate care with nurses, keep doctors in the loop with all communications and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Our hospice nurses laid the dying process out for us so nothing was a surprise. We were prepared for every milestone. We knew, ahead of time, what to expect and what to do to deal with each circumstance.
10. Love — Above all, keep love in your heart throughout the process. Love is contagious and is its own antidote.
Lisa Goich-Andreadis is the author of “14 Days – A Memoir,” a chronicle of her mother’s final journey. To read more about the memoir, and receive information about the book’s publication, visit: www.14daysamemoir.com.
This story also featured on the Huffington Post
MY MOM: Did someone just come in?
MY SISTER & ME: Why, what do you see?
MOM: The same man who was here earlier. In the suit coat. He looks like a doctor. He’s holding a piece of paper.
US: Is he talking to you?
MOM: No. He’s looking around, just looking around.
On Day 11 of my mom’s 14 Day journey, she saw two men standing at the foot of her bed. They were standing together, not saying anything to her. They just stood there “inspecting” the situation.
I don’t know what I believe about the afterlife or Heaven. Prior to this I had a single experience in college with a “spirit” that spooked me for many years to follow. But as I grew older, I became more skeptical. So did my mom. She wasn’t necessarily a religious person, or a believer in ghosts or spirits. So when she started having conversations with “people,” I listened. And listened carefully. I believe that what she saw was real. And I believe that someone came down to escort her to her new world, with her official passport to Heaven in hand.
It isn’t unusual for dying people to interact with others in their final days. Most often it’s someone they know; sometimes – as was the case with my mom – it was a stranger. Sometimes the interaction is joyful, sometimes quizzical. But to the person dying, who and what they’re seeing is very real.
My mom saw the same man twice that day. At one point he was there with someone else; the next time he was there alone. But it was the same person. Same description. She didn’t seem to be hallucinating. She truly believed she was seeing someone. Maybe it’s not until our bodies start failing that we can truly see the other side. Maybe once our body is half in this world and half in another – and we’re weakened from illness – we allow the spirits in. Perhaps we’re too firmly planted on this plane in our current life to interact with anyone else. Like a video game, we’re not able to advance until we’ve performed a certain amount of tasks on this Earth.
I tried to get my mom on camera talking about these people. But every time I’d start the video, she would stop talking. Maybe this information isn’t intended to be documented. Maybe the dying aren’t suppose to tell us or we’re not supposed to know. In which case, I probably heard enough. The man. The clipboard. His buddy. The foot of the bed. What more was there for me to to be privy to? The part that was intriguing was that my mom said, “He’s just looking around.” Did he see me sitting there? Or did he only see my mom? Maybe the spirits could only see the dying. The clipboard probably contained my mom’s information. Maybe height, weight, a photo of some sort. Stats and “accomplishments” on Earth. Maybe this gentleman was there to gather this information; a greeter sent down to assess the situation. Perhaps he – like an insurance adjustor – just came down to check out the scene. The business at hand. He came down to see if she was truly ready to go. Then he went back “up there” – or wherever he was from – to meet with the angel bosses who would then send her official escort down a couple of days later.
I wondered who my mom’s escort would be. Would it be my grandmother? Would it be a stranger? Maybe they would send my mom’s sibling who died shortly after birth. Maybe it would be the “handsome gentleman” my mom had been talking about – the short one who made her smile.
One thing I knew for sure, someone was in the room with us. This wasn’t a hallucination. She saw these gentlemen with her heart. That was enough to convince me that, indeed, they were there.
My mom traveled in and out of sleep the rest of the afternoon. More relatives came and left. More food was served. The hospice worker arrived early in the evening to clean her up for bed. Carla, the nurse, took out my mom’s dentures and soaked them in a cup full of blue mouthwash that was sitting on the coffee table. She changed my mom’s diaper, slipped a clean pad underneath her hips, placed the oxygen hose back into my mom’s nostrils and kissed my mom on the forehead telling her she’d see her the following night. My mom told Carla to take some cookies home for her daughter. Carla thanked her, packed a Christmas-themed tin full of nut rolls and peanut butter balls, then left for the evening.
Mentally, my mom was still present, but I could see that things were starting to shift. She was sleeping more, communicating less and starting to wander off in her thoughts. She’d rally for awhile, but then her mind was transported to another place in time. It was as if she had one foot in the present, in her family room, and the other in the future, running through a green meadow, with our former family dog, Buffy, at her side.
Up until that point, her exit had been textbook. I knew that within a day, our communication would cease. It’s a very strange concept to know that within 24 hours you’ll never hear this person speak again. While I still had her there, and she was still somewhat able to comprehend, I flipped through my mental Rolodex to think if there were any last-minute outstanding issues that needed to be discussed, words left unsaid, apologies that needed to be made. Yes. There was one. The Skyhawk Incident.
Whether or not I should go there was the dilemma I faced that evening. For 33 years, my mom believed that “A goddamned woman at the golf course” had hit her beloved Buick Skyhawk. I never had the heart to tell her that I was the one who put the three-panel gouge in the passenger side of the car during an afternoon of fun, sun and boys with my girlfriends.
And tonight, as I readied myself for my confession, my mom looked so peaceful, I didn’t want to disrupt the loving moments we had shared over the past few days with an admission of wrongdoing. But I felt an overwhelming need to repent and apologize for my teenage transgression.
As I held her hand, I prefaced the admission by telling her how much I loved her. I’m sure she could feel my pounding heart through my fingertips. What seemed like an hour of silence passed before I finally got up the nerve to say, “Remember that time the Skyhawk got smashed?”
She interrupted my confession, by looking lovingly into my eyes. She brushed my bangs off my forehead, and let her hand linger on my cheek. “You’re such a good girl. You’ve always been such a good girl,” she said, as a tear made its way down my face, settling in the corner of my mouth.
I took a deep breath and said, “That goddamned woman at the golf course.”
She nodded her head and we left it at that.
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