It was the babies who brought her the greatest joy ~ they have that effect on everyone don't they. Everyday as I walked to her hospital room, rode up and down the elevators to the cafeteria and back again, I was sorry that the days are long gone when you could drop in on the Maternity floor to take a look at the fresh babies all lined up in the nursery. You need the joy of birth to counteract the loss that death brings. Fortunately for all of us, babies abound in the Riley family. There's Julia and Kathryn, 6 months and 1-1/2 respectively, and in just one short month, baby girl Riley Crawford will fill our lives.
Kathryn came to visit while my mother still had a flicker of consciousness in her. "Junie?," she said. And I think my mother heard. I know she heard her when she belted out the first line of her newly learned holiday song - "Shosty the NoMan" at the top of her lungs. I caught a raised eyebrow flicker on my mothers face.
Between Monday, the day she became a hospice patient and Wednesday, my mother was on regularly scheduled morphine doses through the IV. It was not the best plan. As the medication wore off, she became more aware and uncomfortable. She began to pull and claw at her hospital gown, throw off her covers. They say the dying do this, yet there is no explanation for it. In my mother's case there was - morphine can cause itching. Once the DR came around, she switched her to Dilaudid, administed on a constant drip to keep her comfortable. She coupled that with regular doses of Atavan to reduce anxiety, and a scopolamine patch behind her earlobe to dry up the secretions in her throat, the death rattle. Her anxiety was the heartbreaking thing. Let me backtrack a bit.
On Wednesday night at 2:30 am my mother woke me by saying, very emphatically, "I have to go now. I have to go now." I took the two steps to her bedside, held her hand and listened, talked, smiled, loved, broke open my heart. Her eyes were sparkling and honestly, there was a glow about her. I felt as if I were talking to an angel. She said something so beautiful and amazing to me at the start that the rest of her words have fallen from my memory. As she spoke I slipped my cell phone out of my pocket and without taking my eyes off of her, texted the word "come" to my sister. Say what you may, but thank god for that technology and my knowledge of how to use it. I could alert and summon my sister and father without ever having to interrupt my mother or leave her bedside. They were there in about 15 minutes. She was still awake and aware, but it was really as if she was speaking from a higher awareness. We were all able to say our goodbyes and express our love. It was a beautiful textbook and tear-jerker movie quality moment. My sister and I told her it was OK to go, but we had to whisper to my father to say those words to her. I know it wasn't OK with him, but he told her it was.
I'd like to say those were her beautiful, final moments, but things rarely happen like they do in the movies. After my mother dozed off, my sister went home to try and get some rest. My father couldn't leave her side, so we sat together. We thought she would really be gone soon and he wanted to be there when she left. As 6am approached my mother became more and more awake and more and more conscious. She began to claw at her hospital gown, stripping herself naked. She was crying and viscious, snarling, "Don't touch me," as I tried to help ease her duress. I stepped out of view and called the emergency number for hospice - nothing ever seems to happen during regular office hours. I went to the nurses station - "Did my mother get her Atavan, her morphine when scheduled?" It was horrible to watch, to live through. My heart broke for my Dad. I don't know whether her tolerance had increased and she needed more medication, or if the nurse just didn't get to her soon enough. There were written orders to give more meds as needed so they did and she calmed down and went back to sleep. That was the last time she was awake or cognizant. Her last fully aware moments were shit.
It is a known fact that hearing is the last thing to go. So when Kathryn sang "Shosty", when I played Amazing Grace and the Christmas Canon for her from my ipod, and later sang Amazing Grace (her favorite) when I forgot the ipod, when each of my 6 children and daughter-in-law, in their private alone time with her, held her hand and said whatever they needed or wanted to say to her, when my sister read prayers or when the hospice chaplain laid his hand upon her forehead and asked for God's blessing, when my Daddy sat there and words did not come....when all of these things happened over the next 6 days, we believe she heard us.
On Christmas Eve, Brooke, the hospice social worker (she's young but she's good they said before we met her, so true, so true), came in for her daily visit. I think everyone was amazed my mother was still hanging on. The hospice DR had said a week ago that she thought it would just be 2 days. So Brooke said to me, "Did you tell your mother your plans for Christmas?" And I had not. I didn't want her to feel left out. Christmas was, after all, her most favorite day of the year. I had spent 2 nights in a row at the hospital so that I could have dinner at my granddaughters home on Christmas Eve and be home for my kids on Christmas morning. So after Brooke left, I sat down and told my mother what her family had planned for Christmas. I told her all the things her family would be doing without her. The dinners, the brunch, the gift exchanging and opening. All the places we would be - without her.
For days we had known the end was near. Her fever, which had been as high as 103 was down to 99. Her blood pressure had fallen at one point to 56/36. Hospice had told us several times to leave her alone for a while. Many people choose to leave when no one is around, so we were told to give her that solitude. All the signs were there except that her breathing, while labored, was consistant and her heart kept on beating, sometimes racing to as high as 156 - the same as an infant in utero. I left at 4:30 pm on Christmas Eve. My sister and father were stopping in before dinner and my sister would be spending the night. Her breathing was more shallow after I left.
At 6:15 on Christmas morning my sister called to tell me that Mommy was gone. She had just stopped breathing. She made it to Christmas. My first thought was, "How poetic of my mother to die on Christmas morning." That became the last line of the eulogy my husband wrote for her.