Sunday, May 27, 2018

Beauty, decay, air

My mom died in the early morning hours on May 16, about ten weeks after she was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer.

"Breathe," "Take deep breaths," advised friends in the hard moments and days afterward.

How to do that when you watched your mother suffer from oxygen hunger in the last hours of her life, eyes half-closed, gasping for air, fingers turning blue? Breathing seems like a betrayal, a grotesque indulgence. It certainly doesn't feel healing.

A couple of days ago I had a doctor's appointment, and as part of taking routine vital signs, the nurse put a pulse oximeter on my right index finger. On the paperwork I got afterward, I looked at my blood-oxygen level: 97%. Normal, healthy, too much. I remembered my brother and I looking at the same kind of device on my mom's finger during the long afternoon before the hospice team arrived, watching her oxygen levels plummet from somewhere in the 80% range into the 70s and 60s, even as we cranked the oxygen concentrator up, switched her over to the 10-liter portable O2 tank that was eventually supposed to allow her to be mobile. The panic as we realized the tank would only last for a couple of hours, the home health-care service dispatcher saying that the nearest driver with a larger oxygen concentrator was at least an hour away.

The concentrator, the hospice nurses, mom's primary-care doctor, and a tornado all arrived around 6 p.m. In the midst of our personal typhoon, a thunderstorm had produced a twister that was spotted in Franklin County, and the sirens wailed. A tornado, its winds sucking up the air around it, its physics indifferent to the destruction it causes.

Things calmed both inside and outside after that, fortunately. The hospice nurses pulled the pulse oximeter from mom's finger: "We're monitoring symptoms now, not numbers." They retreated to the dining room, though, to crunch various other numbers--mom's weight, dosages of other medications she'd taken that day--to calculate the proportions of the magical pharmacological cocktail that eased the gasping and allowed mom to breathe, to sleep, to die quietly and peacefully a few hours later.

Driving back to my own home the following week, the beauty of the May world assaulted me. When I'd driven from my house in West Virginia to mom's house in Ohio a couple of weeks before, the trees were just starting to leaf out. While she was in the hospital, we took her flowers from her own garden: fragrant lilies of the valley, which had been her wedding flowers, and blooms from the tree peony that she had transplanted from her own mother's garden after her death. 

But I drove back in a different world--one that was lush and green and suffocating. Summer had arrived. Mom knew it; when she came home from the hospital, just a day before she died, she said, glumly, "Well, it looks like spring is over." 

When I parked my car at home and got out, the first thing I noticed was the clematis in the flower bed along the side of our house. I just planted it last year, and it had finally gotten large enough this spring to train it onto a trellis. Tom and I had very carefully wound the delicate vines around the trellis base just a few weeks ago, but now the vine was filling the bottom part of the trellis and was full of purple blooms, cascading to the ground like the train of an elegant gown. The climbing rose on another trellis a few feet away exploded with deep-pink flowers. So much beauty. It wrecked me. 

Now, just a few days later, the clematis and the rose are both dropping their petals, drooping, beginning the process of decay. As I wrote in my journal, "So many fucking obvious metaphors everywhere these days." 

The one thing my mother desperately wanted to have done while she was in the hospital was to get her garden beds weeded. I'd made a start when I had last been in town, before she went into the hospital, and while I was working she came out and joined me for nearly an hour, cutting back the Lenten roses, thinking about which plants she wanted to replace. "I don't understand why I can feel so bad in the mornings, but then be able to get out here and do this," she said to me. Weeds may have been the bane of her existence, but gardening was her exercise and her worship and her relief. At 91, she could still get down on the ground and back up again with little difficulty, and could kneel for the long stretches of time that gardening requires. 

Not long after that, of course, her lungs and her body betrayed her. But like Edna in Kate Chopin's The Awakening, "she knew a way to elude them." Despite the trauma of the last afternoon of her life, and the many regrets I have about assuming there would be time to ask all the questions that still remained, I admire her for realizing that although she made it home, she would not be able to live there in the way she wanted to. She would not be able to work in the garden. So she set her rudder towards death and hustled across Lethe. 

Shortly before the hospice nurses left, they wanted to change her clothes and the sheets on the hospital bed; the oxygen concentrator put out a lot of heat, and the room was stuffy. Together with my sister and sister-in-law, the nurses and I exchanged mom's long-sleeved satin pajamas for a cotton t-shirt--in aqua, the color she looked best in. 

In the process, I saw my mother's naked body for the first time since I was a child. In it, I saw my body: though I knew that I had her height and her shape, it was another thing to look at her and feel like I was simultaneously looking in a mirror and seeing the undeniable evidence that my lively, fierce mother was old

There was the scar where she had a mastectomy seven or eight years ago. There were her long arms and bony hands--so like mine--bruised from hospital IVs. This was the body that carried me, gave birth to me, loved me and worried for me. This was a familiar body, but also one I recognized as a well-used and worn body. A body that could no longer sustain the being inside of it. A body that was now a trap rather than a tool. 

I thought, "Well done, you fragile and miraculously strong vessel. You held this woman's spirit and allowed her to live independently and do the things she loved to do for so many years." But I could see, so clearly, that the time had come for the spirit and the body to part ways. 

Beauty. Decay. 

And air.

I was asleep when mom died, but my brother Mark was in the room with her. When he knocked on my bedroom door to tell me the news, he said, in a voice quiet with awe and maybe a little bewilderment, "I think mom just slipped away." After the noisy horror of the afternoon, her ultimate passing was almost utterly silent, he said. No gasping for air. 

The lungs do their work autonomically. Our bodies are miraculous machines and terrible burdens. But only we, as humans, have the gift--or the punishment, depending on your perspective and the day--of being aware of all of that. 

Consciousness aside, though, we are animals, governed by the same cycles as any other part of the natural world. At my mom's memorial service, the minister read Wendell Berry's poem "The Peace of Wild Things," a favorite of mom's that echoes this awesome and awful reality:

Since I've been home, one of the few things I can do to sidestep despair is to work in the yard. I pull weeds, pick up dropped petals, pinch spent blooms to produce more. So many fucking obvious metaphors everywhere these days. 

But also a reminder both painful and inevitable that, as Walt Whitman wrote, "All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses/ And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier."


Pam said...

Beautiful, heartbreaking.
I take comfort in the remainder of the poem which was the poem that Mom sent me when Terry was dying.
“I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”
I love you my dear sister and as long as I have breath I will be here to carry the weight of our grief.

Michael said...

So beautiful, Rose.