My son, I have been writing these things to you long before you will ever read them, and since I don’t know exactly when that will be, I am not sure what kind of information you will find useful, and what kind of information will just seem like it’s too much. So, I apologize now if what I’m about to tell you is, as they say, TMI. It’s about the day after she was intubated in the ICU, when she made the brave and terrible decision to go out on her own terms through home hospice.
For a little background on this story, I think you should be aware that your mom always liked to be warm and cozy. She loved snuggling next to a fireplace, sleeping with multiple blankets, and having space heaters under her desks at work. We often disagreed about what temperature our thermostat should be set at. When we would settle down to watch a movie it wouldn’t take long before I had to sneak out from the heat of the blanket.
When the cancer returned, however, her body rapidly began to change. Among other things, she started to prefer cooler temperatures. She began wearing shorts instead of pajamas at home. She slept in the relative coolness of our basement with a fan blowing directly on her. Blankets were no longer there to provide warmth, but for extra support to get comfortable. It was the same way at the hospital when she was there. Sitting beside her, I would reach over and feel her swollen legs and notice they were cool to the touch. Nevertheless, she refused all my offers to cover them, even with a thin bedsheet.
Now, on that day in the ICU, she was feeling a combination of some very strong drugs, the relief of having her breathing tube removed, and the peace from knowing that she would be able to come home to see you and her family before she died. All of this meant that was feeling great, despite the heaviness of the moment. She was making jokes. She was laughing and making other people laugh.
At one point we summoned nurses to help her use the commode. Two young men, both traveling nurses from the South, came into the “room” to help her. As they pulled shut the curtain and lifted her onto the commode, she asked them about their days like they were waiters at a restaurant and had come by to ask if we wanted some dessert. After she had finished doing her business and the young men had left, I asked her to stop flirting right in front of me, and she just shrugged as if to say, “If you’ve got it, you’ve gotta flaunt it.”
A little later, she needed to use a cotton swab on a popsicle stick to rub Vaseline on her parched lips. She put it up to her lips and puckered them like a cover girl on a sexy magazine and had me take a picture to send to her sister.
I have to tell you, after all the pain and anxiety and fear I had watched her endure, I was so grateful for that day with her. To laugh and tease each other. To feel the lightness of our love again.
So, anyway, she was in a good mood, but she still felt hot. So, we summoned another ICU nurse, who proved resourceful in locating a fan with a hose attachment. Normally, this device would plug into a Bair Hugger warming blanket. I’m assuming you’re not familiar with that contraption; it’s basically like a small air mattress, except the patient is on the inside. In your mom’s case, there was no need for the wrap, which is normally there to warm the patient. The nurse simply stuck the hose between your mom’s legs, with the cool air blowing up toward her body. It was kind of like Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch, except instead of a white dress it was a medical gown and your mom was lying down instead of standing over a subway vent.
As the hose blew cool air toward her nether regions, I pointed out how, let’s just say ‘immodest’ the whole apparatus appeared. In typical fashion, your mom just shrugged and said, “So?” And that was that. We eventually came up with a name for the set-up: Cooch-Blaster 2000™. We figured we could market it and make a fortune. We laughed together, and she spent the rest of the day telling me when the Cooch-Blaster 2000™ needed to be adjusted. Your mom loved it so much that when she was transferred out of ICU later that afternoon, she asked a nurse to bring it with us.
I know I said the drugs and everything else put her in a good mood, but I truly have no idea how she found it in her to laugh about such things, knowing how quickly the end was approaching. Yet, as I have thought about that day together in the ICU, I have become increasingly convinced she did it all for my benefit, to give me some release from my sadness and worry. I think she knew that I needed a day like that to remember instead of only the pain of those last few weeks. And I keep thinking about how lucky I was to have someone who loved me so much to care for me like that in the days before her death.
She was my best friend, beautiful inside and out. She made life better in every way, for me and for you and for everyone else lucky enough to get to know her. I miss being able to be with her. To share a meal. To marvel at you with her and to talk about all the amazing things you had accomplished that day. To watch a movie while she slept, her legs stretched out on my lap. To cry together about life’s cruel turns. To make each other laugh through them all. To snuggle with her under a warm blanket, or to delight in the cool breeze of a well-placed fan.