For awhile, I believe that the last time I’ll ever hear my mom speak a full sentence was when she prayed with nuns on TV. Besides making a pretty good story, it truly comforts me. When she gets out of the hospital, I decide to cancel my trip to New Orleans, which is set for a few days later. My trip insurance means I need to contact her doctor about signing paperwork to confirm with the insurance company that yes indeed my mom did suffer a series of transient ischemic attacks (TIA) or mini strokes. My call to her doctor leads to a “prescription” for hospice for Mom. “It’s time,” his kind nurse says to me on the phone.
My dad thinks hospice care is just for “people who are dying.”
I say gently, “Mom’s doctor must think she qualifies. Hospice is for people who have less than six months to live.”
Her diagnosis eight years ago gave us ellipses: Mom will die from Alzheimer’s. . .
Hospice offers us a period: Mom will die from Alzheimer’s.
This could be over within six months, a strange comfort.
A week later, on Easter Sunday—which happens to be a day after my mom’s 81st birthday—Ger and I plan to give Mom a bath while my dad is at church. We walk her to the bathroom to get her cleaned up after breakfast. “You okay, Mama?” I ask.
She shakes her head. I swear she says, “I don’t know who I am.”
“Did you hear that?” I ask Ger.
“She never said anything like that before,” Ger says.
We get her full diaper off and plant her on the toilet topper, impossible without dirtying both of her legs. Like changing your baby’s diaper: the only ones that phase you after awhile are the especially “heavy” ones. This one qualifies. Once she’s on the toilet topper, her whole body goes limp, her tongue comes out, and her eyes roll. We recognize that she is having another TIA. When she was in the hospital, her doctor said that eventually these smaller strokes may lead to a big one, from which she will never recover. Blood flow to her brain will simply stop.
Both of us have to balance Mom, or she would slide off the toilet. We’ve got to clean her up before we can do anything.
Ger wipes Mom’s butt and legs and hums “Here Comes Peter Cotton Tail.” She wipes and hums, hums and wipes. She goes through baby wipe after baby wipe, a little like trying to clean up an oil spill with a hankie. At some point I slip out of my Easter dress and rummage through my mom’s closet for a T-shirt to go over my leggings and tank top.
Mom’s eyes are still closed. She inhales two big breaths and then—nothing. We steady her on the toilet.
“I think she’s dying,” I say.
We hear a kerplunk. Perhaps it’s her body flushing before she dies. All I can think is Well, here we go.
I look at my watch. 11:15. We have at least 45 minutes to decide what to do before my dad gets home from church. Should we call an ambulance or let her go? I call my brother, Joe, a firefighter and EMT. He picks up his cell phone on the second ring. He’s at the fire station. He says that if Mom is having another TIA, it will pass. If it’s the big one, just let her be. “But what should we do?” I say. He tells us to lay her on the floor.
When I get off the phone, Ger says, “Isn’t he coming?” We’re both a little desperate. I can’t imagine being here without her.
I say, “Only if we call the ambulance. He can’t leave work unless he’s responding to a call.”
We get Mom mostly cleaned up and slide her onto the bathroom floor on a large bath towel. Somehow we get another diaper on her and a pair of sweat pants. She’s still wearing her pink flannel pajama top. We roll up a towel and put it beneath her head for a pillow. We wait. She’s breathing softly, and her eyes are closed.
Ger and I stand in the hallway next to the open bathroom door and talk about people we know who died on the pot. Definitely not the way we want to go, we both agree. We tell each other—if we get Alzheimer’s—how each of us will off herself so her family doesn’t have to deal with this. One opts for pills, another for drowning. I tell my sister something I haven’t said to any family member: if Mom were a dog, we would have taken her to the vet for a much more humane ending than this. I paraphrase a poem I read recently: “Sometimes death is not as terrible as denying it.”
It occurs to me that perhaps Mom can still hear us. I wouldn’t put it past her, coming back from the dead because she was pissed at what we were saying. I put my Easter dress back on and find my camera in the pocket. We move to the living room and leave her on the bathroom floor with the door wide open so we can hear her.
Ger’s husband shows up to help us move Mom, but we decide to leave her on the floor till the rest of the family arrives. I tell Tim, “Ger was so calm. She just kept humming ‘Here Comes Peter Cotton Tail’ through it all.”
“I did not,” she says.
“Yes. You did. You hummed as you cleaned up Mom. I thought you were doing it to keep us both calm.” She giggles a little bit.
I say to Tim, “I leave the room to strip out of my nice dress so I don’t get poop on it, and I come back and Ger is still humming.” I sing in a falsetto voice, “Here comes Peter Cotton Tail, hoppin’ down the bunny trail. Hippity hoppity Easter’s on its way.”
She and I laugh hysterically. It never occurred to me hers was a nervous hum, an Easter and stroke and shit-induced tick. We can barely catch our breath.
Around 12:15 my dad and the rest of the family come home from church. We give them the short version of what transpired, minus Peter Cotton Tail.
My dad says, “So do you think she can take Communion?” Each Sunday he brings a blessed host home for Mom and coaxes her into swallowing it.
“I don’t think just yet,” I say. I know how important this is to him, especially on Easter. My mom believed wholeheartedly in the Resurrection, our foundation of faith as Catholics.
David picks Mom up from the bathroom floor and puts her in her wheelchair. Ger and I put a clean sweatshirt on her. She seems more alert than she was right after her TIA, but she still can’t do anything but stare into space.
Here’s what I love about my family: perhaps only See’s would say, “Yeah, Ma just had a stroke, but we’ve got this birthday cake for her already made so let’s prop her up at the table for awhile.” We light the candles on her cake, and we all sing Happy Birthday to her and take pictures. Then we lay her down for a nap, and she sleeps the rest of the day.
Hours later—after Easter dinner and birthday cake and family small talk and washing many dishes—I say quietly to Ger, “I still feel like I could throw up.”
“Oh,” she says, “just put lotion on your hands, and the smell will go away.”
“Not the poop,” I say, “everything.”
I go home and burn winter debris in my yard. Twigs and leaves and last year’s stalks dried into the ground, anything I can find. A fire is cleansing, therapeutic.
That night I turn on my computer to upload the day’s photographs from my camera. While I’m waiting, I open an email from Ger: “Guess what I just found on my jeans? Poop. I bet it was there all day. Don’t laugh or I’ll sing ‘Here Comes Peter Cotton Tail’ again.”
I laugh and laugh. Then my photos appear on the screen. I have no memory of taking my mom’s picture when she was lying on the bathroom floor, but obviously I must have thought it was a good idea. When I see her, I am reminded of the photos my parents had in their attic: dead relatives laid out in their caskets at their wakes. When I was a kid, I remember my mom telling me that back then—in the 1930’s and 40’s—there were so few family members with access to a camera that they wanted to capture a loved one in their casket to have it as a keepsake. I didn’t know the word “macabre” as a kid, but I knew the feeling I got when I looked at those photos, the same feeling I have now when I see my mom laid out, towel headrest, pajama-top sloppily tucked into her brown sweat pants, her eyes slits, her hands folded in what I can only describe as in prayer.