For the second time in three weeks, I walked up to my mother’s bedside, in a place not her home, and my heart sank. “Oh my God, this is it. She is dying.”
It’s been two weeks since my last visit, and she’s so much smaller. My strong and busy mom is a tiny, fragile thing. There are tubes and hoses where her smile, her laugh, her voice should be. I slump into the chair by her bed and stare through tears at her sleeping frame. Jif comes to my side, hand on my back. He’s alarmed, too, by the deterioration. “It’s hard to see her like this,” he affirms, voicing what I can’t.
Then her eyes flutter. I step to the bed and beckon LG to come stand beside me. “Hi, Mom. It’s Susie.” But she knew that. Her beautiful (still so beautiful) blue-gray eyes open wide. Then her mouth opens, below the nose tubes and above the trach hose, into a wide grin.
Then she sees LG. It takes a moment, because LG has grown so much. But when “Granny” recognizes her youngest granddaughter, her eyes sparkle, her grin gets even bigger, and she reaches out a bruised and swollen hand. She’s suddenly not dying anymore. Not even close. Waving to Jif, motioning toward the chairs, pointing at . . . we never did figure out what. Her mouth moved, but we heard no sound. We could lip-read “I love you,” and we could guess that I am supposed to lose weight and Jif should get a haircut . . . she was momming. She was telling people what to do. She was alive.
It’s the third hospital she’s been in, in three weeks. This is a rehab kind of place; she may be there a long while. Or maybe not. Each time she’s been moved, we’ve been asked the questions. They always go something like this: “Your mother has a DNR (do not resuscitate) order, but we need to get family consent as well. If her heart stops, do you want us to resuscitate her?” Four weeks ago, I would have said, “Hell, yes, resuscitate her.” People’s hearts stop and start all the time, and they go on living perfectly fine for years.
That was before she had the trach tube for breathing, the nasal feeding tube for nutrition, the various IVs, the other nose tube for suctioning her stomach, the urinary catheter, the colostomy bag, the open surgical wound in her abdomen that isn’t healing. She doesn’t even know she has all these things. She knows all of us, her children and her nieces and nephews. But as of 48 hours ago, she didn’t know where she was. After visiting pleasantly (as pleasantly as a newly silent person can) with my cousins, a device was placed on the trach tube to allow minimal speech. She told them she loved them, then said, “I think I need to go to the hospital now.”
Back to that question. If her heart stops . . . . I want them to stop asking us that question. I wish they would and could just take her word for what she wants. She’s the Mom; she should be in charge, not the children. This time we haven’t answered. We stall, we hide from the asker. “I have to talk with my sister and get back to you.” “Let me call my brother, as soon as he’s home from work.”
How can I say that I don’t want her heart to beat? I want it to beat forever. Her heart loved my father. That’s why we’re all here. Her heart has broken, has mended, has loved her children, her in-laws, her parents and siblings, the neighbhor kids, her sons’ ex-wives . . . it will have been on the job for 86 years this Wednesday. How can they ask us to agree to its retirement?
My brother, Mike, takes LG’s hand and starts to tease her about the midnight blue nail polish. He pulls her to the bed to show Granny. “Mom, look at this! Are you going to let your granddaughter go around looking like this?” Mom focuses on the nails and seems just the slightest bit startled. Then she smiles and her eyes twinkle. She waggles a finger at Uncle Mike, as if to say, “You leave that baby alone. She’s in style.” We know that’s what she’d say. But in the midst of her starting at the shiny blue nails and her scolding Mike, the bells and whistles sound. I think it was the pulse-oxygen monitor, loudly beeping and chirping.
The 7 of us gathered there in the tiny room for the odd little vigil/party combo laugh and tease LG some more. “Look what you did to Granny with those nails!” “Her other grandmother had the same reaction last night; she just wasn’t hooked up to the alarm bells!” Mom shakes her head to tell LG not to pay any attention to those crazy people. LG’s aunt tells her that if Granny could, she’d probably want her own nails painted that color. I reassure LG that Granny was a fashionista back in the day; always wanted to try the latest thing. I wanted LG to know that Granny was not disapproving of her; quite the opposite.
When I’ve thought about DNR orders and living wills and the like, for myself, I’ve thought, “What is the criteria for whether life is worth living?” And I’ve thought that it has to do with joy. If I can experience joy, and if my presence can somehow bring joy to people around me, then I want to stay alive.
I don’t know much about DNRs, about ventilators, quality-of-life politics, living wills. But I know that when we were teasing LG and Mom, gathered there around Mom’s hospital bed, there was joy. I know the expression in my mother’s eyes, and on her silent mouth when she first recognized LG by her bedside. That was joy. I know how I felt, as a mother, at the realization that my child’s presence resurrected my mother, if only for a moment. Just for that moment, joy.
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