mom-095-small.jpgThe first night of vigil proved to be the gentlest. I fell asleep at four and when the nurse and her assistant came in on the hour, two hours running, she left us both sleeping peacefully.

By mid day on my sister’s vigil shift, Mother had begun to convulse, her tendons and ligaments straining, so violently strong though she was so weak, thrashed her about. Who was she in this final battle? Her strong sinews beat and tossed her limbs, making her shudder.

Each convulsive attack came in waves, the tendons strung tight and unforgiving, bending her legs at her knees, whipping her about.

That was her! And yet, she was so weak she could not drink water. We spooned it into her in droplets, happy when she had consumed a tablespoon full. So weak, she shuddered and collapsed at each body wrangling and lay exhausted, unmoving until the next bone wracking came, wave after wave.

We tried to massage her legs, to press out the spasms, but they came again and again. Caring for her was exhausting. When night time came, two of us stayed. My younger sister and I intended to spell each other off.

But we couldn’t. Every minute, we both were massaging, rubbing, coaching. Asking her to “Breathe. Count one. Count two. Exhale to four, two three four!” or inanely trying to calm her pleas for mercy.

She had been so contained in full life. Now her pleas were still polite.

“What must I do?” she would cry out during an attack.

“I don’t know. What is the next step?” “Oh, Oh” “Please tell me!”

Was she asking us, or was she calling to one of the phantom figures she had often seen before, who were invisible to us?

It went on all night. We called for the hourly shots of morphine every half hour. Each time the nurses came, with infinite gentleness, they would change her position, clean her, bather her feverish body with water and alcohol for cooling. I learned from the nurses not to try to massage her legs, although I wanted to cure her. It left us only the option of holding her hand and cooling her brow, feeding her spoon by tiny spoonful of Gatorade, clear liquid to restore her dehydrated frame.

Each time they came, no matter how tenderly she was handled, she crisped her whole being into a tight and frightened mass. To move her was agony.

Each time they came, she would relax into her new position like a sleeping baby, for seconds, it seemed, although sometimes there were some blessed minutes of peace before she danced again with her devilish pain.

At seven in the morning, the care helpers brought us coffee, cereal, eggs and toast on her tray, but she could no longer swallow food.

Our day time relief came – Otto.

We went, both of us exhausted, home to an untroubled deep and peaceful sleep. It did not seem fair.

By afternoon, the Hospice specialist doctor had come to assess her state and her dose of morphine was increased. It calmed her convulsions. By my afternoon shift, she was sleeping. Another resident came by to keep me company.

I played Shumann’s Scenes from Childhood on the electronic keyboard, hoping Mom would recognize the simple and elegant songs I had played nightly to soothe her to sleep. The electronic keyboard had been perfect for her. One could regulate the volume like a radio and not disturb the other residents. The music was soft like a lullaby. There was no response from Mother. She was struggling away in her own world.

My companion this afternoon , mom’s table mate for these past few months, talked with me about inconsequential things as if there were no other occupant of the room. As if mother were not there. Then the activity coordinator came to see us, a young girl in her late twenties, who had helped residents this afternoon to bake banana muffins. Sheri was offering a lovely plate of nine fresh warm muffins for us to eat.

“You’ll need them for visitors,” she said, as we thanked her deeply for her thoughtfulness.

It was six thirty when relief came for me and I left for home again. There were messages of care and concern that needed to be answered. If I didn’t do it right away, I’d forget. My mind was mush. Updates needed to be given. These people were my support group. after all – my ex; my best friend; my cousin Mary; Gordon, one of Mom’s contemporaries from her university days and a dear friend. He was an honourable ninety four, himself.

Nephew Hugh and I ate dinner together. A piece of steak and a caesar salad. He was preparing a submission for admission to the Foreign Affairs entry group. Deadline was nine p.m. our time; midnight Ottawa. Life carries on. The young go forward; me, waiting in the middle, in limbo; Mom wrestling in a temporary purgatory before a deserved heaven. She believes in heaven. I don’t know what to believe, but I support her belief and can only hope she finds what she is looking for.

Late that evening, while Mother slept on, Lizbet and I talked and watched television. First “The Day of the Jackyl” was on but we caught only the last fifteen minutes of it. “Shark”, an in-your-face crime court room drama, followed. And then there was a travelogue through Umbria.

All the while, we assisted each other in a New York Times crossword puzzle. I was was using lovely sparkly soft and creamy white yarn to crochet a small blanket for my best friend’s first grandchild. I had an absurd idea of a modern day Madam La Farge knitting whilst waiting for Death to show its hand.

I had a very tangled skein of yarn. First I, then my sister took a turn at unwinding the bird’s nest of yarn. Curious, what we will do while waiting for Death.

Now my sister sleeps until the four a.m. morphine shot. I’m holding mother’s hand while I write about this night with my other, so that I won’t forget. Somehow it seems terribly important for me not to forget.

Then she stirs and mumbles; I stop to listen. She has less violent spasms over her digestive process. How can this be so? She has eaten nothing solid for three days and receives only enough water to keep her mouth moist. How does she keep on? Why does she live so long in agony and discomfort? Will the Lord please come take her? This is not living.

Between paragraphs, another thimbleful of Gatorade is administered. Thimble by thimble, she has consumed a half cup of liquid. I stop to hear her mutterings, her moaning. Her pain is expressed by,

“Oh my!” “Oh, my!” and then she drifts again, ruled by morphine.

“Why, oh why!” she mutters.

Once while giving her a drink, she came out with a whole clear sentence:
“Oh, that’s effervescent!:

Although it was only Gatorade that tasted so good to her, I said, “It’s Champagne, Mom”, directly into her ear so that she might hear.

“I need to go to the bathroom”, she said quite clearly, and spasms came again. How do you explain to your dear mother, your poor suffering mother that one can no longer move her to do this in a decent way? All her training to us; all her own early training, made this a desperate thing, aA shameful thing. She could not hold.

“I don’t know what kind of thing this is,” she repeated querulously twice, moaning. She had no delusional words this evening. No visions.

“What kind of thing is it?” and her body shuddered.

And then the incomprehensible subtexts came back : “Take me upstairs or something! Oh, Oh, Oh. Holy”

Her hand grasps in a fold turned in on itself more than it ever has. A miracle of folding, a miracle of a beautiful hand.

Did I say, when came to visit with the muffins, Sheri said, “It’s so beautiful, your hand holding your Mother’s. It’s a real picture.”
“There is the camera over there,” I said, and not letting go of my precious commission, this ancient and frail hand, I instructed Sheri in the camera’s use. She took two pictures and the second was wonderful. Thank you, Sheri. Thank you!

Later when Lizbet was giving her water, she bent down to kiss mother’s forehead and it was me that took the photo. Another bittersweet moment captured.

I’ve done too much leaning forward. My shoulder aches. My own tendons and muscles are cramping.


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