Nineteen years ago today I got a rather frantic phone call as I sat at my desk on the 2nd floor of the Corning Tower. I was at my relatively new job as an Early Intervention Specialist with New York State Department of Health. My Dad was on the other end of the phone telling – no actually crying- to me that he thought my mother was dying. Since we had thought this on and off for the last couple of weeks, I initially questioned whether I should just drop everything and run. What if it was another false alarm? Death like birth is not always swift and easy. One of my co-workers, sitting nearby, encouraged me to go and so I called my husband, Bob, and asked if he could come and pick me up. Bob worked downtown Albany for another NYS Agency at the time and we typically drove to and from work in the same vehicle. Within a matter of minutes, I met him outside in front of the NYS Museum and we drove to my parents’ house in Colonie.
When we arrived and I went to my parents’ bedroom, I could see that this was probably not a false alarm. I remember that my Mom’s legs were already becoming mottled and the chain stock respirations had become more pronounced. Just before leaving her bedside to come home the night before, I had spooned some ice cream into her mouth and she swallowed it and I felt a sense of relief that she was getting a little nourishment, even if it was only ice cream. I lay down next to her in bed as my father paced the room with a horrified look of desperation on his face. This man was a Physics Professor who understood how everything worked but now death was incomprehensible, coming faster and closer and he was totally helpless. Bob and I decided to call my sister, Meg, a Special Education Teacher, and she made the same decision to leave her job and come. Our beloved Pastor, Father David Noone, was called and came over to offer a little support, but death kept moving relentlessly forward. None of us could do a damn thing.
When my Mother’s breath stopped for longer and longer periods of time, my father urged me, “Shake her Mary, Shake her Mary!” This had been something he was using; I was using; for the last couple of days to stimulate her to take another breath. We had this brief, fleeting power to ward off her dying.
I don’t remember all the words that passed between us in that grief stricken bedroom. I do know we professed our love and held onto to her for dear life. After all, this beloved woman had been so central in our lives and she was moving into another realm. The time between the breaths got longer, and the shaking needed to be stronger until I realized the futility and possible selfishness of this pathetic attempt to keep her with us. I remember clearly the last breath and my father’s frenzied request, “Shake her again, Mary, shake her” and my sympathetic, but firm response, “No Dad, we can’t do that anymore”.
My mother was gone. How can this dreaded reality be true? How can a mother be gone? How can one’s own mother be gone? But there was no question left in my mind, there was a moment when it became instantaneously clear that her body had became an empty shell. Rita Mary O’Donnell Fries no longer resided there. We eventually left the bedroom; we knew she wasn’t there anymore.
Hospice had been alerted when it became obvious that my Mom was dying but they didn’t rush over. I imagine there is a reason they delay. We called again from the kitchen when we knew my mother was dead and we stood around waiting for the nurse to arrive to do “the confirmation”, which was just a required formality at that point. I went back into the bedroom with the Hospice Nurse, and remember being angry when she asked me to check for her pulse. She knew I was a nurse but I should have said “no”. It is a horrible sensation to touch your mother’s wrist and feel no heartbeat. On the other hand, I felt it an honor to wash my mother’s body, I tried to memorize her as I gently patted her with the towel.
I leaned over her and hugged her good-bye and her breath came out in response. I felt badly to be pushing the last bit of breath out of her. Then for the second time in my life, I left my mother’s body.
Death is a heart breaker, a nasty son-of a bitch.
We waited for the undertaker in the kitchen and when they arrived, I purposely averted my eyes as the gurney rolled past us through the hallway, into the living room and out the front door. I didn’t want to see them take her away.
Now when I think of my mother, I like to remember other things.
I like to remember the life she created for us, the dinners she prepared, the pies that she baked, the stories she told us, the poems she recited, the trips to the museums and the libraries, the Easter Bonnets we bought together, the faith she shared, the strengths she exhibited, the feel of her skin, her permissiveness, her generosity, her welcoming home, her smile and her love. That’s what I like to remember.