There are few things more dismal than an ICU waiting room. People gather in familial clusters, keeping vigil against the specter of death. Books and blankets abound, snacks and cups of stale coffee cluster on tastefully appointed end tables, and the soon-to-be bereaved seek to mask their uncertainty and seek diversion in months-old editions of news magazines. Huddled together for support and security, they share the fear among them, as if spreading it around lightens the collective burden.
But there is always enough fear to go around.
And here I sit in an ICU waiting room, keeping my own vigil. Privacy is something I can only wish for, even here. Some of these familial clusters I have met before, in different circumstances; living rooms, bedrooms, breakfast nooks. Their fear was more visceral, more raw then, not the kind of settled-in dread they’re feeling now. Some of them come over to say hello, perhaps to thank me, only to realize I’m here for my own personal reasons, and so they beat an embarrassed retreat back to their own clans. Others keep their distance, looking at me with accusing eyes.
I sit here surrounded by the members of my family, alone yet not allowed the comfort of solitude. I am not one of these people any more. I divorced myself from them long ago. My sisters are here, and their families. My oldest sister is sobbing piteously, a crying jag that has lasted for three solid days. Sometimes it seems as if she has been crying for most of her forty-four years. She has always been ruled by her emotions. My father is here as well, looking forlorn and feeble. He sits there next to my aunt, lost in his own private Hell. His hands sit limply in his lap, trembling with Parkinson’s disease.
Inattention tremor, my education and training tells me. Inattention tremor, bradykinesia and hypophonia, all caused by loss of dopamine-producing cells in the substantia nigra. Replacement therapy with Sinemet or similar drugs will only slow the progress, not cure the disease. Eventually, he’ll become bed bound and rigid, and the disease will settle a blank mask over his features.
A different part of my brain tells me that he’s not there yet, because the fear on his face is palpable. He’s wondering what he’ll do once Mom is gone. That part of my brain is wondering where my Daddy went, the Daddy of my childhood, the Daddy that used to quiet my fears. That man isn’t here any more, either.
I want to go to Dad, to comfort him in some way, but doing so would only bring on more crying, more unwelcome histrionics from my sisters. I want to get Dad out of here, if only for a little while, but that will have to wait until Terry gets here, if he indeed gets here in time.
My mother is dying.
My mother has been dying for thirty years, if you listen to her talk. Throughout my childhood, it was her children who were killing her. Occasionally, it was her grouchy husband. Other times, it was life in general. Mom was an extraordinarily persecuted woman. She was, among other things, a Professional Martyr.
But this time it’s for real. My sister Sheri had called me a month ago, breaking the news. At the time I had chalked it up to Sheri being Sheri. Like I said, she has always been ruled by her emotions. Genetic traits in my family are strengthened with each successive generation, not diluted. In the case of fucked up X chromosomes, my oldest sister rolled snake eyes in the DNA craps game. Every bad trait of Mom’s, she inherited in spades. Mom was worse than Grandma.
I suppose we should be thankful Sheri has birthed only boys. A daughter would be too frightening to contemplate.
But a second call from Sheri three days ago made it real. Aside from being an unwelcome second phone call in a one-year span, it also bore the unsettling news that Mom had been admitted to the ICU.
Okay, so apparently a doctor also thinks Mom is sick. Sick enough to need intensive care.
I walked into the ICU maybe 12 hours after Mom had been admitted following her lung biopsy. The Missus and I walked right past the waiting room, avoiding my family gathered there. I knew the security code to get into the ICU, so I let myself in even though it wasn’t normal visiting hours.
“Well hello there, AD!” one nurse greeted us cheerily. No one even questioned my presence there, despite the fact that I was not in my uniform. Several nurses asked about upcoming ACLS classes. Everyone was perky and cheerful.
“Actually, I’m here to see about my mother,” I told them. “She’s in Bed Six.”
“Oh. I’m…I’m sorry. I didn’t connect the names,” the charge nurse stammered, embarrassed. No one else said anything, and an awkward silence followed.
“Can we go in and see her?” I asked politely. “I know it isn’t visiting hours…”
“No, go right in,” the nurse interrupted. “I was just going to bring her a popsicle, but I’ve got some charting to do here…you can just bring it to her yourself. Take all the time you need.”
If it can make an ICU nurse somber and solicitous, it’s bad.
“Well, look who’s here!” Mom greeted me with a grin. “My prodigal son and my favorite daughter-in-law! How long has it been since I’ve seen or talked to you, five years?” Despite the hearty greeting, her voice was harsh and strained, muffled by the oxygen mask.
More like three years, Mom.
“How ya’ doing, Mom?” I asked softly, pulling a chair next to her bed. I stole a glance at the telemetry monitor mounted above her bed.
Atrial fibrillation. Since when did she have atrial fib? Pulse oximetry is only 84%, despite the non-rebreather mask. BP only 90/50.
“I’m dying,” she said matter-of-factly. “I won’t make it out of this hospital. You kids have finally killed me.” The last sentence delivered with a wink and a grin.
“Want something cool to wet your whistle, Mom?” The Missus asked tenderly, sitting beside her on the bed and unwrapping the popsicle. Mom nodded weakly and The Missus gently slid the mask up onto her forehead and fed her tiny bites of the popsicle.
She leaned close to Mom, winked mischievously and whispered, “Remember the first time I ever saw you eat a popsicle?”
Mom’s eye snapped open wide and she chuckled. The laughs began as the big, rolling belly laugh that I knew so well, and ended with painful, wracking spasms of wet coughing. A suction unit gurgled quietly in the background, and I could see a chest tube draining bloody pus into a collection chamber.
I remember that day. It was maybe thirty minutes after you met her for the very first time. She was the first, and only, girlfriend I had ever allowed to meet my parents, and then only because she insisted that my parents be a part of our wedding. In ten minutes you were cackling like old girlfriends, and then you proceeded to show The Missus how a wife pleasures her husband, using a popsicle to demonstrate. The Missus had been shocked at first, then you both dissolved in a fit of giggles. She told me later that now she knew where I had inherited my sense of decorum and my internal censor.
“I won’t be doing that any more, I’m afraid,” Mom had answered hoarsely after the coughing fit had passed. “I’m too old for that, anyway.”
“What did the doctor say, Mom?” I pressed. “Sheri didn’t make much sense when she called me, and she doesn’t understand medical terminology.”
“He said I’m dying,” Mom repeated, as if I were still a child. “I believe his exact words were ‘advanced pulmonary fibrosis of a particularly aggressive nature’ or some such bullshit.”
/>“Did you get a second opinion?” I asked desperately. “Maybe another doctor might – “
“Charge me money to tell me I’m dying, but using different language? No thank you. I know I’m dying. I’ve felt it for the past month.”
“Maybe another doctor somewhere else, Mom,” I argued. “Somewhere with better hospitals. I can arrange an ambulance to take you to Houston – some of the best hospitals in the country not eight hours away. Hell, I’ll go with you myself…”
“Listen to me.” she scolded. “I have less than 30% of my lung capacity left. I’m taking steroids in doses that would kill a horse, they have my stomach so irritated I could shit through a screen door, and I’m only getting worse. So grow up and accept it. I. Am. Dying. I’ve already signed a DNR, so it’s out of your hands.”
“You’re giving up, Mom. Don’t give up. Not while you’re still strong enough to bitch at me like I’m a five year old.”
“What should I do,” she coughed, “Wait until I’m too weak to make my wishes known, and rely on my kids to make the right decision? You might be perfectly willing to let me die, but Sheri won’t. You know it and I know it.”
I said nothing. She was becoming angry, and all too many of our conversations for the past twenty years have been angry. I just held her hand and sat by her bed until she dozed off, and then The Missus and I slipped quietly out of her room.
I made my entrance into the ICU waiting room, greeting relatives with whom I felt no kinship. I was struck by how frail and tiny Dad felt when I hugged him. I hugged or shook hands with everyone, pretended to be interested in family gossip, and prayed for it all to be over soon so I could get away from these people.
I settled into my own isolated niche with The Missus at my side, who was wise enough to leave me alone with my thoughts. She stayed next to me, squeezed my hand occasionally, and allowed me my silence.
Later that first day, Bodie, Mike and Reggie showed up. I was comforted by the fact that my family was there – the family I had chosen. My wife, and my partners. They spent the next three days keeping vigil with me, missing work and family commitments, losing salary money. God I loved those guys.
I spent those days sorting through my feelings for my mother, and by extension, my entire family.
You see, as my mother went, so went our family.
My father worked long hours at his small business when I was growing up. He always came home tired and cranky. In my teen years, we rarely got along.
My mother was the one who taught me how to catch a baseball. My Mom taught me how to ride a bike. My Mom taught me how to swim.
My Mom also taught her children that mediocrity was acceptable, and that excuses were more valuable than doing the work. She taught us that our failures were always someone else’s fault, and in so doing, taught us how to repeat those failures for the rest of our lives.
I made straight A’s throughout school. When I was a kid, Mom used to reward me for those A’s – a dollar here, a quarter there, more when Dad’s business prospered – until one day in the fourth grade when the rewards stopped. She needed the money to reward my twin sister for B’s and C’s. Her reasoning? “It comes so easily for you, and you don’t need the motivation.”
She was right about that. There would soon come a time when everything I did was entirely self-motivated. I craved neither my mother’s approval or even her acceptance.
She taught us how to laugh. There was much joyful giggling in my childhood.
She also taught us emotion without reason. That lesson crippled my sister Sheri, who learned it all too well.
My Mom taught me how to stand up to a bully. When I was eight, the neighborhood bully beat me up and stole my new Boy Scout knife. It wasn’t the first time he had beaten me up. I still bear an inch-long scar on my right temple as testament to his cruelty.
“You go over to his house, and you get that knife back, or you will deal with me,” Mom had ordered. “You better decide who you’re more afraid of.”
I marched tearfully over to the bully’s house, knocked on his door, and dealt out the worst fear beating I’ve ever administered. How bad was it? I beat a ten-year-old unconscious, that’s how bad it was. But I got my knife back, and I was never afraid of David Young again.
My Mom was also the one who invited that enemy into our home and gave him the opportunity to steal my knife in the first place. She invited him to join our Cub Scout den, and this after he had left me with seven stitches in my temple.
My affinity for people and my love of medicine, I got from Mom. I inherited those gifts from her. She was a fifty-year-old housewife with a GED who decided to go back to school and become a nurse. I used to proofread and edit her essays when she was in nursing school.
I learned CPR by playing hooky from junior high school and tagging along with Mom to LPN class. The nursing students used me as a practice assessment dummy for an entire summer.
When I was a high school sophomore in 1984, I used that knowledge to help revive a man who had choked and arrested at a hotel restaurant. It was my very first save, and the very first time I saw paramedics in action.
When Mom took her licensing exam that year, back in the days before electronic testing, she got a perfect score. One of only eight people to have ever done so in this state, I might add.
Mom also taught me the value of sarcasm. Our car stalled once at a red light in rush hour traffic. A jerk in the car behind us kept leaning on his horn while Mom vainly tried to start the car. Eventually, she got out, walked back to the man’s car and knocked on his window.
“Sir, I was wondering if you could help me,” she said politely, in her best helpless Southern belle voice. “You see, my car won’t start…and I was wondering…if you might come up and see if you can get it started…while I sit back here and honk your fucking horn for you.”
The guy apologized for being an ass, helped Mom push the car off the road, and stayed there with us for thirty minutes in the July heat until we got the car started.
Mom could also be a profane, shrieking harpy who could be heard cursing like a sailor throughout the entire neighborhood.
She rented a house trailer to a black woman in the 70′s, and then stood up to our all-white neighborhood association who demanded that she terminate the lady’s lease.
When I was seven, she caught me with a Chick O Stick I had stolen from the neighborhood grocer. She marched me back down there and made me confess my crime and promise to sweep his store after school for a week to make restitution.
When I was fifteen, I also watched her purloin the seat from a toy tractor at Wal Mart, because the one she had bought for my nephew was missing the same part.
My cousins always adored her because she was the crazy Cool Aunt who let them get away with stuff.
To her kids, she’d deal out syllable whippings when we misbehaved. Ever had a syllable whipping? Imagine someone grabbing you by one arm, and whipping you with a switch with the other hand, all while you run in a circle, desperately guarding your hindparts and trying to get away. She’d swing with every syllable, and when Mom was mad, she had a bad tendency to get long-winded.
Many was the time I ran in a circle through the disciplinary equivalent of Hamlet’s Soliloquy – “Don’t-you-e-ver-do-that-a-gain-do-you-hear-me-you-lis-ten-to-me-while-I’m-talk-ing-to-you-I’m-your-moth-er-damn-it-and-I-will-be-o-beyed…”
There were also many times where I had to intervene for fear she’d beat my demonic twin sister to death.
She told riotously funny jokes until we
‘d collapse in giggle fits, laughing until our stomachs hurt.
She’d also sit alone in the dark for days on end, eating white bread and staring vacantly at soap operas. And some days, she’d contemplate suicide.
My mother was the Barbara Mandrell of psychiatric disorders. She was bipolar before bipolar was cool.
She’d let my twin sister get away with murder, because she was a Troubled Child.
She also had an aggravating tendency to walk in at the culmination of hours of torture at the hands of my twin sister, at just the precise moment I’d finally snap and retaliate.
“Oh, so you two wanna fight, huh?” she’d muse. “Well, I’ve got the cure for fighting. When you get done, you won’t wanna fight any more, believe you me!”
She’d then proceed to the hedge and gather three diabolical switches, test them for proper flexibility and tensile strength, and then hand one to each of us.
“Go ahead and fight,” she’d exhort us. “Work out all that aggression. And if you don’t fight, you get a whipping from me.”
I’d spend the next five minutes getting lashed by not one, but two psychotic females.
She would mortify me in front of my friends with her mouth and her antics…
…but they kept coming back because I had the coolest Mom in the neighborhood.
She taught my Cub Scout den how to dance. We were at that socially awkward age where you first start to notice girls, but still haven’t figured out how to approach them. We had a school dance, and all of us were stressing because none of us knew how.
“Dancing is easy,” Mom had said, “just pretend you’re drying off after a shower.”
“Huh?” said a dozen eight-year-old boys.
“You just do The Towel,” she explained, and then proceeded to demonstrate, to my utter mortification. My five-foot-nothing, 300 pound mother grabbed an imaginary towel, stood up and showed us how.
“You pretend you’re drying your lower back, like this,” she said, while shimmying her hips.
“Mom, please don’t…”
“And then you pretend you’re drying your shoulders,” she said, striking a disco pose straight out of Saturday Night Fever.
“Okay Mom, I think we get the idea…”
“And then you dry between your legs,” she’d say, doing a pelvic thrust.
Mom was also a noted philosopher, quoted by no less an American luminary than Paul Harvey:
Joyce in Louisiana writes:
“I’m just a simple woman, unable to grasp the nuances of science, geopolitics or world affairs. We are embroiled in a war in Vietnam that I do not understand, and we are impeaching a President whom I no longer trust.
Yet this I do know: Why, in a country that has been able to land a man on the surface of the moon, must we continually be forced to purchase hot dogs in package of ten, while hamburger buns come in packages of eight?”
Who says all the world’s great philosophers are dead?
My Mom said it first, folks. And she changed the world. You can now get hot dog buns in packages of ten.
Three years earlier, my Mom took me out for dinner on my birthday. We didn’t talk much even then, but after dinner she took me for a drive. She had something to say.
She told me that night that my twin sister and I were not our Dad’s biological children. Our father was her teenage sweetheart, a man whom she had an affair with after she married Dad.
My twin sister had known for fifteen years. My entire family had known, except me. And now she wanted me to build a relationship with this man.
“There’s no hole in my life he needs to fill,” I told her nastily. “I know who my father is – the man who fed me, clothed me and disciplined me when I needed it. The man who has been here for thirty years. Don’t expect me to feel some kinship with a man just because he fucked another man’s wife over thirty years ago. I don’t even feel a kinship with you.”
We didn’t speak again until that moment by her hospital bed, three years later.
I spent the next three days reliving every memory of my childhood – good and bad. I found some forgiveness in my heart, and mom granted me her own. In the balance, the good times outweighed the bad.
The day before she died, she had my Dad and her teen sweetheart to her bedside, and made them reconcile their differences. She told them she wanted the only two men she had ever loved to find some common ground with each other, to harbor no bitterness after she was gone. Because they both loved her, they agreed.
Mom grew steadily weaker, but kept her sense of humor until the very end.
In one moment when we thought she was too far gone to hear, Terry and I stood on either side of her bed holding her hands, both of her estranged sons come back home. Terry whispered, “Mom, I sure wish I could switch places with you.”
Mom cracked one eye open and whispered back, “Yeah, I wish you could switch places with me, too.”
Those were the last words I heard from her before she died.
After her funeral, The Missus and I took her nieces skiing on the lake. The eldest of them was celebrating a birthday, and I couldn’t see canceling a birthday party. The kids deserved their fun.
“Are you sure you’re okay with this?” The Missus had asked me as we lay there on a beach towel, basking in the sun.
“Yeah, I’m okay with this,” I assured her as I watched the kids trying to dance to some hip hop music I’d never heard before. “Mom would roll over in her new grave if I canceled a kid’s birthday party.”
You’re sure?” she asked, squeezing my hand.
“Yep, I’m positive,” I replied firmly, getting to my feet. “and I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of watching those spastic nieces of yours try to dance. You really are some countrified white girls. Somebody needs to teach them how to do The Towel, and I’m just the man to do it.”