Hanging in There

7 Oct

I have been going through my mom’s things little by little, each time I go to my parents’ house.

I found a handwritten note with an unattributed poem called “If I should Go Tomorrow”. That made me cry.

I found the original version of the poem she wrote in 1976 about naming her daughter Music. That made me cry.

I found print outs of emails I sent my mom from Mexico City when I studied abroad there. I found pictures of random pets and of me and my brother and of Michaela. I found articles she cut out of the newspaper about the tennis exploits of her favorite player. I found old address books from throughout my mom’s life. Those mostly made me smile.

I ordered my mom’s death certificate. That made me cry.

People keep asking me how I’m doing. My go-to response is “I’m hanging in there.” It’s mostly true. I’m fine except when I’m not.

Mike and Michaela are hitting a good groove in terms of homeschooling. Today we had a conference with our education specialist, who invited Michaela to walk her (and us) through her learning. Michaela talked about each of the subject she’s studying and reflected on how homeschool is going. She was very positive about it, particularly the flexibility and fact that she doesn’t have to be on Zoom for hours every day, and said her favorite thing is doing Fix It! Grammar with Mike– probably the first time a 10-year-old kid has ever said their favorite part of school was studying grammar.

I’m so proud of Mike, who is doing a great job teaching Michaela. It’s hard to figure out the best way to teach each subject; on the occasions when I’ve had to jump in to help with school, it’s been rocky. And the fact that Mike is going that while still making great videos for his clients, supporting his team of employees, and doing a lot of work on/around the house is just that much more amazing.

Michaela’s taking a STEM class and this week, she’s supposed to build an elevator out of the parts of her choosing. My dad was a machinists who spent his career building elevators on Navy ships, so Michaela had the idea to ask my dad to work on the project with her. My dad is super excited about it. He talked to her about some different options and bought some supplies. She’s going over this afternoon to work on the elevator, which is going to have five floors and be made out of a tissue box, construction paper, and popsicle sticks, among other things.

I call my dad once a day, just to check in. He likes to be busy. He’s always got something to do, even with COVID. That’s coming in handy now that he’s on his own. He and Michaela are also working on a project where she’s helping him put ads on Craigslist for the classic car parts he sells. They worked out a deal that she does the ad (takes the picture and types up the description he writes for her) and he gives her 10% of anything that sells. He called last night to announce his first sale and tell Michaela she just made $40. He sounded so happy! It was beautiful.

We had dinner as a family last Friday — my dad, brother, me and Michaela. Mike had a shoot so had to miss it. I sort of figured we’d tell stories about my mom or something, but it didn’t go in that direction. We talked about today and tomorrow, not yesterday. Which may just be my dad and brother’s way of hanging in there.

I went away for an overnight in Palm Springs (actually La Quinta) with a couple of girl friends last weekend. It was a little weird to be out and about like that — especially when we saw dumb drunk twenty-somethings bunched up at the resort’s adult pool like COVID isn’t a thing — but it was also really refreshing to sit by the pool and read, the bob around in the water, and to eat Mexican food with friends. Especially in the last week or two of my mom’s life, I was responsible for so much of her care that it was really nice to be away and not responsible for anyone but myself.

Now I’m dying to go back to the resort with Mike and Michaela. Because as nice as it is to be footloose and fancy free, I also love my little family.

Nearly a Week in

26 Sep

Two days ago, I found myself clutching a pair of size 7.5 Nikes, sobbing. They were my mom’s shoes, and I was donating them to a charity that operates a closet where transgender youth can get gender-affirming clothes.

My mom would have been happy her barely-worn shoes were going to someone in need. I was happy they were going to an often-overlooked segment of our community. And yet.

There was something so final about giving those shoes away.

I thought about keeping them but decided not to, because if I kept all the physical things that reminded me of my mom, I’d be hoarded out of my home. I have memories, and I have the songs she loved, and I know that will be enough. Eventually.

So for now, I squirreled away a pink hoodie my mom loved, and the perfume she wore when I was a kid, and poems she wrote in the 70s.

It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly a week since my mom died. I keep thinking, “this time last week, I was…” and then filling in the blanks. I was laying next to her while she slept. I was dissolving Ativan in morphine, so she wouldn’t be in pain. I was realizing her death was imminent.

My house is full of flowers. I have been so touched by the kindness of my friends and colleagues. Every day, I’ve gotten a card or a bouquet or a meal or a text or message from a friend. I keep saying this has been awful, but knowing so many people are there offering support has made it slightly easier. The sad part is, I keep wanting to tell my mom about it and of course I can’t.

I have been surprised at the surprise I feel. I had three months to prepare for this. I was the one who, throughout my mom’s illness, kept having to remind my dad, “She’s dying.” And yet it still was so unexpected. Even as I laid next to her during her last few days, even as the hospice nurses said death would happen soon, I just wasn’t ready for it. I wasn’t ready when she took her last breath, I wasn’t ready when the nurse pronounced her dead, I wasn’t ready when they took her body away.

People keep telling me grief is like an ocean, that it comes in waves. That I have to work through it. That sadness will hit me when I least expect it, and that eventually I’ll be able to focus on the good memories we shared.

I’m nearly a week in, so I guess we’ll see.

Gone

20 Sep

At 6 on Saturday morning, my mom was restless and seemed to be in pain. I gave her some morphine.

She spent the rest of the day… sleeping? Not really sleeping, of course. But it sounded like she was snoring. She didn’t moan, didn’t move, didn’t open her eyes.

My dad laid with her in bed for hours. My brother came over and sat with her. I unfolded her arms, which had been pulled tightly to her chest, and rubbed lotion on them and on her legs. I moistened her lips with a sponge. I stroked her forehead. I put on the Rome Open so she could “watch” her favorite tennis player, Rafael Nadal, play.

Mike brought me dinner and my dad took his spot in my parents’ bedroom while we ate. When Mike left, my dad said my mom had been coughing. I hadn’t heard her coughing at all, all day, so I rushed in. I heard her snoring but nothing else at first, then there was a kind of sputter. A very alarming sputter. I listened more closely and felt cold.

Hospice provided us with a comfort kid of medicines to use in various circumstances. It comes with a chart that says, for X occurrence, use Y medicine. One of the occurrences was “end-of-life gurgling.” Was this end-of-life gurgling?

I called my brother, who was at work, to let him know what was going on. He didn’t answer so I texted him. I also messaged Mike, to keep him in the loop.

I called the Kaiser hospice line and was on hold for what felt like forever but was really 3 or 4 minutes. I explained the situation to the call screener, who said a nurse would call me back as soon as possible. A few minutes later, a nurse called. I walked her through the situation and she asked me to take the phone into the room so she could heard the sound my mom was making.

“That is definitely what we call ‘terminal secretion,” she said. End-of-life gurgling.

The nurse said we could try sitting my mom up, which might help drainage if for some reason there was some liquid in her throat. My dad hauled her up as best he could and we propped her up with some pillows. I gave her some Ativan and morphine, in case she was in pain but couldn’t communicate it.

I called my brother again. Again no answer so I texted with the update. Didn’t hear back. Asked Mike to call. He tried, no answer. So he called my brother’s restaurant and got through to my brother, thankfully. My brother said he would come after his shift ended. Which I do not understand. AT ALL.

Since they say hearing is the last to go, and since my mom loves music, I put some on for her. A shuffle of songs by The Beatles. I sprayed some of her favorite perfume on her. And my dad and I waited. Waited for my brother to arrive. Waited for my mom to die.

I hope to forget the sound of my mom’s death rattle — make no mistake, that’s what it was. Clogged and liquid and rattling. Horrific.

That sound continued for a long time. Just before 1 a.m. on Sunday, I went into my parent’s bedroom to give my mom her hourly dose of morphine. My brother was in there with her. I turned on the light and was shocked to see she was foaming at the mouth. My brother had noticed it and gotten a washcloth to put under her face, clean her up, but he hadn’t said anything to anyone.

I immediately called hospice, to speak to a nurse. When I got through to someone, she said to turn my mom onto her side, so we re-positioned my mom. Hospice sent a suction machine, like a miniature version of what they use at the dentist, which arrived around 3:30 a.m. We never used it. The foaming stopped.

The rattling continued throughout the night. I slept from about 4:30 to 6 a.m.

At 6, I got up and checked in. My mom’s breathing had quieted. At first, she was breathing every four seconds or so, but not as deeply as before. Then her breath slowed. After she took a big, shuddering breath, I put the pulse oximeter on her finger, to see how many beats per minute her heart was beating. It wasn’t picking up a pulse. I ran and shook my brother awake.

The three of us — me, my dad, and brother — crowded around my mom, straining to see if she was still breathing. I couldn’t feel a pulse. For a brief moment, she had a weak pulse. Then I lost it. I asked my brother to try. He couldn’t, either. Just like that, she was gone.

It was about 6:25 this morning. I’m glad she’s no longer in pain, but it’s still surreal that my mommy is gone.

This Sucks

18 Sep

Even thought I’ve known for three months that my mom is dying, sometimes I see her and it hits me all over again. It’s like Groundhog’s Day for heartbreak.

This week has been one of rapid decline for my mom.

Monday was my birthday. My mom was very agitated and barely able to talk, and didn’t know what day it was. She and my dad had gotten me a birthday card and my mom’s writing was illegible so my dad had to write the message. This was the first year of my adult life my mom didn’t call me ridiculously early to sing me “Happy Birthday.” And it will be the last year of my life when she’s alive for my birthday.

That night, my brother came to my house for dinner. As he was leaving, my dad called because my mom couldn’t stand up to go to the bathroom (actually a bedside commode she’d been using because the walk to the bathroom was too exhausting). My brother helped my dad get my mom taken care of and then spent the night to be around in case my dad needed support.

Tuesday was more decline. The hospice nurse came to visit and we changed a lot of my mom’s medicines, increasing the pain pills and Aitvan (for agitation). We also added oxygen for my mom, whose pulse ox was very low. She had a tiny bowl of Rocky Road ice cream; the last thing she will ever eat. I stayed the night that night — and have every night since — to help with medicine and to be there for my parents.

It was a long night. My mom had stopped talking and making eye contact. She was up for a half hour at 2 a.m., trembling, staring off into nothing. I tried to get her to lay down, but she wouldn’t, so I just sat with her and rubbed her back.

Wednesday was another step into hell. That morning, she wouldn’t (couldn’t?) swallow her morning pills. She had her jaws clamped tightly shut. My dad and I were able to wait until she opened her mouth slightly to put her painkiller and Ativan in, and then hold a water bottle to her mouth for her to drink. But those were the last pills she took; all of the other prescriptions to combat discomfort resulting from her cancer were done. That was also the day she got catheterized since it had been 24 hours since she’d been able to get up to go to the bathroom. And we found a bedsore (thankfully only one, and it’s actually scabbed up since then).

We were told on Wednesday to give my mom all the liquid morphine she needs/wants, and the Ativan as we think appropriate. I feel like a druggie (which is so not me), crushing the Ativan and mixing it with the morphine, so I can squirt it into my mom’s mouth.

Thursday was another heartbreaking conversation with my dad, who has been struggling emotionally. He asked me why my mom isn’t eating anymore and said we should ask for a feeding tube. That it seems like torture to not be feeding her. I told him it would prolong her life and he looked so broken as he replied that yes, we should.

The sleepless nights and stress are starting to get to everyone. My brother has been super irritable and today he screamed “shut the fuck up” at my dad as they argued about something completely ridiculous and inconsequential (literally, it was about whether a burrito is a snack or a meal). I then told my brother he was out of line and that he should leave it he can’t be decent, and then I became the target of my brother’s anger.

Let’s play a game called “Why does Music have a headache.” The options are my parents’ un-airconditioned house, where it regularly gets up to 85 degrees inside; stress from my mom’s situation; stress from work; lack of sleep; general existential dread; other; or all of the above.

I went home for a few hours this afternoon. Turned off my work computer, drove home, took a cold shower, and passed out for a nap. Woke up from the nap and Mike informed me that Ruth Bader Ginsburg died. I admired the Notorious RBG very much, but all I could think was, “If a white lady had to die of cancer while I was sleeping, I’m so, so thankful it wasn’t my mom.”

Now I’m back at my parents’ house. I’m sitting on the bed next to my mom, who is snoring. I keep wishing I could just wake her up and tell her about my day and talk about how well Rafa is doing at the Italian Open and fill her in on Michaela’s homeschooling.

She was been a tiny bit lucid today. Not enough to have a full conversation. But she smiled at Michaela when she came to visit this morning. And she opened her eyes and looked at me when I told her I love her. And when she’s having pain and is moaning and thrashing around, she’s nodded when I tell her I’m going to give her medicine, and she’s able to swallow the liquid I squirt into her mouth.

The hospice nurse who came to visit today said they talk about “how much longer” in terms of hours, days, and weeks. My mom has days, she said. But not many. And so we wait.

Week 26

13 Sep

Last week was pretty uneventful, which was a blessing.

Michaela continued her school work. She and Mike are finding their groove. It was funny, because she complained about having three 45-minute Zoom sessions on Thursday. Now, that’s a lot for her because Zoom sessions aren’t a big part of Watson Homeschool Academy, but I reminded her that if she’d stayed at her normal school, she’d be doing that every day.

Mike had several shoots last week and booked a big gig at the end of next month to do a shoot in North Carolina. It’s interesting to see how his business continues to change in a COVID world. Events aren’t coming back any time soon, so people are having to come up with other things. Sure, there are lots of recorded Zooms, but some folks are being smart enough to create well-done, strategic videos.

I continue to try to juggle work and helping with my mom. Last week was stressful. We changed a bunch of my mom’s meds on Tuesday, then Wednesday was really bad. Thursday we added back the medicines we took away and added a strong opioid pain killer. My mom’s in pain and becoming more overwhelmed cognitively. On Tuesday, I asked the hospice nurse how much longer she thought my mom has; she said two weeks. (Which, if that’s true, will be three months since my mom was given the terminal diagnosis and given three months to live.)

Tomorrow is my birthday, and I’ve been super emotional about it in the last week or so. First, I wasn’t sure if she was going to make it to my birthday. Then I realized she would, but it’s very strange to know this is the last birthday of mine she’ll be alive for. I would prefer to skip my birthday this year and just plow forward; I don’t feel much like celebrating. But Michaela, being the 10-year-old that is is, doesn’t understand that, so I’ve been preparing to paste a smile on my face and hide my tears.

I have to say, though, I do have a lot to be happy about. I have a job, a family that loves me, health insurance, etc. And I have the best friends. One friend sent gourmet chai tea latte concentrate, my favorite, and a beautiful chai mug. Another friend surprised my today by coming to my house and bringing the most delicious homemade chai-spiced cupcakes with chai-spiced buttercream. Another friend had hundreds of dollars’ worth of Olive Garden delivered to my house for dinner tonight. Someone else brought me a basket full of happy, relaxing treats (a coloring book, novel, lotions). And even outside of my birthday, I’ve had so many people check in regularly, offer to bring meals, listen to me vent, etc.

Oh, and Mike and Michaela got me what Mike described as a “social justice warrior t-shirt collection” for my birthday. So next time you see me, I may be sporting a “Make racism wrong again” or “Black lives matter” shirt. #Resist!

Week 25

6 Sep

Holy crap, another week of COVID weirdness. Another month! Will it ever end?

(I’m sure it will, sometime. But not anytime soon.)

Last week, we celebrated my dad’s 73rd birthday. As with my brother’s birthday in July, it was weird (for me, at least) to know it was the last one we’d celebrate with my mom. We celebrated with cards and cake and family dinner.

Mike had a number of shoots last week, so Michaela got to be relatively independent with her learning again. She’s doing pretty well as far as I can tell. It was the first week of her elective classes, which are currently being done via Zoom. She had three or four Zoom sessions with the elective teachers on Tuesday and Thursday, which seemed to add some nice variety to her school week. The Zooms are only every-other-week, and only through September at this point, so it’s not a huge undertaking by any means.

For me, it was a pretty standard week. Lots of work on COVID and wildfire preparedness. Which was timely, since a large fire broke out yesterday that has burned a couple of thousand acres at this point and isn’t contained.

I also fit in a trip to the dentist. My first time since taking my mom. My teeth looked good, but it was surreal to be there. When I took my mom, we rushed out of there and I didn’t pay. I called later that day and they told me not to worry about it, that we’d take care of it when I went in for my appointment. And when I went in, they told me there was a credit on the account and that I didn’t owe anything. The kindness the folks at Stephens Dental have shown is overwhelming. They are just the best people. I was honored to be able to make a donation to Heifer International in their name, to thank them for all they’ve done for my mom over the years.

In other mom news, my mom is here at my house. Maybe for the weekend or maybe forever. I’m not sure.

My dad called yesterday and said my mom wasn’t feeling well. Not pain specifically, just an overall bad feeling. I’d spent the day being super lazy (it’s been 100+ degrees out all weekend, so I am committed to staying inside, in the a/c, and being cool), so I said I’d pop over to their house to check in.

When I got there, it was really, really hot — their thermostat said it was 90 degrees inside — and my mom couldn’t get comfortable. I put some cold cloths on her chest and head, set up a second fan to blow on her, and while that helped a little, it wasn’t enough. I offered to take her to my house, where we have air conditioning and I knew it was a much more reasonable temperature, and my mom surprised me by saying yes. My dad put her in the wheelchair while I grabbed the walker, the box of medicine from hospice, and my mom’s pill case. We got my mom in the car and had an uneventful drive to my house.

Once home, Mike helped me get my mom in the wheelchair and we got her inside. Mike had to take apart our guest bed, which is upstairs, and move it into one of the downstairs bedrooms. My mom is too weak and unsteady to go up our stairs, and the bathroom downstairs has a large walk-in shower. The whole time, my mom was pretty out of it, and she collapsed into sleep once the bed was set up.

Mike had borrowed a baby monitor from our friends, so I was able to keep an eye on my mom throughout the night. She was up and incredibly restless about about 9:30 p.m., 1 a.m., 4 a.m., and 6:30 a.m. I got up several times to help her get to the bathroom. (Yet another way this whole situation is like having a baby again.)

It’s now 1 p.m. and my mom’s been sleeping pretty much all day. Just talked to my dad, who agrees I should keep her here the rest of today and tonight at least, until we see what the weather is like. Assuming everything else remains the same, when the temperatures go back down to the normal range, I’ll take my mom back to her house. If something changes, we’ll have the hospital bed brought here and we’ll roll with it.

Week 24

30 Aug

Last week was Michaela’s first full week of homeschool. It seemed to go pretty well, although I know Mike was super stressed. It’s hard to juggle running a business and being a teacher and taking care of most things around the house!

I spent Monday at my parents’ house so my dad could do some errands (my mom isn’t supposed to be home by herself anymore) and so I could be there for the weekly visit from the hospice nurse. That same day, Mike had a shoot from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. We’re very fortunate that Michaela is a level-headed, independent kid. Mike set her up with the day’s school work and we both took off. Michaela got through what she could, which was most of it, with a little help from the best tutor nana around: Mike’s mom Laura.

Michaela’s relationship with Laura is really beautiful. They video chat nearly every day. And of course it’s not the same as getting to see each other, but it’s definitely helped give Michaela a feeling of connection and something to look forward to. It’s not clear when we’ll be able to get together again in person, but in the meantime, it’s nice to see Nana (and Papa!) each day.

I had a book club meeting this week and it was just what I needed! Last month, we read “The Song of Achilles,” which I loved, and it was interesting to hear everyone’s perspective on the book. Of course we also talked a lot about the new school year; everyone in the group is a mom. Of the seven of us who were there that night, three had pulled their kids from the district and put them in charters. One has formed a pod. And the others are going to try to muddle through with the neighborhood school. I’ll be curious when we meet next month to see how everyone’s school year is going.

My book club is made up of a great group of ladies. Not only are they well-read, they’re really nice. Whenever we get together (lately, in someone’s back yard, all 6-feet apart, with bring-your-own food and drink), I leave feeling happy and somehow lighter.

That came in handy the following day, when I went to my mom’s house to relieve my dad and my mom needed help with showering. We’d talked on Monday about getting an aide to help with that and my mom declined. On Thursday, though, she asked if I’d help. Getting in and out of the tub is hard for her because she’s so unsteady on her feet, and showering and washing her hair is exhausting. I was happy to help and it wasn’t as weird as I thought it would be (mostly because I didn’t have to actually wash her body, just her hair).

People talk a lot about how taking care of an aging parent can be like taking care of a baby. I was reminded that Mike did most of the caring for Michaela when she was a baby! Ha ha. I was also reminded that my mom did all the care-taking when I was a baby, and it is an honor and a gift to repay her now.

Week 23

24 Aug

Michaela started 5th grade last week (during week 23)! The first two days were mostly just practicing using Schoology, plus a couple of small assignments. We’ve really begun school in earnest this week. Last night, Mike and Michaela sat on our back deck and worked on math as the sun was going down, and it was beautiful.

Mike started installing interior doors in our house! We ordered them ages ago and they were delivered just before the lockdown started. Just under two dozen doors have been sitting in our garage for five months, so needless to say, I was thrilled when he started putting doors in on Saturday. Frankly, I think it’s amazing he’s able to do stuff like that. And now I have a door on my office!

Work is work. We’re getting closer to schools being allowed to reopen, and it’s going to be very interesting. I don’t think people are paying attention to the fact that schools may have to close again (if 5% of a class — basically one student or teacher — test positive, the class has to quarantine for 14 days; if 5% of a school tests positive, the school has to close; if 25% of a district tests positive, the district has to close). So everyone who is shouting for schools to open so parents can have stable child care… those people are not paying enough attention to the details.

Stuff with my mom is the same. She was having weird abdominal issues over the weekend that resulted in my spending a lot of time at my parents’ house. The hospice nurse came today and tweaked my mom’s medicine again, so hopefully she will have some relief.

Just another week in COVID times…

I Talked to Jerry

21 Aug

My mom’s sister, Jerry, died 20 years ago of breast cancer.

Jerry, who was 10 years older than my mom, was like a mother to her. My grandmother was a single mom who worked full-time, and moved the family around a lot within San Diego County and Los Angeles. When Jerry became an adult and moved out on her own, my mom would spend summers at Jerry’s, relishing the freedom, ease, and comfort of their time together.

Jerry was my mom’s best friend. She took my mom to see The Beatles in 1965, which my mom says is the best concert she’s ever been to, even though she couldn’t hear the music over the crowd screaming. She and my mom did stuff together all the time, and even after my brother and I were born, Jerry was a big part of our lives.

When Jerry died, something in my mom broke. She retired early and began being much more solitary. We all miss Jerry very much.

I was at my mom’s house yesterday when she told me, “I talked to Jerry.” She was dead serious and started to cry as she explained it to me. She said Jerry was there, sitting next to set in the same way I was. That Jerry looked the same as before she got sick; she hadn’t aged. That Jerry said she’d be seeing her soon. That it was weird but nice, and that it’s happened twice.

My mom is an atheist. She is not someone who finds comfort in religion, or someone who ever thought there was anything after death. But she was emphatic that she talked to Jerry.

Week 22

16 Aug

This week was rough.

Thursday was the disastrous dentist visit. Friday we gathered for family dinner for my dad’s famous tacos. The tacos were delicious and we actually had a nice time together, but my mom was wiped out; she quietly ate one and then went to lay down, then was in intense pain an hour or so later and I had to give her morphine. Saturday brought more intense pain for my mom and another trip to my parents’ house for me, to give my mom morphine again.

I had a hospital bed delivered on Saturday because my mom was having a lot of trouble getting in and out of bed, and sitting up. Of course, it’s not her favorite thing because it’s a reminder of how sick she is. So she slept in it for a bit and then returned to her regular bed. Frankly, that doesn’t bother me at all; that stubbornness is a hallmark of my mom’s personality.

Michaela spent the week at Y camp, which she did not like. She said the counselors spent a lot of time on their phones and didn’t seem to care about the campers. Every day, I picked her up and heard a litany of complaints. It was kind of a bummer.

Mike had a really big shoot that kept him super busy, but it went off really well. His client was happy and I think while it was incredibly stressful, he enjoyed the chance to tackle such a complex project. I’m so proud of him. He works really hard, hustles like crazy, and does great work. The pandemic upended his business and he’s figured out not only how to keep going, but to thrive.

Besides chauffeuring Michaela to her day camp and helping out with my mom, I spent the week immersed in public health bureaucracy hell. I keep joking that I should have gotten a degree in epidemiology. My BA in Spanish and Government and MA in Latin American Studies are NOT cutting it in this COVID world. Still, as we mark five months since schools closed campuses to prevent the spread of the disease, I can’t help but think even more my stressful work days now are waaaaaaaay better than they were in March. So at least there’s that!