Final conversation with my mother-in-law

In memory of Rose Tanguy, April 15, 1931–April 28, 2016

Background: Mom was diagnosed with cancer in August 2015. She did four rounds of chemotherapy, but reacted badly, and she decided that if she had to live that way she didn’t want to live that way. The chemo was stopped in early October and Mom went under hospice care, but was still living at home.

Portrait of Rose Tanguy, taken a few weeks before she was diagnosed. “That will be a good one for my obituary,” said Mom.

She rebounded from the chemo, to the point that she decided she didn’t really have cancer at all. Her hair had thinned out, but we found a nice wig for her. She got to her granddaughter’s wedding in January, although she was still weak enough from the chemo that she was in a wheelchair the whole time.

My wife, Deb (her daughter), moved in with her in late September after Mom was diagnosed. I came to visit overnight about three nights a week. Deb promised Mom we would keep her in her apartment as long as we could guarantee her safety and comfort. Until February, Mom would talk like Deb was just in for a couple days — “Debbie is here for a little while to help me.” In March we started getting help in during the day—part professional, part Deb’s sister—so Deb could concentrate on work rather than having to take off time during the day to run home.

They developed a routine when Deb got back to the apartment after work, revolving around TV (Mom always had the TV on after her eyes got too tired to read her beloved mysteries and spy thrillers): local news at 5:30, national news at 6:30, Jeopardy at 7:00, then Everybody Loves Raymond until 10:00, skipping around the cable channels as needed to follow the series.

By April, Deb and Mom had seen every single episode of ELR at least three times. But by April, even Mom admitted the cancer was wearing on her. She was tired all the time, and could barely use her walker. Breathing was a struggle, even with oxygen, which had gone from a nighttime luxury, to a recovery boost after exertion, to a constant necessity. Mom would just stare at the TV, but Deb still laughed at the jokes, and marvelled at the plot twists, and commented on the acting — Deb would watch the shows for both of them, like it was the first time.

Mom at her great-granddaughter’s first birthday, 12 days before she died and nine months after the first photo above. Her hair had mostly grown back, but for some reason was more curly than before the chemo treatments.

On April 15, Mom got to celebrate her 85th birthday at Stars on Ice, a figure skating show (Mom and Deb love figure skating; I thought parts of it were pretty good, if you like that sort of thing). The next day, she attended the first birthday party of her great-granddaughter. She was able to engage with what was happening and was very happy to be there—as were the rest of us, who could hardly believe she had hung on this long.

Last Sunday (April 24) Mom’s legs couldn’t hold her anymore, not even to just stand. It took two of us to get her the seven feet from her bed to the bathroom. Hospice brought in a bedside commode, but it still took two people to lift her into position. She was also getting a little confused and disoriented, although interestingly she was able to explain this to Deb very coherently. It was time to take her to a place where professional help was available around the clock, so we contacted hospice, who arranged a social worker to screen Mom and get the transfer started.

The next night, Monday, the night before she was supposed to transfer to the hospice respite facility, I was sitting with her in her bedroom watching (of course) Everybody Loves Raymond (the one where Raymond’s mom has been reading his diary). Deb was washing dishes in the kitchen (and making calls to family to fill them in on the situation). Mom was struggling to breathe, even with the oxygen concentrator turned up full blast, and fighting a lifetime of habit that told her to open her mouth when she felt out of breath (the oxygen feed comes into the nose, so the mouth needs to be closed for full effect). Talking was hard for her. Word, word, gasp; word, word, gasp. So she didn’t talk if she could help it.

Then at one point she looked at me and said, “Jack (gasp) last night (gasp) home?” Which I took to mean a question if this was her last night she would be in the apartment.

Questions from Mom were not always easy. Or always questions. For example, once during my early days in the family I left the light on in the kitchen when I joined Deb and her parents in their living room, even though I was finished in there for the time being. So Mom asked, “Debbie, is the kitchen light on?” I could see clearly it was; Mom could see clearly it was; Deb could see clearly it was. Deb said, “I’ll get it, Mom,” got up and turned off the kitchen light. So sometimes the presence of a question mark was irrelevant, and there was a deeper meaning in there somewhere.

I moved closer (she was hard to hear between the concentrator noise and the TV up loud) and said, “Yes, Mom, but it’s okay. You’ll be coming home again. It’s just whether you come home to be with Dad or home to be with Debbie.” [Dad — Deb’s dad, Bob— died in 2011.] While it was not impossible that Mom might recover enough to be released from the respite facility, that was not how any of us were betting; however, none of the family predicted she would bounce back from chemo or see her great-granddaughter turn one year old, so what did we know?

Long pause. Gasp. Gasp. “I miss (gasp) Bob.” I gave her hand a squeeze and maybe teared up a little.

Pause. Strange look. Oh dear, I upset her, I thought. Not what I meant to do.

“I’ll miss (gasp) Deb-bie (gasp) too!”

Ah. Can’t leave out her daughter. Wouldn’t be fair, might hurt Deb’s feelings, wouldn’t be right. Mom occasionally could be overly blunt (especially when she determined Something Needed Fixing), but she never meant to hurt anyone and would get upset if she thought she had. Or maybe she was afraid she had hurt my feelings by not mentioning my wife.

I gave her hand another squeeze (I had no idea what else to do).

“Wea-ther (gasp) to-night?”

Didn’t see that coming. Shouldn’t they have covered that on the local news? Maybe she forgot. I pulled up a weather app on my phone. “It will get down to the upper 50s tonight, Mom.”

Gasp. Gasp. Ah, she’s trying to see if it will get cooler. The windows are open, but the circulation is awful and it’s muggy outside — and inside — in the way spring nights can be. She’s hot? She’s wearing a lightweight nightgown… and sweating. Gotcha. This was a non-question question.

“Mom, want me to turn on the a/c?” Pause. Gasp. Nod. “Okay, I’ll turn on the a/c.” So I did. The apartment cooled down to the point that Deb and I needed blankets when we turned in. But Mom was comfortable.

That was the last time I exchanged words with her.

Tuesday Mom went into the hospice respite center. She told the nurse that family had come to visit her. Some of the family were dead, some were not (the nurse said this actually happens a lot near end of life).

Wednesday her breathing was even more labored, and she could no longer communicate verbally.

Thursday morning, April 28, at 2:15 AM we got a call from the duty nurse at hospice that Mom’s breathing patterns had shifted and we should come in, just in case. By evening she was still breathing, but she was no longer aware of her surroundings. Her gasps became raspier, with longer and longer pauses. And then they stopped.

She was a wonderful lady and we miss her a lot.