Once again, it’s early in the morning, but I’m back in North Carolina—although not for long. My mother’s breathing tube was removed yesterday morning, an event for which we had all been longing. Mom did not like being on the respirator, and when the pulmonologist said Friday morning that although her pneumonia was much improved, he’d like to wait another day for her to strengthen, it was an agonizing 24 hours. When the tube came out this morning and we were able to hear Mom’s voice again, it was as if we had been imprisoned in a dark, airless place and someone had just opened the door to wide open spaces and beautiful sunshine.
We knew that Mom had a long road to recovery ahead of her. After a few hours, David, Michael, and I said good-bye and went back to my mom’s house. We packed and cleaned and headed back to North Carolina late in the day, looking forward to going to our church Sunday morning and then to work on Monday. We had not traveled far when I received a call from my sister, saying that things were not going well. Mom had pain in her abdomen again, and a chest x-ray revealed that the pneumonia was rapidly increasing. My mother made it clear to everyone, both family and medical staff, that she did not want to go back on the respirator for any reason. We drove for another half hour and pulled over. We couldn’t decide whether to go on or turn around and go back. A phone call to my brother-in-law let us know that nothing would happen soon, so we continued and arrived home around 10 PM. We hoped to get to church, do laundry, and mow the now knee-high grass before having to make any more decisions.
I finally got to bed around midnight, only to jump up at 2 AM when the phone rang. My sister had been called to come to the hospital, as my mother was having trouble breathing. Last week when this happened, she told all of the doctors to stop treatment, which threw us into a panic before she agreed to intubation. I didn’t know what to do tonight, since I had only had two hours’ sleep, and David and Michael had still not gone to bed. There was no way we could drive there safely.
Naturally, I couldn’t sleep at all after that, but I sent Michael and David to bed so that someone could drive soon. After an hour, my brother-in-law, Paul, called and said that they had put a breathing mask on her and were still hoping that the new medication she would get later this morning would put her on the right track.
Spending five days in ICU brings reality slamming right into your face. In our society, we rarely see people die. We hear about it, but it is nothing like it was for our ancestors who lived such short lives and had their loved ones die in their beds at home. At the hospital this week, there were two deaths while I was there. One of the patients had an enormous family—seven sons and all of their descendants—and they seemed to camp out in the waiting room. No matter what time any of us were there, they were there. Each day, they bought food in the late afternoon and invited everyone in the room to help themselves. On Thursday, the last son arrived from out-of-state, and they all filed in to say good-bye to their mother or grandmother. Then the life support was removed. Even though it was expected, it was so sorrowful, even to us. The next day, the woman in the next room was doing well in the morning and dead in the afternoon. This time, the sorrow was different: shocked, traumatic. We closed the sliding door and the curtains on the door. We gave them privacy, but inwardly, we grieved with them.
I can hear birds chirping outside. They don’t know that they should hold their breath and be quiet, waiting. Hoping for good news, dreading the worst. Another day.