I bought the tulips for my aunt and uncle’s anniversary party this past Saturday. They have been married 59 years. By the time I got there, my father and sister Colleen were already leaving. We met in the road and I never went in to the party as the two of them said I shouldn’t. My aunt, who has an advanced case of dementia, was begging to go home. The problem is, the party was in her home. In reality, she will never get there because she can’t remember a thing. Not even her husband who sits beside her and is her constant companion is familiar.
I took the tulips and handed them to my dad. “I guess these are for you then. The B team reporting for duty.” He didn’t get the tulips weren’t really meant for him nor did he catch the B team phrase. He was just happy to see me and thought the flowers beautiful. We three were spending the weekend together and he was thrilled with the idea.
My sister Colleen and I are the B team. We earned that title the weekend my mother died. We were left to nurse her while my sister Lisa and father (the A team) traveled to an army reunion my mother insisted they go to. The Hospice nurses warned us that my mother was sending her two main caregivers away so that she may die. My father couldn’t imagine she would do that. None of us really believed it either but I did have a funny feeling deep down inside, as it was her two favorite people she sent far away. She loved Colleen and I but we weren’t her favorites, we were her reliable daughters. There’s an emotional difference and under our care she could escape this life. My father loved her so much he didn’t want her to go. After 46 years of marriage, he couldn’t imagine life without her and she knew it. It was the love between them that kept her tied to this earth in enormous pain. With a thousand miles between them, she could let go. I didn’t know it was possible to will yourself away in a weekend but now I know anything is and love makes you do the strangest things.
Colleen and I are not innate nurses and dying isn’t as simple as it is in the movies. The end of life is much like the beginning. The body goes through a kind of labor as parts of it shut down. We are programmed to live at all costs so our bodies fight death to the end. The night is the worst time and there is a term “sundowning” when a person becomes more agitated as the evening progresses. My mother didn’t want to be on too much Morphine and because of that she was agitated throughout the night. Colleen and I became sleep deprived and behaved in our delirium like the Keystone Cops. That’s when we labeled ourselves, “The B team.” My mother’s care wasn’t affected but behind the scenes we banged into each other in the kitchen or tripped over things left on the floor. We clung to the chart that spelled out when her medications should be given believing/hoping/wishing that would keep her well. It didn’t.
I had always thought my mother’s death would be more like the movie Terms of Endearment. I imagined dim lights in a clean tidy room with whispered words of love in soothing tones as we recap our lives together. What I dreamed of was so much better than the reality of that weekend. My mother’s end had her screaming to God to please take her in a delirious rant that shattered the hours of deep slumber. Piles of tissues and medication bottles littered the table beside her bed. She begged into the darkness for help from Brother Andre who would become a Saint just a month later. She wondered if her mother would come get her or did she forget. The evenings were filled with fraught as she tried to lift herself physically to heaven.
We tried to soothe her fears as night slipped to dawn. Quiet her down so we all could rest but there was to be none of that. She had to go to the bathroom a lot as she was losing control of her bladder. Colleen and I hesitated putting her in diapers, as we still wanted to defend her dignity. By Sunday, I had purchased the diapers and Colleen had her in them. We couldn’t keep lifting her as I had just had a mastectomy six weeks prior and Colleen’s back couldn’t hold my mother’s weight. There were no tender moments for emotional speeches. As sad as it is to say, when there was a moment of respite there were piles of laundry and dishes to do.
In hindsight, we should have called the two in Detroit and told them to come home immediately. We should have told my brother to stay home from work. My mother was a force to be reckoned with even in the end and her will told us not to. Colleen and I hovered around 50 in age and yet when it came to my mother we were still 8 and 5. We did as we were told. She finally quieted down just hours before the A team returned. Her breathing changed and I whispered into her ear, “Mom hang on. Lisa and Dad are on their way home.” It was never her intention to be there when they arrived. She exhaled for the last time when I left the room to wash my face.
This past weekend my father who lives with my brother was on his own. Lisa had another engagement and asked Colleen and I if we would please look after him. At 90, he forgets things and is still mourning my mother in his own dignified way. He is very much alive and yet the two of us had a tiny bit of fear we’d lose him too. Every time he choked or wandered out of our sight we’d look at each other in horror. Yes, it was mock fear on our faces most of the time and yet we are still haunted. Colleen calls out after him, “Don’t go off and do anything stupid now.” He doesn’t pay us much heed and thinks we are just a pair of gigglers. It’s better that way.