February 7, 2008

This One is Called "Marie"

Each event in our lives is treated like a single occurrence. We all conceptualize them differently and look deep within each vignette for meaning. I have an example of what I am trying to say. This was a powerful episode in my life; one I will never forget. However, in all of the pain and anguish I experienced then, there were poetic and heartfelt moments which make the suffering bearable.

Some background information is necessary here. My mother was a fighter. Not in the physical sense. She had to endure pain for most of her adult existence. She battled problems with her back which necessitated at least two surgeries which I can remember; one of them was to fuse her spine. Her numerous ailments over the years loomed ominous and were treated individually by specialist after specialist until the name Systemic Lupus took over and she was treated correctly.

Then there was cancer. She braved chemotherapy and three enormous operations to save her life over the span of ten years. One of her care givers, a physician's assistant told me on the side after her surgery: “Your mother is one brave and tough woman. Really, I’ve never seen anyone fight so hard.

Her last fight came in the hospital following a life saving surgery to remove one of the tumors blocking her small intestine. The danger was she would die during the procedure. The alternative was she would starve to death. Her choice was to have the operation and come out alive.

During recovery, things never looked so grim. On a respirator, she would greet her family with a drowsy nod. We comforted her, staving off the notion that these were her last days. With the fanfare of a minor miracle, she was taken off the respirator the next morning and moved to intensive care. And, with her spirits raised, she proved everyone wrong and was transported to a step-down unit after a week; and then, ultimately, home.

Hospice workers are extraordinary people. Morphine, palliative care, and sun-setting, were all like odd pieces of furniture in our collective family vernacular until we saw them put into practice. Without the compassionate souls from Hospice, our mom would never have had the opportunity to view her garden from her living room window during those last days. We placed the bed there because there was no room in the house put it anywhere else. There had to be space for all of us to move in and about, taking turns at her side, caring for her wants and needs, and ultimately, consoling her. It was the perfect spot, because many of our relatives and friends made the sad journey from all over the country to visit her as she faded.

One scene which sticks out in my mind, which causes me both heartache and a curious sense of emotional gratification, is when our mother’s lifelong friend came to visit her. Two days before mom passed, she was drifting in and out of consciousness. Phone calls were made by all of us to those concerned for her to “get here.” All the way from Nevada, came my mother’s best friend. Mom knew Marie since they were both five years old. We kids called her “Aunt Marie,” and her children were our “cousins.” They shared everything, and were close for as long as each of them could remember. Mom and Marie went from Kindergarten through high school together, got married around the same time, had children, watched their parents die, and became grandparents. All the while their bond never faltered. When Marie moved across the country to be close to her children, they did not lose touch, and they were always on the phone together. The news of mom’s latest situation brought Marie out in a hurry.

By then, mom had no strength. It was all she could do to keep her eyes open. Time was short, and the rest of us were coming to grips with the reality that we would end the week without a mother and her grandchildren would be without their loving grandma. Quietly, Marie and Uncle Bill entered through the front door. Knocking was a mere formality and they never had to do so before. Marie carried herself with a brave face. She put her pocket book on a chair, walked quietly over to mom who was asleep, and took her hand. I was seated on the couch, watching as this reunion was about to take place.

Marie?” Mom’s voice was weak, gravelly, her breathing tortured. “Marie …
Shhh. It’s okay. It’s okay. I’m here.

No one needed to be asked to leave the room. I retreated to the backyard and kept an eye on them through the large bay window mom was situated by. I saw them clutching each other, and sharing private words encoded in a secret language of over sixty years of friendship. There were tears, and I thought at one point I saw mom smile. I watched them. I was a voyeur. Maybe I was trespassing and I didn’t care. This was my mother, and for the last few moments of her life she was able to reconnect with all of us; to stay here for just enough time for her friend to arrive and they could be pals again, children holding hands in the school yard, talking about boys, marriage, children, grandchildren, and finally what Marie was there for.

For me memories are shaped like bubbles; and, from the moment I learned my mother was going to die and up until her last breath, I can pick out small shapes, recollections. Every once in a while I reach out and grasp one and gaze into it like a crystal ball. This one is called Marie.

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