April 20, 2001
Words and Gestures
I said yesterday that I would tell you more about spending time with Mother during the last few days of her life. Actually, I'd like to go back to earlier moments, too. During the last six weeks she was alive, she was unable to speak due to being on a ventilator. So communication between us consisted of me talking and patting her hand or shoulder, and her smiling or touching my hand or making another gesture. Those gestures meant a lot.
But it became difficult to carry on both halves of a conversation, saying something and then waiting for a silent gesture, which sometimes had to be questioned for clarity. So I got into the habit of having something with me from which to read aloud to her. I hope she took some comfort from my voice, if not from the specifics of the material. Early reads in the time were Dorothy Parker's poetry and that month's Reader's Digest.
The last few days she was alive, I was reading to her from a favorite author of ours, Frederick Buechner. In case you're not familiar with his work, much of it is theological, and he has written several books that are expanded definitions of spiritual terms. His Whistling in the Dark was the book from which I was reading at the time. I think his words brought peace to Mother and to me.
It also gave me a great deal of joy to be able to tell my mother that I had learned so much from her, and to list those things---like respect for all people---that would help me deal with the rest of my life.
Of course, by this time, I had gathered up my support system, mainly by phone since we were a far-flung group. But some of the support I got came from strangers in my midst. The nurses in the medical center's Medical Intensive Care Unit were wonderful to me, and to Mother. They were happy to answer any question that arose. And the three doctors who were working most closely with Mother were equally quick to answer me, and to make sure I was kept informed. From a purely clinical standpoint, I learned a lot, especially about brain function. It is to their credit that at no time was I ever the victim of condescension. And the gentleness with which they treated my mother was much appreciated, too.
There was another family keeping watch over a loved one in the unit. A lady and her daughter were there to be with their husband/father, who was dying of lymphoma. The lady was around my age, and the daughter was thirteen. The three of us often spent moments in the unit's waiting area, where we could gather our wits while waiting for the medical staff to finish whatever procedures were going on. The daughter stopped by my mother's room one day, and noticed the ventilator settings. She said that Mother must be breathing a bit easier, since the settings were lower that day than they had been the day before. While I was impressed with her knowledge, at the same time it broke my heart that one so young had any reason to know about ventilator settings. The mother told me that the father had been ill much of the girl's life.
In moments when Mother was asleep, I would work on handwork. And I continued to go into work each day, to keep some semblance of normal life going. That was for my sanity's sake, of course. There were some other sanity-keeping things, too; as I think of them, I'll pass them along.