THE BEGINNING OF THE END
I didn’t recognize my mother. The gaunt shell of a woman picking up beads, one at a time, and sorting them by color, scrutinized each bead as though seeing it for the first time. Brown eyes that once sparkled were now lackluster. Yesterday’s animated face was now today’s expressionless mask. Once steady hands now shook.
Rehab seemed a good idea when a predawn spill as she was getting back into bed caused Mama to land in the floor on her tailbone.
The shriek roused me from bed. “Mama? What on earth…?”
When my mother couldn’t heave herself up, I reached for the phone.
“No, no, Kim, I refuse to go to the hospital , again!”
But seeing my mother in agony made me even more determined. Pulling myself up to my full five-feet-zero, I put on my game-face and dialed her doctor’s number.
“No! No!” Mama protested, but her cries softened to whimpers. “I will NOT go to the hospital, again!”
I hit the button on the old-fashioned rotary phone. I took her face in my hands and looked into her eyes.
“Listen to me, Mama. This is daughter abuse.”
And, then, I called 9-1-1.
Within minutes, the ambulance arrived. After carrying Mama out on a gurney, the attendants let me ride in with them.
As we entered the trauma unit, I looked at the clock. It was six a.m.
One test, one procedure, led to others. It was now six o’clock, and the doctors and nurses were talking dismissal.
“But she is nowhere near ready to go home, again!” I protested. “Please!”
The hospital had done all it could do. Now, they needed Mama’s bed.
“There’s always rehab,” suggested a doctor, just as I was at my wit’s end.
Then, a volunteer, overhearing the doctor’s suggestion, pulled me aside.
“You know, Health South helped me,” she said, pointing to her knee. “Betcha they’ll have her fixed up in no time.”
Fixed up in no time. Months later, the words echoed in my ear. Little did any of us – Mama’s medical team, friends, Mama, and me – know that she would be no simple slap of a Band-Aid.
Health South certainly did its part. Occupational and physical therapists revolved in and out of Mama’s room during the day. The staff wore cheerful tie-dyed shirts saying “Yeah, Baby!” The whole experience reminded me of the fun I had in BITS, at Harris Hospital.
Yet, to Mama, who was in a “low-impact” room, none of this was any laughing matter. Her legs trembled. She inched along on her walker. And she panicked when the nurses lifted her out of bed.
My hopes of her recovery were dashed when, on Friday of her first week, the Director of Nursing called me into her office.
“We’ve done all we can do. Your mother…,” she said, shaking her head, “…is just not improving.”
Saying the next few months as hard would be making light of the situation. Even though home-health nurses visited her at least three times a week, ambulating and exercising her, Mama slid downhill. The physical part was only superficial. She woke me up several times a night, hearing things.
One night, around eleven o’clock, I had given Mama her night-time meds – all five or six of them – and was just settling into bed when she called to me from her room.
“Kimmie! I hear the worst old fight, outside!”
But when I hurried into her room, of course, I heard nothing but silence.
Early the next morning, I awoke to my mother’s wailing. The alarm clock I had set, days ago, had gone off, scaring her out of her sleep.
“Mama! Mama!” my mother hollered. Her eyes were open but staring ahead.
Mama had needed a pacemaker for eight years, since after Daddy died. Still, she had grown more and more stubborn, and weaker by the day. Her friends, especially those who owed their regular heartbeats to the contraptions sewn into their chests, urged Mama to get it done. .
One October afternoon, during a routine physical, Mama’s cardiologist threw the book at her.
“Okay, Mrs. Terry, here’s what will happen if you put off getting a pacemaker. You’ll pass out and probably break a hip. It’s downhill from there.”
Dire prognosis delivered, the surgery was set for November 4, Mama and Daddy’s anniversary.
“Daddy will be so proud of you, Mama,” I said, as we – our friends, Ann and Bill, Mama, and I – were on the way to the hospital. “This can be Daddy’s anniversary gift to you.”
So, the pre-op began – UA, EKG, CBC, you name it. We were ready for the next stop-off when her cardiologist, Dr. Williams, motioned for me from behind the curtain around her bed.
“We can’t do the procedure, today,” he said. “Your mother’s blood is too thin. Tell me, has she had any episodes of bleeding?”
“No,” I said at first. Then, I remembered another early morning. Watching the EMT carry her – a lifeless rag doll – out in his arms. The blood was drained from her face.
“Wait!” I gasped. “On second thought…YES!”
One night in March, 2002, Mama and I had shared a bag of Hershey’s Kisses while we watched E.R. After her first hurried trip to the bathroom, we had kidded each other.
“No more Hershey’s for you!” I said, wrapping the bag tightly.
Sleep was the calm before the storm. Before sunup, Mama had resumed hemorrhaging.
The ambulance crew was kind enough to let me ride to the hospital with them. When we arrived at Harris, I fully expected the EMT wheeling Mama out of the back to tell me she was already gone.
To follow was not quite a week on Coronary ICU and a doctor who seemed clueless about Mama’s condition released her after only three days on the unit. In that whole time, he had not mentioned one word about the bleeding.
“She did what? When?” asked the “stomach man” called in by Mama’s cardiologist. Within hours, Mama was scheduled and prepped for a colonoscopy.
“Yep, here it is,” said Dr. Jackson, pointing to an x-ray of her colon. Lodged in her small colon was a splotch that resembled a slice of polish sausage.
Ducking out of school after class, the following Monday, I arrived at Mama’s bed only minutes after she had been given the diagnosis: adenocarcinoma of the colon. Stage 4.
Our friend, Ann, tears streaming down her face, sat by my mother’s bedside. Eyes brimming with liquid disbelief, Mama looked up as I entered the room.
“Kimmie,” she said, her voice coming from a tunnel. “It’s cancer.”
“With her lymph glands and liver involved, she has two months , if she’s lucky,” said the doctor who would’ve been her surgeon.
“No, no!” an oncologist protested. “She’s probably got a good six months!”
From the hospital, Mama was transferred to a nursing facility near me. As Providence would have it, her roommate had been released to go home on the last weekend of February. That weekend was special for two reasons. The first, my son ,Terry, had told me that he and wife, Sallie, were expecting their first baby. The second, that Mama recognized me for what would be the last time.
“Beautiful Kim,” she had whispered.
The following Wednesday, March 3, I was dressing for dinner with a friend of Mama’s when I received a call from a nurse. In a daze, I caught only certain words.
“Your mother…wanting to sleep all the time…not responding….”
I was there in fifteen minutes.
“Mama?” I picked up her hand.
“This might be a good time to call anyone you think wants to talk to your mother,” advised the Nursing Director. “You know, your sons, her relatives…anyone.”
So, up to the nursing station I went, phone in hand, passing a lady with a Sheltie. I was on the phone when the D.O.N. approached me again. This time, she was smiling.
“I want you to know that your mother is sitting up and petting a dog!”
But that thrilling moment—when Mama rallied – was short-lived. Soon after supper, she slipped back under, where she stayed for the rest of the week. During that time, her hospice set her up with continuous-care nursing. Since Mama’s roommate was now home, I could sleep on the extra bed she left behind. I became acquainted with the round-the-rock help that worked in shifts. And I learned the signs of approaching death: mottling of the skin, death-rattle, refusal of food, and so on.
On March 10, 2004, Mama gave up the fight but won the battle. Because the cancer had affected the liver, Mama’s skin was the color of a rotten banana. She spoke to things and people who were not in the room…or in this life. I looked at Connie.
“Is she doing what it sounds like she’s doing?” I asked her as she kept her eye on my mother.
She nodded. “Yep, she’s getting orders from the Control Tower, as we speak.”
Those nights before her death, I sat by Mama’s bedside and wrote out a poem. As she had always been my poetry coach, I kept reading each revision to her, hoping she would rise up and say, as she always had: “That’s good, honey, except change this one word.”
That’s when I knew she was really on her way out. Somehow, I finished the following poem, a tribute to my mother – teacher, writer, and erstwhile actress– with her spirit watching over me:
You, my most loyal fan,
Have been with me since opening night,
Listening to my first lines,
Watching my first steps,
Kissing my first kiss
In this play called Life.
Though the stage was crowded,
You saw only me, front and center.
Now, half a century later,
Here I sit beside a different stage,
Your hospital bed,
Giving you a standing ovation
For lifetime achievement
And waiting reverently
For your final Bow.
** Kim Kathleen Terry **