By Joyce Long
Darkness enveloped the bedroom as the phone’s blast interrupted our deep sleep. My husband handed me the phone. “Your mother has aspirated again. Her blood pressure is 50 over 30. You need to come to the hospital now!” the nurse said.
“What?” I could barely decipher the digital 2:15 a.m. on the clock. “OK. We’ll be there soon.”
We hadn’t planned on spending my husband’s 60th birthday this way, but since Mom’s fall three days before, our hospital’s Center for Geriatric Care had been her home.
Another phone call two days earlier had announced that Mom had aspirated during an MRI. Friends gathered over her for prayer that evening. Amazingly, 12 hours later she awakened.
“You know, Joyce, I could hear everything everyone said last night.”
“Mom, that’s hard to believe. We thought you were dying.”
“Well, I couldn’t talk, but I most certainly could hear.”
“Did you like what you heard?”
Mom grinned and ignored my question. Less than 12 hours after that, she was no longer conscious and she was struggling to gasp, aided by oxygen and an IV.
I tiptoed into the room where the chaplain stood over my mother.
“You’re out late tonight!” I teased.
“My job.” She smiled at me. “Do you want to talk?”
“I think I’m too tired.”
She explained what the next few hours would bring—how death’s grip would soon shroud my 87-year-old mother’s body. An all-encompassing fog I couldn’t shake overshadowed her words.
The morning nurse relieved the weary RN who had called a few hours earlier. Both explained how palliative care would now be the best option—one nurse to one patient with more pain control. Sleep-deprived, I didn’t fully comprehend that Mom wouldn’t wake up again. Complications from a malfunctioning aortic valve and pneumonia initiated the inevitable. Two aspirations in less than 48 hours required honoring her living will and Do Not Resuscitate order, a decision necessary to respect her wishes but excruciating to make.
Standing in front of the bed, I watched the busy but efficient nurse gently remove the oxygen strap, then unhook the IV. Just for a moment, Mom’s cloudy blue eyes opened wide. She whispered, “Don’t leave.” She knew what was happening.
“I won’t, Mom.” Tears streamed as I tasted the saltiness of fear.
The transfer to the rolling bed with the foam waffle mattress caused Mom to groan. My sister-in-law Pam and I followed the bed and ironically the “get well” balloon bouquet to the Palliative Care wing, approximately 100 feet and two automatic doors away. Morphine replaced oxygen and IVs. The day nurse monitored her breathing rate. A restless sleep swept over Mom, who fidgeted, eyes flickering; but soon her body fell into a rhythmic trance.
Friday became Saturday, then Sunday. As Pam and I chatted that evening, Mom tilted her head. We stopped and watched. She began nodding her head up and down. Then she smiled.
For the next 90 minutes, we watched Mom “talk.” She arched her eyebrows, then grinned, and occasionally shook her head up and down. Not once did her eyes or mouth open but instead would stretch in response. Her body continued its gentle rhythm. Only by watching her face did we understand she was responding to an unseen presence.
At one point I stood up, still holding her hand, so I could get a closer look in case she opened those sky-blue eyes that were rapidly moving underneath drooped lids. Was she seeing perhaps Jesus or my father or her parents or all of them? Whatever the scene spread before her, Mom was excited, even elated. A huge smile unfolded. She nodded again, more emphatically this time. Just as quickly as the conversation had begun, it ended. Mom’s face softened into a fixed expression.
“What do you make of that?”
Pam looked at me, shaking her head. “If anyone has ever doubted an afterlife, I wish they could have experienced this.” I agreed.
Pam left for home to get some sleep. I couldn’t make myself budge, even though I had promised my husband I would leave no later than midnight. I needed time to process the past few minutes. During that time of prayer, my eyes closed, my head bowed. Actually I may have dozed off. Involuntarily I jerked up, eyes opened wide. At the foot of Mom’s bed, miniature glints of light flashed like those during an optometrist’s peripheral vision test.
I glanced back at the head of the bed for Mom’s reaction. She lay there motionless, only inhaling and exhaling. Another sideways glance indicated those dragonfly-like lights had vanished. The room had a different feel. A peace descended. Mom’s body kept a steady rhythm. I left for home, expecting yet another early morning phone call. None came.
When I walked into Mom’s room Monday morning, a social worker greeted me with a clipboard. “Your mother needs to move out tomorrow. Have you made provisions for end-of-life care?”
I struggled to comprehend how and why they wanted to relocate her when she was obviously so close to death. “I need some time,” I replied. Fortunately my cell phone rang.
It was my friend who was also the women’s ministry director at our church. “How can the church staff pray for you this morning?”
“Please pray that Jesus escorts my mother home today.”
It was an odd request, I suppose, but to move her out of the unit, away from this excellent care, hours from her death seemed cruel. Mom looked peaceful propped next to a remote control that tuned in the babbling brook video displayed on the recessed TV in front of her bed. The day continued in that lullaby.
The chaplain came again after dinner while a good friend and my husband were keeping me company. “Do you need anything? How about candy bars for all of you?”
I nodded, too tired to talk, but chocolate sounded like a good idea. My friend called her husband, an elder from our church, who wanted to come pray with us. We agreed. This long day was almost over. I called my sister in California. Even when I held the phone to Mom’s ear and her youngest daughter talked, there was perhaps a twitch but no real response.
Mom’s hands grew cold, and a white mask gradually enveloped her expressionless but peaceful face. We bowed to pray over her while the nurse timed the long pauses between each breath, periodically glancing at the heart monitor.
“Mom, it’s OK. You can go home now. We will be fine.” Minutes later Mom exhaled her last breath. She was finally home, joyful in her Savior’s presence.
“‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:55-57).
Joyce Long is a freelance writer in Greenwood, Indiana.