How could we know a month ago that in a month’s time I’d be saying something like, “It’s been a month since my mother died”?
A month ago my mother did indeed die. I know because I saw her lying there on the table, a couple of hours (or perhaps an afternoon) after the doctor called it. A breathing tube was still snaked from the right corner of her mouth as if she was trying to hold it there herself. Her eyelids were taped down in what appeared to be a desperate attempt by the doctors to hide her own condition from her. Her skin was like a morbid, dry resin, its color one that hadn’t been invented yet.
A team of surgeons and anesthesiologists had pounded and paddled her chest for 40 minutes trying to get a rhythm, then just a solitary beat. But a blanket mercifully hid that evidence from us—”us” represented by my wife and my sister.
Twelve hours prior, she was in our living room, chuckling at our hooting and cheering at the television. My hockey team, the Boston Bruins, was playing Toronto in Game Seven of the NHL playoffs’ first round. She went to bed before Boston won 5-1, handily advancing to Round Two. “Did your team win?” she had asked me the next morning while she and I waited for the anesthesiologists to wheel her into the OR. She smiled and murmured, “Good.”
We talked a while. Nothing deep, just making a list of people for me to call after the surgery would be over, since she would be in a fog. She made a comment that all the clocks in the building showed the ubiquitous blue University of Kentucky logo. She noted that all the doctors and nurses were carrying Starbucks cups around with them. The allure of Starbucks never caught on with Mom, as she thought even the weakest-tasting roast was still a bit too potent for her. However if we ever went into the location where my daughter works, she’d order a tall blonde roast with cream and load it with sugar. It was special if it was served to her by her granddaughter. By way of brand association, I imagine Mom being proud that these highly-skilled professionals were drinking coffee that came from the company for which her granddaughter works. No matter that they came from the in-house Starbucks and not the one from which she’d order her tall blonde roast with cream and load it with sugar—this was as complicated as Mom was willing to make things. How could I know we’d never get another chance at more meaningful conversations?
After she had a nurse assist her in getting to the restroom (the wait was getting to her), she returned and grinned pridefully, telling me the nurse had inquired about her menstrual activity, and was subsequently stunned upon discovering Mom would be 70 in four days. Mom asked me if I thought she looked 70, and I wryly told her she didn’t look a day over 68, an insipid reply that was followed by the last time I’d hear her laugh.
When the surgeon did finally arrive, he asked Mom if she was ready to get this done. She jokingly advised him she’d “been here since 5:30! Where were you?” Amused with her fighting spirit, he briefly repeated what would happen once she’d be asleep, a recap of the procedure he’d explained to us a day ago, before Boston defeated the Leafs.
They would be going into her right side, spreading apart two ribs and adjusting her diaphragm, which had migrated unusually high over the years and was effectively shoving her liver against her lungs and robbing her of any deep breathing. This simple operation would last about two hours and she would likely be fully recovered in a month or so, give or take a few weeks.
The surgeon shook our hands and stepped out, ceding the conversation to the chief anesthesiologist who’d just stepped in. It was then I was instructed to proceed to the waiting area while Mom was prepped for surgery, a sterile process for which I couldn’t be present. So I said what would be my final goodbye to my mother, and it went like this: I leaned over her, gently kissed her forehead and whispered, “See you on the other side.” I don’t know why I said this, as I was just being my usual sardonic, mundane self.
“Okay,” she whispered back.
As I made my way out, I turned to look at her a moment, another measure I question now, but seemed the thing to do in that instant. Yeah, that was her last smile before the anesthesiologist yanked the curtain to. It’s entirely possible she smiled to the surgeon if she saw him before drifting off into her penultimate nap, as she was a tad smitten with him (her savior, the one who’d guide her to an end to her two-year struggle with whatever this was).
She never received the first incision.
Her heart never survived the anesthesia.
Now come the “firsts” everyone talks about. You know, Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays. We made it through the first Mother’s Day already. I’d asked her what she wanted for her 70th birthday.
“Let’s wait until I’m better. Maybe we can have my birthday on Mother’s Day,” she replied.
I spent that day wondering what she may have wanted had she still been here.
More than a few times I’ve wanted to text her to let her know Boston’s playing on a channel she gets in her area. Last year she’d actually watch the games alone in her sunroom. I know this because she’d text me smile emojis every time Boston scored.
And speaking of texting, she’d randomly send green hearts (my color of preference), smiles, sunshines, or combinations with the words Good morning! or Have a good day today! I knew she was really gone when I hadn’t gotten one for a few weeks.
This fall, I turn 50. I wonder if she thought I looked it.