In our family, we always said, "If Mom ever dies" when talking about the possibility of our elderly mother someday dying. We never said "When Mom dies" because we just didn't believe it could ever happen. She's too strong, too vibrant, too full of energy to actually die.
So when I got a call from an emergency room doctor saying, "Come now. Your mother's had a heart attack and she may not recover," I said, "You mean my dad, right? Not my mom. She's strong as a rock." My dad had cancer and, at almost 80 years old, he'd already outlived both of his parents and his two younger brothers. We expected him to die. But not my mom. I'd spoken to her earlier that day and she'd been moving rocks—actual boulders—around in her garden. No way could it be her. "No," the doctor replied. "It's definitely your mom." I headed to the airport.
We came from many different directions to get to the hospital in Virginia. My brother flew in from L.A. I took a red-eye from Portland, Oregon. My sister Jill drove down from Maryland that night, and my other sister Gwen arrived from North Carolina in the morning. My dad stayed with my mom at the hospital. He'd already been told she was on full life support, but was essentially dead.
I don't remember much about that night. I changed planes in Chicago, but I didn't turn my phone on. I didn't want to hear my mother may have died while I was on the way. When I arrived at Dulles Airport, I switched on my phone.
"She made it through the night!" my sister Jill told me. My heart soared. "It's crazy," Jill continued. "They had her in this dark room. No one was working on her. She was hooked up to a lot of stuff, but they'd basically given up on her. So Dad and I asked for a priest and when he came in, he gave this really hopeful speech about how he was praying for recovery first.
"Then he left, and I was just sitting there, holding her hand, and basically babbling. I think I was actually talking about my new skirt and how it was so tight I had to catapult myself into the car to get here. It seemed like she kind of smirked. And then her hand got warmer! I called a nurse, and sure enough, the nurse said she was making a comeback! It's a miracle!"
It WAS a miracle. By the time the rest of us arrived at the hospital, they had moved my mom into an intensive care room. She was still hooked up to a million devices, but somehow we knew she could see and hear us. So when the doctor we later coined "Smarty-Pants Smith" came in to tell us our mother had no chance of surviving and we should say our goodbyes, I quickly ushered him out of the room. "She can hear you!" I hissed at him. He looked at me condescendingly.
"I very much doubt that," he replied. "I think you each need to go in and say whatever you've left unsaid to your mom."
"You don't know our mother!" I replied, looking around at the sympathetic faces of my brother and sisters. "She's so strong that when my dad accidentally ran into her with his Ford Bronco when she was walking up to get the mail, she didn't even break a bone!" My family nodded righteously. The doctor looked alarmed. "Nonetheless," he replied. "I think it's now or never."
So we each dutifully took a turn saying goodbye to our beloved mother. I remember I didn't have much to say. I talked to my mother on the phone every day. She knew my heart—and everything else. My oldest sister Gwen had a different experience.
"I didn't know where to start!" she cried, after her turn. "There was so much to say! So much to explain! Aaah!"
Jill felt more like me. "I couldn't think of anything I hadn't already told her, except for what fabric I finally selected for my sofa." My brother Phillip declined to share his final words with my mom. He was too choked up. So was my dad.
Still, my mother didn't die. We took turns staying in the room with her. She never really seemed to sleep. She looked like a woman in labor, always grimacing and writhing around. I wanted to tell her to go ahead and rest a bit. I said to the nurse, "Is it OK if I tell my mom to go to sleep? I mean, she's on full life support, right? She won't die if she sleeps." The nurse replied, "I wouldn't mess with it. Whatever she's doing is working." That scared the crap out of me—I'd almost told her to go to sleep. What if she'd died because of what I said?
But the nurse was right. My mother was doing what she needed to do. She told us later that she saw our faces and that got her through. She grew stronger and better every day until one day, I walked in the room and she said, "Where's my lipstick? I need a lipstick!" It was a sure sign of rebounding health, as sure a sign as the cardiogram that later revealed a healing heart. My mother went nowhere without her lipstick. She had a million different shades, and she wore each one with great pizazz. I told my father, my sisters, my brother. I told the doctors, the nurses, the aides.
"She asked for her lipstick!" I said. "That's a good sign!"
I chose a peachy shade labeled "Festive" for the event of her recovery. Seemed appropriate. Jill brought in her fabric swatch and draped it over the bed. We all rejoiced.
I don't know why my mom got to live when so many other people die before their time. Neither does she. But I am grateful. She's 90 now, and that heart attack occurred 12 years ago. I still talk to her every day. We've had weddings, family reunions and one funeral–my dad died six months after my mom's heart attack. Many things have stayed the same but one thing hasn't: We now know our mom will also die someday. And we're still not ready.