God’s Waiting Rooms

The ICU nurse forced a smile and gently pointed across the hall. It was only a few steps to the room.

At these kind of moments, of which I knew nothing having had zero experience with parents dying, any and all of my expectations have come from whatever I’ve gleaned from TV or the big screen. You know the scenes… the rush and hush of air through a tube gently tucked into a corner of a mouth, air rhythmically pushed and pulled in and out of lungs by a machine reminiscent of a space age blacksmiths bellows, while straddling the air above, a monitor televises vital signs with steady beeps and soothing streams of glowing lines, up and down and curved and anything, pray, but flat. And there’s always that one I-V beautifully arching down from on high, daintily meeting skin, still silky as if no trauma or needle has ever kissed it.

But this was not television. Not a movie.

This was real life. With real life-support for a real life that had begun eighty-two years ago, and might come to an end before the next commercial break.

One chair was waiting for my sister and I. A recliner covered with that material that squeaks should you sit on it in shorts and your skin grabs hold of it. Had it been a hard back or folding chair I would have feared the worse. But a recliner gave me some hope that the end would at least be a fitful night away.

The room was more spacious then many movies had led me to believe. A picture window opposite the massive glass entrance looked out to a mesmerizing sheet of white; a blizzard paralyzing Denver. There were office-worthy cabinets and sink, and a toilet hidden behind a wall high enough to provide privacy. But Mom was attached to a catheter.

We asked for a second chair and settled in, waiting under the multiple I-V’s, one sunk directly into her neck. Waiting in the soft glow of the monitor, in the silence of the thick respirator stuffed down her graceful throat, we waited not for an end, but for life.

I studied her peaceful face, in a sense I bathed in its gentleness, waiting for a flicker of the lifetime of fights she had waged with a narcissistic husband, through a horrible marriage, mental illness, disabilities, and what it took to live on her own with all these issues, real and not, that might have completely paralyzed someone without her stamina, resilience, without her ability to hide it all deep in her psyche. I hoped to see even a flicker of the fight it took to embrace the adventures wanted and had, even to get on a city bus with a drop-foot and walker to tend her community garden plots, the fight to ski using a walker.

No doubt Mom was a prize fighter, though sadly with a lopsided record. But nonetheless a pugilist who ignored her countless defeats, who always fought with the life handed her to live the best life she could make from it.

Night came and day broke and Mom stirred and actually smiled at seeing two of her three loves. Ever try to smile while on a respirator? If you have you’d understand we were seeing some of the fight Mom still had in her.

None of us knew at the time the pneumonia was still rampant, that her lung was continuing to decline, but she was over-breathing, above and beyond the respirator. That’s a good sign. A great sign her fight hadn’t left.

Mom hated the inconvenience of not being able to speak. The pain of the respirator, the oral feeing tube. She fought back and weaned from the air for a few hours, hope rearing its head. She begged for the respirator to be taken out and we obliged and Mom breathed and talked and raved and ranted and we smiled with relief that she was back and we thought our fighter, the woman who had raised and loved us and guided with a moral fabric that has never torn, had more than a few more rounds of winning left in her. High on hope we accelerated our plan to move her closer to family.

One of the greatest fighters of all time, Mike Tyson, said “Everyone has a plan ‘till they get punched in the mouth.” And that’s exactly what happened the next morning. In just a few short hours Mom had taken it on the chin, the pneumonia had pummeled her. We felt beaten up, too.

Mom was now in the last rounds of her fight with death. And we couldn’t get in the ring for her. We could do nothing but keep her comfortable, talk to her, and hope she could hear us tell her how much we loved her.

The ICU is the first of God’s Waiting Rooms. And the only one you have a chance of exiting through the door you entered. Hospice is God’s Waiting Room of no return. Again, I had no experience with what was to come. Though my sister knew. Twelve years of work as a Social Worker in Hospice. She knew, so brave.

Mom would’ve liked this room. More hotel than what you might expect. She liked hotels. Loved to travel. Though this trip is not one she wanted to make, nor do I think she thought she’d ever have to make it. There’s something to be said for deep psyche hide and seek.

Monitors and I-V’s were now gone. Only a thin wisp of oxygen tucked under a nose still so beautiful, but no longer able to scent the next adventure.

Deep in the slumber of morphine, Mom should have had no response to the Reiki massage provided. But she did. At first creases crossed her forehead as they always did when she disapproved or was dissatisfied with anything. Then, after a few minutes, they disappeared, replaced with a picture of calm, followed by the surprise and startling sound of two deep sighs, the depths of which had me feeling she was finally ready. Not that she had given up and the fight had left her, but that she was saying, “Okay, this round is finally over. Let’s get on to the next adventure.”

When the final moments came, those small weak breaths, Mom’s spirit, her fight, stood strong… her eyes slowly opened and her lips mouthed some words I couldn’t hear or read, but her forehead was still smooth and her face peaceful and I said “It’s okay, it’s okay to go and we love you.” She gently closed her eyes and left the last of God’s Waiting Rooms and we cried for her life, her spirit, her love…. and for us, too.

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