I flew out for one last visit to my mom in lovely Laguna Beach.After being diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer, she sold her house and came here to paradise. It was hard to see the reality of my mom's situation. Between the cancer reaching her brain and a toxic regiment of end-of-life medications her physical and mental states have rapidly declined from a month ago. She was like ten behaviorally challenged toddlers in one adult body-- Impulsive, agitated, quick to laugh or cry, and more stubborn than ever.
4:30 p.m. My sisters pick me up at the airport with her in the car. Mom recognizes me but doesn't know what day it is or month. Her speech is slow and slurred and as we drive she engages us in a mostly nonsense conversation. Some of the things she says are funny, "I gotta quit smoking."
Others are more concerning-- like seeing things that aren't there. "Look! It's snowing!" on PCH? She becomes very agitated, repeatedly trying to rip out her IV and open the car door. It takes one sister to drive, one to block the door handle, and me trying to restrain her from getting out of her seat to go who knows where. I don't believe it can get worse until I see her taking her shirt off. Ugg.
6:00 a.m. I relieve the newly hired night time caregiver. My sisters are catching up on sleep that as her previous primary caregivers they haven't had in days. My mom is feeling fresh and fully awake after a 3 a.m. shower. While making the bed over and over she tells me she wants to write something... A letter to each kid? I suggest. Yes, that's it. We start with Dave. She tells me what to say and I dictate it back to her as I write in my notebook. She talks about what a wonderful son he is and how proud she is of him, even using big words like "munificent." I'm pleased with her level of cognition today and thinking what a heartfelt letter this will be when she says,
"I hope you use this money (?)
to take a special trip--
to the Mississippi River--
to see the bullfrogs mate."
She is perfectly serious. Sigh.
My mom has none of her wishes in writing, at least not that we can find. She tells something to one sibling, and a completely different story to another. At least that is what we are finding out. It becomes apparent that my mom's situation is bigger than we can handle. Those of the siblings who are in town, meet with a hospice provided social worker to assess the immediate and future needs of my mom's healthcare. We meet outside on a picnic table at the park in front of my mom's house, overlooking the beach. She does her best to piece together everyone's opinions, weigh in with the facts, and come up with a plan. I gain a new appreciation for what my husband does. I also gain new insight for the Jews vs Muslims in the Middle East. Some people are just never going to see eye to eye in this life.
The social worker presents a recommended plan: 24 hour professional caregivers so my mom can stay in her apt. Family coming only to visit, a few at a time, for 2-3 days max. We vote, and it passes.
I'm feeling okay about it, the plan that is. I'm taking it all in and try to quench this thirst that I haven't been able to satiate all morning. My whole water bottle has been consumed and my mouth is still soo dry. I wonder if the gum I've been chewing is really a cotton ball. I came into this with a headcold and took a Sudafed earlier in the morning, so why am I still so stuffy? The meeting is wrapping up and as the social worker concludes I'm trying to focus on keeping the palm trees from spinning. The SW and my bro start to walk back to my mom's house and my sister hangs back with me. I start to walk but realize that any moment I'm going to pass out. I shout out to my brother for help. My legs are becoming weaker. I'm not going to make it across the street to the house. The sw calls the nurse that is taking care of my mom to come down and take my blood pressure. It's 90/40 which I know is too low and my pulse is a racing 120. I see flashing, like turning the lights on and off. My legs officially won't work now. I'm on the ground fading in and out of consciousness. The SW calls 911 and tells me 5 good looking guys will be hovering over me in no time. They take my blood pressure and this time it's 160 over something. I immediately get an IV, oxgen, heart monitors and they move the body I can't feel onto a gurney. As they load me in the ambulance I yell to my brother to call Brandon. I am fighting to stay conscious. I don't want to die and I'm so afraid that if I give in I might not wake up. I blame that on Hollywood. (you know the scenes where theyre slapping the cheek and shouting, stay with me!) The paramedics tell me I'm going to be okay, even if I pass out. I wish I would have believed them.
While I struggle for consciousness (for what I find out later is the next 3 hours) they do every kind of test, including pregnancy. I think what an interesting ending that would be to this story but it's negative. The doctor comes in later to explain the results. I'm relieved that I don't have an awful diagnosis just an embarrassing one: stress. Apparently, the body can only handle so much before it shuts down. I'm ordered to take it easy for at least a full day and traveling back home is not an option, yet.
I sleep all night. My sister gives me one of her stellar massages. I rest again then head down to the beach. The world is still slightly out of focus. I lay on the warm sand with my back against the boulder we stood on for our family picture last trip. It's a beautiful day. I close my eyes, let the sun warm me, and listen to the waves. After a couple hours or so I feel so much better. I want to chalk it up to beach therapy but then acknowledge it's probably due to the arsenal of prayers that Brandon has rallied up. I get a mango smoothie and walk along the beach as the sun sets over the water. Healing.
12:30 a.m. I get a call from the healthcare worker to please come help. (my sister and I are in a nearby hotel) We run over and find my mom extremely agitated. She has gone a night a day and now another night without a wink of sleep. She wants to take a shower. She wants to go for a walk. She wants to use the typewriter, go to the bank, buy flowers. I give her more meds and we get her to sit on the bed but for it's only 2 seconds before she lurches up again. . We try to get her to sit down and tell her it's okay to sleep "No, I won't wake up." I wonder if in her case it might be true. "I'm not finished." I remember for years, she told us to hire a Dixie Land Band and celebrate when she died. Through years of suffering from various health problems she couldn't wait to get to the other side. Why is she fighting it now that's it's so close?
It takes another hour of me singing lullabies and holding her tight, and my sister brushing her hair before she dozes off upright and we ever so quietly lay her down and sneak back to bed.
8:30 a.m. A new day, a new caregiver. I go over with her the schedule of meds, the idiosyncracies of my mom and what she can expect for the day. We take my my mom for a walk through Heisler Park on the beach. One of us steadies her on each side. She seems to be in a good state of mind. She introduces her caregiver to the all the monuments. She points out and names the flowers. She is overjoyed to find out they are making the park even more beautiful with some mosaic artwork along the path. "Thank you! Thank You!" she tells the world. The head groundskeeper comes over to tell her they're doing it for her. She is glowing. We walk further on to the flagpoint. I point out to her a pod of dolphins about 50 yards away. She is overcome with happiness and scares us by climbing on the railing for a view that can't get any better. Her voice is weak but she gives it all she's got and shouts out to all the passersby. "Look! Everyone! Dolphins!! She scares us even more by putting her foot on the other side of the rail. She is now looking down 30 ft. to the tumult of rocks and waves below while I clutch her legs and beg her to get down. She leans over to me with tears in her eyes, "I can't think of a better way to go." The nurse and I immediately pull her down.
11:00 a.m I say goodbye to my mom for the last time. I give her a big hug and feel the cancerous growths that are overtaking her body. I know it won't be long until they claim their victory and then I realize why my mom is fighting death. It wasn't her idea.