As if she needs an invitation. A proper lady makes everyone else wait. Not long, mind you, but just long enough to remind everyone who is in charge.
My mother was in charge, at least until 7:35 this morning.
In the shower tonight, washing the stench of hospital and hysterics out of my hair, I had a terrible thought: what if I made a mistake? I walked in from my omelet – The Boss had shown up to point me in the direction of food – and mom wasn’t breathing. I was on the phone with my housemate and she was telling me a story to which I still don’t have the conclusion and the lady wasn’t breathing. Not the same not-breathing as before, when she’d wait for 10 seconds before sucking air in like she were getting her head above water; but not-breathing for real. I almost had to yell at the house-mate to get her to stop talking, then I went for the nurses.
“I think she’s gone.”
Well, that wasn’t possible because they had just been in to the room and she was not breathing just fine in the same fashion as the 18 hours previous, but the four of us went traipsing in to the room armed with stethoscopes and fingers practiced at detecting pulses. Me at the foot of the bed, the other three arranged over my mother’s body listening. Counting.
And then, only when she had everyone’s full attention, did she take her last two breaths. Scared the shit out of everyone. I think one of the nurses yelped. I jumped back. Everyone got the uncomfortable giggles. Our nurse for the day hugged me. We’ll call it a song for the ovation.
It was over. They stood over her waiting. A minute passed and she didn’t breathe. No pulse, a flat line from the thing they put on her finger to detect oxygen levels and heart rate. It was over. Everyone got quiet and left me in the room with my used-to-be mother and I called my grandmother. Then my sisters in order of age. And then my father.
Death is unmistakable. All the color goes out of your lips. The set of your jaw changes. Your eyes sink back into the sockets and something happens to your skin. All my mother’s lines and wrinkles, every bit of aging inflicted by chemotherapy and cancer, got pulled taunt. It wasn’t youthful, though. It was the kind of taunt you see on a mummy.
I remind myself of this in the shower. That no one in their right mind would trust me to pronounce a death in any official capacity. That the flurry of activity around pulse and oxygen stats and respiration rates wasn’t my job in this affair. The thought is persistent. What if they don’t dress her body right away? What if the things that were to go with her stay in the bag and she’s really still alive somewhere in a refrigerator waiting for the right signatures to catch up with her, and she’s cold and she’s alone and she’s surrounded by corpses and terrified and lonely and it is all my fault because I said I thought she was gone when she really wasn’t?
Is someone checking me for PTSD?
That part of the show was run by competent people. They wouldn’t have sent my mother to freeze her tookus off without being sure. I stood there in the room with her, seeing phantom movement in the blanket, thinking she was going to start up again any time, and having to remind myself that I was seeing things. At least until I talked to the housemate again. She pointed out that muscles can do strange things as the last neurons fire. That was all I needed to hear. I high-tailed it out of there. The memories I’ve got are more than sufficient scarring for one girl.
I stayed in the room with her body for at least 20 minutes. In that time I stood with my hand on her forehead in a gesture I’d used a hundred times in the past two weeks. I talked on the phone. I took a deep breath. In all of that, she didn’t take another breath. It wasn’t like you could miss her breathing. Not in the past 60 hours at least.
I didn’t screw this up, at least not that part. I didn’t abandon my mother to a second death – hypothermia this time – in the morgue. I sent her with clothes, not because she’s going to need them, but for me. Because the tail end of this journey can be taken wearing nothing more than you entered the world with, but that didn’t seem right. She’s wearing her favorite traveling pants, a serviceable shirt, my frayed-at-every-seam hoodie, and socks. At least that is what was in the bag that went with her.
I hope she’s dressed.
Nothing else looks like death. I’ve got to remember that. Because I fear I will be waking up in a couple of hours from a vivid dream in which I was solely responsible for looking after my mother and I failed miserably – calling her dead when she wasn’t and sending her off to agonizingly cold misery. I’m going to need something to talk myself back to reason with, and I think that will be it. Nothing else looks like Lady Death.
Anyway, I have a better thought. The Boss went in when it was all over. I might make that kind of mistake, but The Boss wouldn’t. The Boss would have told me if I had called my mother gone and she was still there, biding her time. The Boss wouldn’t have let mom be sent off to the morgue if mom had still been occupying the premises. Maybe I’ll be able to sleep after all.
Seriously. If today gets any more surreal, the clocks are going to start dripping down the wall.