"As I Lay Dying..." -- A Farewell to Mumsie
The following is a stream-of-consciousness text that began next to Mumsie's bedside in the nursing home as she slowly passed from this mortal coil we know as life. My wife ("HawkWife") and I are the sole narrators.
There are no further pictures in the main content.
The title, reminiscent of a popular novel,1 sprung into my head as I sat with Mumsie while she lay quietly in the bed at the nursing home. Her eyes sometimes opened, sometimes partial slits, she lay facing diagonally across the room, her eyes focused on a point just shy of the window at the far wall.
When I spoke to my wife on the cell phone a few minutes ago, I could have sworn Mumsie teared up; I squeezed her hand, my fingers aligned along hers and gently tugging her listless hand. Did I just detect a few twinges in her fingers, as a response as she tried to squeeze mine? Her breathing is labored, with a scratchy rattle softly underscoring each breath.
We got the word yesterday from the nursing home that she was officially dying at this point. They surmised from her condition and rate of change that she might last a week on the outside.
We haven't been able to communicate effectively with her for the majority of the past two weeks. Three weeks ago, when was pulling her through a doorway in her geri-chair, she caught my eyes and stuck her tongue out, then closed her mouth and smiled slyly when I mock-complained to Wifey that she was teasing me. Wifey had missed it, but caught the sly smile -- an unmistakable sign that Mumsie was playing with us.
I'm on her right -- I should be over on her left, in the direction she's facing. I'll move the other patient's bed (it's been empty over the past two weeks) once Wifey arrives, so it'll be easier to put a chair there.
Why don't they call? Aren't they supposed to call?
I'm at work and jumpy. I've already burst into tears twice, once when I first walked in and saw Andy, the second in the freezer while Andy put the load away. I have my to-do list in front of me, but my writing is messy and keeps wavering every time I look at it. Thank god I have people on who don't need a lot of supervision.
Every time the phone rings my heart rises to my throat and my pulse pounds in my ears.
I attempt the to-do list. I can't get past the first two or three items. The floor is filled. I finish product for the cream case so the case is filled; Beverly can take care of the rest. When Steve walks by I tell him that my mother is dying and I'm expecting a phone call. He tells me to do whatever I feel is correct. Customers hold out bread for slicing; there are four women in a row waiting to place orders. I tend to each one mechanically. Am I really here?
I try to gaze into Mumsie's good eye. I had just spoken to Wifey on the phone. She was getting out of work early.
I was leaving to go meet her at the house and bring her here. I hoped to precede her by a short time in order to take care of the dogs: give them dinner, top off their water and walk 'em around out back for them to go to the bathroom.
Wifey arrives when I finish caring for the dogs. I waited for her to grab a bite to eat and change, filling her in as she gets ready. We head back to the nursing and Mumsie in relative silence.
My mother's feet are mottled blue. Her toes ARE blue. I touch them and shiver. I reach over and grab her exposed hand. It is warmer and has faint blue mottling. Her cuticles are shriveled, making her nails longer than they actually are.
Her eyes are slitted open, her right eye staring in my direction while her left eye --the eye botched by a bad cataract operation, slides backward so that the lower portion of the iris only shows.
"She's actively dying," Mark the nurse replies when I ask him about her toes. "She's having kidney failure. Her blood and bile are backing up and and have nowhere to go. Her heart is weakening, so the body instinctively tells the blood to protect the internal organs. The extremities are the first to go."
They lend us a CD player and keep a respectful distance unless we need something. We brought CDs of some of her favorite artists -- Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue", Dean Martin, and a couple of classical CD's of mine which weren't necessarily Mom's favorites, but are soothing just the same. I just hope I don't burst into tears during the Pachebal Canon like I usually do.
Mark tells me that Mom is comatose. He turns her toward me. Her eyes are slits, with her good eye staring at me. I say to her, "Mama, it's me. It's OK. I'll be fine. Mama, it's me." She never moves.
We'd begun falling asleep, Wifey at Mumsie's side, holding her hand and laying her head on the bed rail.
We've sung Mumsie some of the silly songs that we'd made up or shared while we'd cared for her at home.
One of the CDs that Wifey plays is a hit by Dean Martin called "You're so mean to me." We look at each other in a mix of surprise and delight -- I'd made up a song very similar to it for Mumsie to gently chide and tease her; this was the first time Wifey or I ever heard the Dean Martin song, but we think that Mumsie probably knew of it and thought we were purposely channeling Dean when we sang our own home-grown ditty -- much to her delight, and our ignorance.
I wonder if she can hear me. They say that hearing is the last sense to die, so I talk while I brush her hair, rub lotion on her arms and legs, and clean her fingernails with an orange stick. She usually flinches if I accidentally dig the stick between her nails and fingertips, but this time she doesn't. I ask her if I'm hurting her. She doesn't respond.
"Talk to her," Hubby tells me when I'm silent. "Keep talking to her!"
I don't know what else to say to her. Small talk isn't my thing. If I have nothing pertinent to say, I'm quiet. Mom knew this in her previous life, and although she sometimes wasn't happy about it, she'd let me be.
"I don't know what else to tell her," I say. "I don't want to bitch about work. What else can I tell her except I love her and I'll be OK?"
I was trying not to make it more difficult for her, but couldn't help myself. "Talk to her," I kept saying whenever there was a pregnant pause. I kept quiet while Wifey did Mumsie's nails and applied lotion to Mumsie's hands and feet, and while the CDs played.
When there seemed to be nothing left to say, I started singing some of our silly songs again.
Wifey joined in, holding Mumsie's hand and sporadically stroking her hair.
We completed a couple rousing renditions of On Top of Spaghetti, Show Me the Way to Go Home, When the Red Red Robin Goes Bob-Bob-Bobbin' Along (sort of -- we couldn't remember all the words), and few made-up favorites.
The room was very warm; we kept drifting off to sleep.
I asked Wifey if she wanted to stay longer, or take a break and return later. She opted for the break -- Mumsie appeared to be stable.
I drew in close to Mumsie's face, trying to focus on her good eye, and told her we were going to head out for a little bit, and maybe get some shut-eye at home. I told her we'd be back early in the morning.
I told her not to go anywhere until we got back, but silently amended it to mean "unless you need to and can't stay."
Both of us are exhausted. Hubby checks his messages on my computer while I go upstairs and peel off my clothes and into my pajamas. I return downstairs to scritch the dogs and see what Hubby is doing. I go back upstairs, brush my teeth, and wash my face. I go into our bedroom and fold down the covers. It never occurs to me that I'm doing everything mechanically.
I start to crawl into bed. Ember is at the foot of the bed so I can't stretch my legs. I have one arm and leg in when the phone rings.
My stomach drops.
12:15 am, 20 December 2007. The nursing home calls.
Mumsie has passed away.
I relay the news.
Wifey is screaming, wailing, crying.
Ruth, the night nurse on duty, is quiet as she tells me what happened. She thinks Mom passed in her sleep around midnight. She tells me to come in because there's paperwork I have to sign. She tells me she's sorry, but I half hear her. I gulp sobs while she's telling me this.
I don't want to go in there. I say this to Ruth. Ruth tries not to chuckle as she replies, I'm sorry, but you have to. It's the rule.
I pull sweatpants and a sweatshirt over my pajamas. We scritch the dogs and tell them what happened. Hubby drives us to the NH. It's cold outside, but I'm not registering it.
One of the aides greets us at the door and lets us in. She tells us she's sorry. We nod and get on the elevator. Ruth is waiting for us as we disembark.
"I don't know if you want to see her," Ruth says to me. "You might your last memory to be what she looks like at the funeral home. It's up to you."
"I...don't...know..." I stammer.
She pats my hand. "That's OK. You don't have to decide now. But I need you to come in here and sign some papers while I make the call."
I give her a look.
"Oh, we don't have facilities here, if you know what I mean. Your mother is still in bed."
Wifey is filling out papers with the nurse. I go to say goodbye to Mumsie.
She's in the bed, her hand on her chest, covered in a sheet. I can see her toes are pointed.
She's yellow. Like a banana.
This is what physical death looks like.
I cross over to the bed and bend over, giving her a soft kiss on the head.
"Goodbye, my friend," I whisper.
I could feel the empty bone-deep cold beneath my lips.
Mumsie hated the cold.
I went back and told Wifey that her mother was a banana.
Ruth asks me if I want to see her.
"I don't know,"I reply.
"You don't have to," Ruth replies. "You might not want to have a nightmare."
"Well, maybe. I don't know. Can I peek in there?"
"I'll come with you," Ruth says as we stand up, her arm around me. "It's OK. Ask me anything you want."
Hubby is already in her room waiting for us. Ruth and I are at the doorway. "You don't have to do this if you don't want to," she says.
"Maybe I'll take a peek," I say.
"If you want. I'm right here."
Mom is on her back, hands folded on her belly. Her mouth is still open, but her eyes are closed.
Like a banana.
I wonder if her toes are black.
"Why is she yellow?" I whisper to Ruth.
"That's what happens when you die," she explains. "It's the bile backing up in your system."
I suddenly remember a book I'd read about physical death, about how the blood pools in the low areas of body, which makes the body harder to move. The pooled areas supposedly look like huge bruises. I don't want to see if this is happening to Mom. I can't.
Her mouth is open.
Why isn't she snoring?
The rest of night is a blur.
We got back home around 3:30 am, and went to bed.
In the morning, the funeral home called. They set up a time for Wifey to come in to finalize everything: the wake, the funeral and the associated particulars.
I quietly sent out emails to key family and friends so they'd know. I posted a couple messages online and respond to a few.
The longest days are just beginning.
Oh, I have to call people. I remember Mom doing this when Daddy died. She got into a huge argument with the woman whom she thought was her best friend. The best friend passed a few years ago, so I don't have to worry about her.
I go through Mom's Roladex while I try not thinking about what actually happens when they prepare her for the wake. I silently curse myself for having no fear of "the dark side", as in it's OK when you're discussing a person you don't know, but it's another thing when it's your parent , spouse, child, or sibling. I was an ardent fan of "Family Plots" on A&E a few years ago. The camera never showed the faces of the deceased, but they'd show Shonna, the embalmer, working the less savory aspects of preparing a body.
That's OK. I trust Al or whoever's preparing her. I know what they do. They'll treat her with the utmost respect. And, oh hell, why did I decide to let her wear the jacket that I covet?
Flashback to 2003: a Hawk family gathering, a formal affair, had come up. I'd just gotten into the swing of caring for Mumsie; neither Wifey nor I realized that Mumsie's wardrobe was so screwed up. She'd maintained a very respectable business wardrobe, right up until Wifey and I married. When I tried to help her prepare for the event, however, I made a startling discovery -- she had no idea where the key components to any of her suits were.
Neither did I.
Mumsie had always taken care to maintain a well-groomed, well-dressed and appropriate appearance. I wasn't about to let her down, now that she depended upon me to help her get ready.
I realized we didn't have a shot at finding a suitable outfit, or cleaning those complete ensembles that we found hidden in the back of the closet, half-cleaned and half-not.
We made a road trip to a local mall, where I made the command decision to fully outfit her -- jacket, pants, shirt and shoes.
$700 later and custom-tailored by a very helpful and supportive staff, Mumsie was positively aglow with joy. The outfit looked great on her.
She looked as though she felt like a million bucks. In retrospect, it wasn't a bad exchange rate.
Wifey and I would add a few interchangeable shirts, pants and a few jackets over the next couple of weeks. Until Mumsie qualified for additional care benefits, I'd have to occasionally take her with me to clients, so she had to dress the part. The clients -- both home and business clients -- knew of Mumsie's "condition" and welcomed her. We were blessed in that regard. While Mumsie would speak to the client, I'd get the work done that they'd contracted for.
Mumsie was thrilled. She was "working" and helping out her daughter and new son-in-law. She felt useful again.
We went to show off to Wifey at her work. Daily, or whenever we worked in that area at least.
Wifey was both pleased and slightly annoyed. "Do you have to come by my work to show off every time you two go out together dressed like the Bobbsey twins?"
"Yep," I grinned.
Not long after the incident with the tailored suit, in an impromptu planning session where Wifey and discussed future planning over Mumsie's care and eventual passing, Wifey got very quiet.
"You realize that we're probably going to bury her in that suit, don't you?"
Yeah, I realized that, I admitted. The momentary sadness we both shared was quickly replaced by the acknowledgement of how much fun Mumsie was having.
"And," I pointed out, "you can probably wear some of the same clothes, particularly the jackets."
Wifey didn't like shopping for herself, so I thought this would be a good topic-changer.
She grinned. "I already knew that. I used to steal her clothes all the time. She called me 'My daughter, the crook.'"
The thing was, that jacket fit me perfectly. I'm not a clotheshorse, so whatever I happen to find that fits me perfectly I grab. In the past it didn't matter if it was Mom's. I'd appear at breakfast. She'd look at me with narrowed eyes and a smirk and ask, "So where did you get that from?"
"From your closet," I'd chirp.
"My daughter the crook," she'd mutter. But if you looked at her sideways, you could see the smirk and the glitter in her eyes: Ah, my daughter is finally a smart ass! It's about time!
Thing is, I have no need for business clothes. I wear a uniform for work. We don't often go to places requiring a dress code of sorts. But this short dark brown tweedy jacket, double breasted with an extra pleat with hooks instead of buttons, fit me perfectly. It looked fabulous paired with an ivory cashmere and black slacks. Trust me.
Which is why I let Mom have it.
Brown was her color. Our home decor is based on brown; her wardrobe, until her deterioration, was based on every premise and tint of brown imaginable. As a kid she tried convincing me that brown was "my" color because we had similar coloring: Ick! BROWN! I don't want to look like you!
But brown was her color. There was no getting around that. When Jane, the assistant at the funeral home, asked me to bring her clothes, I had no other choice. The other jackets in Mom's closet were either too big or there was nothing with which to match them. I thought about donating a brown tweed jacket of mine which I'd worn maybe twice, but neither I nor Mom had anything to match it. So it was The Coverted Jacket.
We had to be at the funeral home at least 30 minutes before the wake. I'd blown up a few pictures on the computer, particularly one of a very young Wifey and Mumsie, and uploaded it to a local print shop, so I brought Wifey and dropped her off then went to get the pictures.
They hadn't printed 'em yet.
I'd received the confirmation email over an hour ago that had said the pictures were ready.
I elected to wait. How long could it take?
Back at the funeral home, Mumsie was smirking.
I'd picked the photo. It'd been taken when we lived in town. I was about 4 or 5. I don't remember who took the photos, but there is a series of them -- Mama and Daddy together, me and Daddy, me and Grandma, me and Mama. In the picture Mama and I are in profile and exchanging a lip kiss.
I've always been her baby girl.
I was her reason for living, especially after Daddy died. She used to introduce me as, "This is my daughter. If I didn't have her, I'd kill myself." I didn't want her to commit suicide, so I never left her.
I thought about the other wakes I'd been to, with photos and mementoes festooned all over the inner covering of the casket, leaning on the edge between the upper lid and the bottom. Thing is, neither Mom nor I were overly sentimental types. We had a very small family, for one. Even if I wanted to place mementoes aound her, I would've been hard pressed to find enough things to keep her company.
The photo, though. Now that I know she would've wanted. Her baby girl. Her only reason for living.
4:45 pm. I'm forty-five minutes late to the wake, and I'd only been down the street at a drugstore waiting for pictures that should have been ready long ago.
When I arrived, the priest -- Fr. Bob -- was just finishing the short prayer service. He was then off to cover yet another engagement; another wake, I believe, out of the three more that he had for that day. December was a busy month for death.
Wifey's dad -- Mumsie's husband -- had died on December 13th over thirty-four years before.
My youngest sister was by Wifey's side when I got there. Jane, the funeral parlor's administrator, relieved me of the pictures and placed them out on a table in another part of the room. I missed the first few sets of people who stopped in, several of whom knew of Mumsie and us from our favorite watering hole -- the bar side of a small family restaurant that we took Mumsie to on a regular basis. "The Regulars" had all made it a point to stop in.
I was glad Wifey hadn't been left alone for too long, and had someone by her side until I returned.
She was holding up well.
In the casket, Mumsie was beautiful, a picture of serenity and style, wearing an ever-so-slight smirk. It's that little hint of a smile that seemed to help Wifey the most. Only a few people were surprised at it. Many more actually thought it suited the Mumsie they had gotten to know.
Wifey thought it was quite appropriate.
1. As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner, 1930. From the Wikipedia entry:
As I Lay Dying is a novel written by the American author William Faulkner. The novel was published in 1930, and Faulkner described it as a "tour de force". It is Faulkner's fifth novel and is read in schools, colleges, and universities throughout the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and other English-speaking countries. The title derives from Book XI of Homer's The Odyssey, wherein Agamemnon speaks to Odysseus: "As I lay dying, the woman with the dog's eyes would not close my eyes as I descended into Hades".
The novel is known for its stream of consciousness writing technique, multiple narrators, and varying chapter lengths; the shortest chapter in the book consists of just five words: "My mother is a fish".