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Thursday, June 14, 2012

Mortality: Parents

“I need you to come home now.” My mother didn’t usually call me but maybe she had a chore she needed help with this morning.

“Okay, Mom. I was just gathering up my laundry and had planned to come a bit later anyway.”

“Come now. Bring whatever laundry you have collected and come.” Hmm, okay, something was up. Mom’s voice was a bit shaky, or so it seemed to me; maybe it wasn’t and it was just the surprise of her insistence?

“I’ll be right there, Mom.”

The walk home wasn’t a long one. Just across the park, passed the football field and high school plus, maybe, four blocks. Graduation had happened just a couple weeks earlier and, while it was probably a good time of celebrating,  I have very few memories at all of that momentous milestone in my life. What I do remember is that my best friend’s mother was dying. She had been diagnosed with cancer earlier in the school year and Hospice didn’t exist in those days. Instead, my friend, Martha*, and I worked with the school nurse to provide nursing coverage for Mary while she lived her last months at home with her husband and five children, ages 5-18. We were only 17 years old but learned a whole lot in a great hurry to be able to care for Mary.

Crossing the grassy field, laundry bag in hand, I thought of the many times I had made this quick walk to and from school during my final year of high school. Martha and I didn’t have Study Hall during that time because Mary needed someone with her at all times. We shuffled around schedules and, with a lot of help from the nurse, we took care of this precious lady. I learned more about the physical side of dying than I ever wanted to know. Her hallucinations from the morphine were so hard because there wasn’t a single thing we could do about it. I held Mary’s hand until the frightening episode was over. Did she know I was holding her hand so she wasn’t alone? Most of the time, I think she did. Lately, though, she was not very responsive. Clearly, Mary’s struggle would soon be over and her suffering at an end.

Coming through the kitchen door, I called to my mother, “I’m home, Mom. Should I just throw my clothes in the washer now or…?” I was standing in front of the basement steps as I asked.

“No, come here. I want to talk to you first.” I dropped the sack at the top of the steps and moved into the living room.

“Okay, Mom, what’s up? Is something wrong? I had planned to come home last night but Mary’s really not doing well, the nurse thinks she may die soon so I didn’t want to leave.”

“It’s your father. I just had a phone call and he’s had a heart attack.” My father was only 47 years old so I just couldn’t take that in. Dad was commanding maneuvers at a military camp hundreds of miles from us for half of June. How could this be? Heart attack?

“But, Mom, what happened? He’s too young for that, isn’t he?” I was stunned, shocked and puzzled all at the same time.

Mom did not have many details at this point; they had just phoned. Dad was being air-lifted to a hospital to be stabilized, then decisions would be made as to whether or not he could be transported closer to home. We would just need to wait. I was glad to have my laundry to do so I could actually do something besides sit there in that sullen silence with my many thoughts of how could this be and what will happen to us if…

It wasn’t long before a ringing phone broke the quiet. Of course, we held our collective breath, waiting to hear news of Dad. But, it wasn’t about Dad. My precious Mary, who had become a second mother to me, had just slipped away from our grasp. No longer would she suffer on this earth. No longer would our every waking thought be of what she might need or how we might make her more comfortable. No more nights would be abruptly ended as Mary’s groans from the bed next to ours let us know care was needed. Mary was smiling now and Jesus was probably giving her a tour of her new home. The tears were ours, not hers. That battle was over for all of us.

While I desperately wanted to run back to my friend’s house, I knew I needed to stay with my mother. The call about Dad might come while I was gone. When I reported why my mother had called me home, I was told to stay because the dear auntie who had been helping with the meals and other kids was coming. There would be enough help. This remains one of the most traumatic days in my memories of adolescence. The death of my best friend’s mother and the news of my own father’s heart attack… both within the same hour.

My father recovered from that heart attack and about a dozen others over the next 36 years of his life. While we lived with the fear that one of those attacks would be his last, it wasn’t his heart condition that ended his days. Instead, he died of liver cancer, probably provoked by decades of medicine to keep him from that fatal heart attack.

In the fall, I went on to the University of Montana (The UM was just under 400 miles from home), while Martha entered nursing education in a program closer to her siblings and father. Homecoming weekend at the UM would be lots of fun because the car traveling about two hours behind my boyfriend carried Martha and her steady guy… the four of us would enjoy the activities together. I was so excited as I had really missed these dear friends over these first weeks away. None of us saw the football game nor the dance floor, however. Tragedy struck my friend’s family, again.

*Name has been changed.

****Mortality: Parents, Conclusion… Coming Tomorrow (if it doesn’t rain too much!)

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