Today one of my mom’s hospice nurses told me my mom has probably 2 days to 2 weeks left. I’ve been expecting this for four years, but it still came as a surprise. When she started “actively transitioning,” as they call it, about three days ago, I thought it was just one of her rough patches. She has them periodically (don’t we all?).
Caution: TMI ahead, maybe. I think this post has the most Goth tag-list of all time. If you want a firsthand account of how one person is dealing with a loved one’s death and dying body and with the grief, read on; if not, my next post will be on something different.
At first I thought I would just skip over the gross bits, but then I thought, people should know this and all this mincing about delicately and using euphemisms like “actively transitioning” and so on doesn’t really do anyone any good.
My mom takes opioid pain medications, which cause major constipation. As I understand it, they interrupt the nerve signals in the intestines or something. Stool softeners and laxatives aren’t terribly effective, at least not for someone on as many meds as my mom is, so things get pretty packed in there. A couple days ago, our apartment started to smell strongly of fecal matter–I mean, not to put too fine a point on it, it smells like a zoo enclosure. It’ll make your eyes water, and nothing makes it go away or covers it up. I thought maybe my mom had finally moved her bowels, but when I went to clean her up, there was nothing there. Today when the nurse came I asked her, if there’s no poo, why does it smell like poo in here?
I could see the surprise on her face. “I guess nobody told you anything, huh?,” she said. It is the smell, it turns out, of a body in the final stages of shutting down. I had no idea. I thought she would smell sick, maybe. Didn’t know she would smell like her intestines are on the outside. There is also a lot of mucus, not sure what that’s all about. (Just FYI.)
From here on the prognosis is that my mom will be slipping more and more often into a semi-comatose state until she finally dies. She drinks little, eats nothing, her digestive system has already shut down, so barring some miraculous turnaround, she doesn’t have long left. My job is to administer meds so that she’s not in pain or fear.
In some ways I feel like her life should never have been prolonged to the point that she suffers this much. The worst part is seeing her in a way that I know she would once have considered terribly undignified and embarrassing (and maybe still does). I think, this just shows how messed up our societal priorities have become. Yesterday (or day before?) a Right to Die act was passed here in California; but I doubt a fighter like my mom would ever have made the final decision to do herself in, and I’m not sure I’d have had the guts. But then I feel like a hypocrite because if I applied the same logic to her childhood, she would have died when she had polio, or maybe whooping cough, and I would never have been born.
So today has been an emotional whirlwind. First I was numb, then I started to shake a little. Then I was sad, then I was overwhelmed with shame for every selfish thought and cross word. Then I was angry and frustrated that I had put off dealing with practicalities like selling my mom’s china and crystal (hey, anybody want any vintage china or crystal?) and the furniture I can’t take with me, or getting the power of attorney form notarized. Then I was scared. For a long time there was this weird mix of sad and scared and ashamed. Dread at the thought of having to notify people while emotionally ragged. There were little hints of relief around the edges. Worry–what happens if/when I can’t afford the cremation? I have no savings, and my employment dies along with my mom; how will I support myself during the time it takes to get her affairs in order, knowing that I’ll be leaving right afterward? Now I’m back to mostly numb again, but filled with compassion and contrition. Tears are always just offstage though, waiting for their cue. I wish more than anything my friends were here, but I’m glad nobody’s around to see me ugly-cry.
And most of all, over and over: Not yet. Not now. I’m not ready. Just a little more time. I want to do something, but there’s nothing to be done.
But of course it’s not about me. For days Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” has been going through my head; listen to it from the perspective of a parent speaking to a child, or an adult child speaking to their parent. I never thought of it that way before this experience, but now it’s like the soundtrack of this whole experience.
I have a few more posts scheduled in the pipeline, but I may be writing less for a while. On the other hand, maybe I won’t be able to stop writing. I mean frankly I’m surprised I’m writing this.