The story below that you are about to read is not a happy story. It is not witty or funny or clever. It's a recollection and realization of what it means to die. Or more aptly put, what it means to stop living.
For all of us there comes a time when our time is up. For some that might be in an unexpected instant; a car accident, a sudden heart attack, a fire in the night in your house. It could be anything. My grandfather was seemingly okay and healthy when he went out to get something from his car when he was 59 in 1975. Ten minutes later my grandmother found him dead in the car. He had a heart attack or stroke. The neighbors down the street died one night in a horrible house fire. I was playing road hockey with the son that afternoon before. My friend George was a healthy 18 year old when he fell off the hood of a car and hit his head on the pavement and died instantly. My friend Vern's mother died in her sleep one night with no previous warning of any issues. It happens.
However, for most of us, that moment doesn't completely take us by surprise. We might not have expected it a year ago, or five years ago, or even a few months before but most of us know within a few days or weeks that the end is near.
Our relatives know as well. They see changes in us. In our look. In our body. In our minds. In our spirit.
My mother got sick in October of 2009 and she died in November of 2010.
At first, there was some mystery as to what was wrong with her. It took at least two months to figure out that she didn't have a stroke. Well, she may have had a stroke, but that was the result of other problems, not the main problem. At some point, it was determined she had a growth on her brain, a swelling, which was causing issues. By late December of 2009 the plan was to take out the growth and then she would be better. It was not certain whether there was permanent damage from what happened but it appeared that at the least she would be okay to live some sort of prolonged decent life. At this point, my mother still had the will to live.
When they went to operate, it was clear that they couldn't take out whatever the problem was. It was in a bad spot. My mother had debated over and over whether she even wanted to risk the surgery, because it was very risky. The surgery went without any complications, but it didn't help either.
As January became February, my mother had now been in the hospital for five months, and almost completely bed ridden. This was a terrible blow to her, as she had just retired less than a year ago and had big plans to do all the things she never got to do while she was a mother and a working woman. That all seemed to be a distant unattainable dream to her at this point.
She wasn't getting worse, but she wasn't getting better. Still, there was some hope.
Every night I would visit her, encourage her, and while she was down and not very motivated, she still had hope. I still had faith that she could make it back and lead a decent life. Live life.
For those who have never experienced or seen this, it comes as a shock to you. Living 24/7 in a hospital, unable to go out, or take care of your own food needs, or even in some cases control your own bowels, IS NOT LIVING. It is surviving, and hanging on, and it wears on the person and their families the longer it goes on.
February became March, and while there was slight improvement, it still was not nearly enough to justify going home and having some sort of life. It became harder and harder to keep the faith. However, other than some brief moments of hopelessness and depression, my mother still had the will to live.
Being a tough and loving son, I was the one charged with getting her back on her feet. My mother had always been a whiner and cry baby. We all knew that. She knew that. She was a great person, but that was her. I was pretty much the only one in the family who would push her when she got that way. The others would let her have her way. If she said it was too tough and painful to get out of bed, they would let her lie there. I wouldn't .
As March started to become April, she got slightly better. Still not very good, but improved. The symptoms of the main illness had been managed better by drugs and the tumor seemed to not be affecting her in an acute way as it was when the stroke first hit her back in October. It was time for her to start trying harder. She fought me at every step, but she did want to do it, so I kept pushing. We got her to the point where she could get out of the bed. The will was still there, on both sides, but more importantly, on her side. The issue now was simply the will to try and the significant atrophy in her arms and legs. My mom was never slim and always had a lot of meat on her bones, but now her legs were like toothpicks. All the muscle was now gone. It was going to be a long road back.
Each night we did a little more, and each night she got that much better. Things were looking up. I had to go out of town for a couple of weeks, but when I got back, I found that my sister had hired a full time caretaker and this woman was making my mother work hard every day. By the time I saw her again a month later, she was now at a new hospital, in rehab, walking fully on her own and ready to go home. It was now May, and her health, attitude and spirit had changed. When I saw her, she had that happy look she always maintained, even in the worst of times. My mother had a smile that could light up a room. She had that smile back.
I visited her back at her condo a few weeks later, and she was happy and fairly healthy. She had a new lease on life. It was like a miracle. I even remember saying those exact words to her. We even went for a long walk and she was able to take care of herself.
Of course life doesn't work like that, and it didn't last. By late July, the problem had come back and this tumor was much more aggressive and worse. It was clear that my mother had given up this time. The disease had worn her down, both physically and mentally. The spirit was gone.
She had emergency surgery, to save her life, but the life was already gone out of her. They took the tumor out this time, but the damage was done. The specialist doctor told me this time she would not get better. And..she didn't.
After a brief recovery period, she was moved to a retirement home where she was to be managed, on her way to death. At this point, the will to live had been replaced by the will to die.
As the days passed, she just existed. She did not live. That is not living. She made it very clear everyday that she just wanted to die. The will to die had overtaken the will to live, just as the tumor had overtaken the function of her body.
As she got much worse, I would spend every night with her, overnight, tending to whatever needs she had. Night after night I watched my mother wither away and become a shell of her former self. My will to see her exist had faded just as fast as hers had. There were nights where I wished she would just die.That it would be over.
I even thought of taking care of that. It seemed for the best. But, I didn't.
Many have asked me was it hard to go every day and watch your mom die? The answer was always that it wasn't hard to watch her die, it was hard to watch her not live.
The last few days were horribly hard. The last night was very hard.
(Do not read farther if you don't like to hear this sort of stuff)
I arrived at 11pm to stay the night. I had missed the night before. Her boyfriend was there. I was greeted with a pamphlet telling me to recognize the signs of imminent death. As it happens, it happened exactly like that. I knew she would not make it to noon the next day. Was not sure if she would make it to breakfast. The will to live was completely gone. Her eyes were rolled back in her head and she was breathing heavy. It got worse. Then much worse. Then even worse. By 5am, it was clear it would be minutes,not hours. At some point the heavy breathing stopped and she was barely breathing. Slower. Then slower again. I went to get the nurse and she said it was not going to be very long. As she passed away, it was very calm. You couldn't even tell it had happened.
I was okay with her dying. At least at that point, I didn't have to watch her not live anymore. That is way worse.