There’s an orchid in my mom’s house that refuses to die. Its months-old, finely veined flowers are luminous, but if you look closely, you can see a few beginning to droop, their silky perfection dimming as time goes by. The orchid sits near my mom’s IV pole, on a dresser filed with medications and topped by her photograph smiling out from several frames. Faced by these images and trappings of her life, the fierce longing of missing wraps around my heart, even though the empty room still vibrates with the bright light of her being.
The day started off in a way that has become pretty normal; taking my mom to yet another appointment at Cedars Sinai. This time, it was an angiogram to see if she’s a candidate for radio-embolization, a therapy that shoots radioactive beads into a tumor to kill it. The scan, done by a radiologist with a baby face and an old soul, went well and we headed to the recovery room; with any luck, she’d be home in time for dinner.
But luck has not been our strong suit lately. Love? Absolutely. Determination? Certainly. The ability to still share a belly laugh in the middle of a cancer shit storm? No problem. But when my mom woke up from the anesthesia with agonizing pain in her left eye, I knew we had once again been snake bit.
The hours that followed can best be described as a walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Numbness, swelling, tingling, shaking, back pain, chest pain, shortness of breath–symptom after symptom crowded the small space of my mom’s body like too many crazed fans at a soccer match. Nobody seemed to know what was happening, except her.
“I’m dying,” she said, quite calm, eyes closed against the light. ”Please don’t leave me.”
When a “Code Brain” is called at Cedars Sinai, the wheels of medicine turn quickly. Within minutes, neurologists, cardiologists and nurses from the “Stroke Team” were in the room, evaluating, monitoring, checking, and questioning–a literal brainstorm. And in the midst of this choreographed chaos, my mom began to describe what she was feeling.
“I love you,” she said to Rich, his black glasses not hiding his tears. ”It’s hard to breathe and I’m losing my hearing.” Her blood pressure, already quite high, rushed to a dizzying, dangerous level and the monitor beeped urgently.
“I love you,” she said, to Stephanie and me, her first and second born children, as we held her shaking hands. ”My right side is going numb now and my mouth is swelling.” I could see this, just barely. ”And I think it might get ugly,” she continued, fearing that her heart–or a blood vessel–might explode. ”Please tell Simone I love her too.” I grabbed my cell phone and dialed her baby’s number and Simone, up in Seattle and clueless to the drama unfolding, answered on the third ring.
“I love you, honey,” whispered my mom into the phone. ”I love you so very much.”
Those words were repeated no less than a hundred times as afternoon slipped into evening, pleas of devotion and encouragement that were loaded, like a treasure chest, with the jewels of my mother’s lifetime. Our collective memories sustained us, buoyed by an unbreakable mother-daughter bond, and the 100% certainty that our hearts would always be connected, no matter where souls go when this life is history. My mother, always the poet, quoted D.H Lawrence’s “When The Ripe Fruit Falls” and spoke of a welcoming white light. From above, she told us, she was looking down at herself, watching as her body slowly turned to stone.
Despite her great conviction, my mother did not die that night. She vomited, sweated, shook, spasmed, and shivered–but her strong heart wouldn’t quit and despite the tremendous pressure of her roiling blood, her veins held tight. And when the doctors were sure she had not had a stroke, heart attack, or aneurism, but that her symptoms were likely caused by some combination of pain, allergy, chemotherapy, high blood pressure, anesthesia, and yes, the choking anxiety caused by facing off with cancer, she managed to smile.
“I’m a faker!” said Gabriele, lifting her hands into the air and letting them flop in her lap in the same way I have seen all my life. But my mom has never been fake about anything.
Later, the ophthalmologist who evaluated her red, swollen eye found that her cornea had been somehow damaged during the procedure, an injury that is excruciating but rarely serious. He taped a large, white bandage into place and promised it would be better the next day. No one said anything about the rest of her. She was then admitted to the Saperstein Critical Care Tower for observation, where we took turns all night snuggling close to her, Simone having caught the first flight to L.A.
I left the hospital only to put my kids to bed. Before heading back, tired and wobbly, I walked over to the little guesthouse that my mother now calls home. There, in the dark, with her wall clock ticking away the minutes, I thought about what I had just witnessed. I thought that a dress rehearsal of her death might turn out to be a good thing–for everyone involved–because it hadn’t been fearful, but an experience of great connectivity and, strangely, a great peace. I thought about how, like the flowers on her orchid, we are all dying a little bit every day so we may as well get prepared. And when my mom’s cat, Luna, jumped into my lap in a silky black blur, I buried my face in her fur and cried.