Sometimes Losing the Ones We Love Leads Us to Unforeseen Wisdom
New Year’s Eve 2014–We had just watched the annual Time’s Square ball drop. My brother Justin and I looked from the hospital television over to our mother, leaned over and kissed the top of her head as he snapped the photo. It was my very first selfie and in that moment, it was the epitome of Doing What Counts, for it would prove to be one of the most precious photos of my life.
Earlier that evening I had come home from work around four o’clock. Usually when I arrived, my mom was hip deep in some household project or another. She was the “youngest” older lady I knew. Forever energetic, always smiling, always busy with a sewing project or planting flowers or cleaning the house or ironing shirts. Often, it would take her a few minutes before she emerged from whatever task she had been working on that day. But this day was different.
As soon as I walked in the door, she came down the short flight of steps from the hallway to her bedroom. She was quiet and hesitant rather than jovial and happy. Her eyes were troubled, a vast departure from their typical sparkling, and I was instantly checking off possibilities in my mind of what could be troubling her. “I think I need to get some help,” she said. I stood on the opposite side of the kitchen island from her as the gravity of those words crashed into my mind.
My mother was the strongest person I knew. She was the lady who, while doing renovation work in that very kitchen just a couple of years before, got hit in the mouth by the crowbar she was using, then drove herself to Urgent Care in a stick shift pickup truck with one hand on her split lip and the other shifting gears. She had called me on the way and by the time I got to Urgent Care she was being numbed for the stitches. I stood beside her holding her hand. She sat stoically on the table as the doctor inserted the needle for the first stitch. I noticed she was flinching just a little.
After the last stitch I asked, “Umm, isn’t your lip numbed?” She glanced at me with the blue eyes I inherited from her and, while moving her mouth as little as possible she replied, “Well, no, not really. –ut he’ll –e done in a mi–ute.” As for me, I’m quite certain I wouldn’t have been able to sit through stitches without being completely numb. So when this tough lady asked to go to the doctor, because she was having trouble breathing, I knew she was scared. And that scared me even more.
I tried swallowing but my mouth was too dry. “What’s the matter?” I asked.”I just can’t get my breath. I feel like I need oxygen or something,” she said. Her voice was uncharacteristically small. I didn’t like it at all. Memories of fourteen years earlier flashed through my mind. My dad, standing in almost the exact same spot where my mom was standing now, telling me the test results had come back and the doctor had just ordered him to come to the ER immediately. He was a heavy equipment mechanic his whole life. Hard work was a daily occurrence. He was the other toughest person I ever knew. So on THAT day as this man of untold strength said those words to me of his diagnosis (“They say it’s a tumor wrapped around the artery to my brain”), I remember choking back tears, feeling the hot lump of fear rise in my throat as I wrapped my arms around him in a bear hug. But more on that in another issue.
Throughout his nineteen months of treatment between diagnosis and his passing, one of my perpetual thoughts was “God please don’t let us lose mom like this too.” And yet here we were, same spot in the kitchen, over a dozen years since, and my worst fear from that time in my life was starting to grow again and take shape. I pushed it to the side and focused on the need at hand. “Should we go to Urgent Care or the ER?” I asked.
After calling a friend who had recently dealt with a similar family crisis, we decided to go to the Urgent Care. It was closer and maybe they could give her some help without having to wait in the ER amongst all the germs. An hour later, after a chest X-ray, the Urgent Care folks sent us to the ER anyway. “Pneumonia most likely,” they said. We both breathed out a sigh of relief. That sounded much better than all the thoughts that had been running through my head for the past hour. Mom looked relieved too.
Although she was still having trouble taking a good breath, she took the news and ran with it. “Do you think we should just wait until in the morning to go to the ER?” she asked the doctor, her eyes full of hope at the idea of not having to be in the emergency room on New Year’s Eve. “No ma’am. It’s important that you go to the ER right away so they can get the right meds into your system. I definitely wouldn’t wait until morning.” Mom frowned but nodded.
An hour and a half later we were in the ER waiting room. My brother had joined us and our little trio sat in the ER waiting room, trying not to breathe the air tainted with God only knew what all germs from the other people waiting there. The pneumonia diagnosis gave me comfort but I realized it was still a very serious condition. Mercifully , they didn’t keep us waiting long. Blood was drawn and nurses and doctors came and went. She was taken downstairs, sitting up in the hospital bed, for a CT scan of her lungs while Justin and I waited in the ER for her, halfway watching the beginnings of the New Year’s Eve festivities on every channel.
The room looked huge without the massive bed in it. They brought her back a few minutes later. She seemed tiny in the midst of white linens and chrome railings and IV lines and heart monitor wires running to her arm and chest. She smiled that sweet, motherly smile I knew so well. It made a direct line to my heart every time I saw it but this time it felt like a shotgun blast to my chest. It was hard seeing this woman I always turned to for strength, with faint traces of fear in her eyes.
She knew how this process worked. She had spent many hours and days in hospital rooms with my dad through his cancer treatment. We both were pushing those memories to the side for the moment. The nurse had given her oxygen to help with the breathing trouble. The mask covering her nose and mouth fogged with each exhale. I held her hand carefully, to avoid the IV needle. Her hands were always warm and soft. There were big veins running across the backs of them that I always found comforting. She thought they looked ugly. But they were the hands that had always taken care of me. I liked to trace the veins with my finger and compare them to my own.
We watched the festivities on television, flipping from one New Year’s celebration to another. We would have done practically the same exact thing if we had been at home. Just spending the evening together, watching the shows, waiting for midnight so we could drink sparkling grape juice and toast the departure of 2013.
Midnight finally rolled around and Justin said, “Hey, come over here so I can take our picture with Mom.” I hadn’t even thought of that idea so I was instantly grateful. We stood on either side of her as he held his phone out to capture the moment. The rest is what you see in the photo. I still remember the feeling of Mom’s curly hair, soft against my lips. The scent of her shampoo still lingering. We smiled at each other, approving of the photo Justin had just taken of us. It is my favorite photo to this day. The last one before our new reality was to come crashing down around us just nine hours later. Justin went home to get some sleep in case he decided he should go in to work the next day. My schedule was more flexible, so I stayed the night in mom’s room.
Sleeping in the hospital isn’t really any kind of restful situation for anyone. Not for the patient, as the nurses have to come in almost hourly to check various stats or administer meds. And not for the family who happen to be sleeping in chairs, as the process of taking vitals and giving meds involves lots of noise and talking. But again, we were old pros and knew the drill. Real sleep didn’t set in until close to morning and that brought with it a change of shift and another round of vitals and meds and greetings from the new nurses.
One of the nurses was someone we had met when mom was first brought up to her overnight room. Heather was the supervisor of the floor and her kind, smiling face and demeanor calmed mom’s nerves, and my own around 2 AM when we first moved in for the night. So when she accompanied a doctor that morning around 9 AM, past the time when she should have gone home after her shift, I felt the pangs of fear rise in my chest.
Mom smiled at both doctor and our new nurse friend as we knew test results would be arriving any minute. The expressions on both their faces said it all. Words like “stage four”, “multiple tumors”, “quality of life”, and “treatment plan” hung in the air like malignant smog. I sat motionless through the whole thing, eyes moving from doctor’s face to nurse friend’s face to mom’s face. The compassion in our nurse friend’s face was heartbreaking. She stood behind the doctor, brow furrowed, waiting for the weight of the words to find their mark in our consciousness. Mom absorbed the blow like the fighter she was. She didn’t cry in that moment, even though the eyes of both doctor and nurse began to glisten in betrayal of their professionalism and strength.
Our nurse stayed behind when the doctor left and stepped over beside the bed. I stood and bent over the other side of the bed, hands finding mom’s, squeezing firmly but carefully. Heather talked to us more about what would come next that day and in the days to come. It was all so familiar yet still scary and dreadful. Finally, my brain overflowed with the tsunami waves of DIAGNOSIS and I leaned over with my face in mom’s neck and hugged her, tears bursting and sobs racking my body. It was only then that she began to cry and her words were not “why me?” but rather “Neal, I’m so sorry.” As was the case my entire life, her primary goal in that
We were blessed with almost six months from that moment until her passing. God gave me the gift of spending every single day with her and for that I am so very thankful. I drove her to treatments and appointments and sat with her through more nights in the hospital. As it turned out, she had to spend her birthday in the hospital so I gathered up all the typical birthday supplies; cake, balloons, gifts, streamers, posters, and she sat on the side of her bed watching me stand on chairs at midnight taping everything up all around the room, just as we had done when Dad spent his birthday in a hospital room so many years before—Doing What Counts. I am so thankful for that memory. And so many others. Those six months included my own birthday as well and I feel so fortunate that she was there, at home this time, to celebrate my birthday with me. Easter, Mother’s Day, Spring, the start of Summer… all special times that were her last and thus will live with me forever.
That duration of time between diagnosis and whatever outcome is in store, whether it is remission or one’s passing, teaches so many lessons. The biggest of which is priorities. We learned to focus not on frivolities and nonsense but rather on what is most important. Telling someone that you love them, hearing them say it to you, doing kind gestures for them just because you know they like something, take-out from Red Lobster because of a craving for cheese biscuits, lunch at the local greasy spoon because it’s attached to a favorite bakery, taking crazy pictures together to lighten the mood, late night talks about mom’s childhood as she reflected on memories that stuck with her for decades, apologies for words that should have never been spoken.
These things are all part of why I use the motto “Doing What Counts”. It’s more than just business, where I focus on doing those things that help clients accomplish their goals most efficiently without wasting their time and money. It’s Doing What Counts on a daily basis. Being attentive to loved ones and their needs. It’s not about giving big gifts but about subtle, thoughtful things that show you care enough to pay attention to what makes them happy. It’s the difference between just celebrating on Valentine’s Day versus showing love every other day of the year as well, without social prompting and commercialization. In those last six months with my mom I learned to stop chasing dollars and to instead lead with my heart.
In April of those six months I was asked to play guitar at a church I used to attend. They were aiming in a different musical direction and needed a contemporary style of guitar playing. Mom even felt well enough several times to come with me and watch me play with the church band. Another precious memory from those six months.
Doing What Counts comes to mind when a love one’s health is in the balance. But when all is well, it’s easy to slip back into the mindset of “I’ll take the kids to the park later” or “We’ll go see the car show with the family next year” or “I’ll get her something nice next week.” The worldly tendency to procrastinate the Stuff That Counts, happens in times of non-crisis.
It’s been almost two years since mom died. I try to live like those six months are perpetual. It keeps me in touch with the good parts of life. It’s something to which I try to anchor myself daily. The most important six months of my life were all about Doing What Counts and I want to keep on living that way. ■