Daytona State College
Cramps in my legs and neck awakened my eyes to the twilight of the hospital room. I separated my bed of two straight-backed chairs. My brother slept on the pullout beyond Dad’s hospital bed. We had slept. Mom stayed awake, even though she was eighty-five, two years younger than the one whose hand she held.
The chirps of the machine’s monitoring oxygen, heart rate, and blood pressure couldn’t distract Mom’s focus on Dad’s unresponsive face. Rising, I rubbed her back. She glanced at me, then at her sleeping son. Her contemplation turned back to her husband. Her pale Irish hand enfolded his olive Italian one.
Dad and Mom relayed stories to me about their parent’s views on mixed marriages. “Marry a nice Italian girl!” Dad’s mama would say in a heavy accent. “Maria, you should marry her.” My father informed me that Maria couldn’t see her knees when she sat down. Instead, his preference was for a slim Irish lady who already had one daughter. Mom’s taxi driver father and police officer uncle told her, “An Irish lassie should marry an Irish lad.”
Could there be a successful marriage between an Irish and an Italian? Could obstacles of contrasting cultures, clashing religions, and different family situations be hurtled?
Mom’s Irish parents and Dad’s Italian ones immigrated to New York through Ellis Island. Mom’s Catholic family settled in Manhattan. Dad’s Protestant family made their home in rural Long Island. There was no mother in Mom’s Irish home. Dad’s mom made her own spaghetti and laid it on the back of the kitchen chairs to dry. The Irish father drank too much, though he never missed work. The Italian father made his own wine in the basement. Mom’s dad stayed in an apartment until they were evicted to save money during the Great Depression. Dad’s father built his homes and kept snails in his hedges to be used in spaghetti sauce.
A nurse stepped into the room and interrupted my reverie. Coughing from an upper respiratory infection, I walked down the hall glimpsing the patients in their hospital beds.
When I see old people bent with age, I like to imagine them when they were children, running in the fields, picking flowers, or chasing the girls. Stirring up visions of their youth came easily. Each room I passed brought new opportunities.
I never imagined Dad as a child. His photos provided snapshots of his youth: in the army during WWII, in the auxiliary police force, newly married, his smile glowing with love for his bride. I was so far into the future.
My earliest memories of Dad brought a smile to my face. His math tutoring propelled me higher than my peers. He and his brother Joe’s swimming out of sight into the ocean’s horizon. Advancing into engineering, verifying the plans of his co-workers at Boeing Aircraft with only a drafting degree. When he married his Irish love in Deland, Florida, he was jobless!
About a year ago, Dad started following Mom wherever she went. When she went to the bathroom, he would be right behind her. She couldn’t go anywhere without him. So, Mom left Dad with me during her hair appointments. Dad’s conversation was mostly, ‘Where’s your mother?’. ‘She’ll be right back, Dad’, I would say. He knew she was gone. I had made a crocheted ball for a baby present. We would throw it back and forth for a while. Then, ‘Where’s your mother?’ he would say again.
Some who lose their memory get angry, or violent. Dad became more pleasant and compliant. He even agreed with Mom’s idea to get the bathroom remodeled. That would have never happened before. Mom made all the decisions now.
Could yesterday have been only 24 hours ago? Mom brought dad into the hospital with chest pain. I often heard it said that just before someone dies, they rally and are able to make conversations. It was like that. I helped Dad take a few bites of food. His eyes cleared and he said, “Mary, where’s James? You should get back. Who’s watching your business?”
It was only 45 minutes after I left that it happened. Why did they try to pound on his chest for more than 30 minutes? He was ready to go. I had spoken to my heavenly Father less than two weeks ago. “Yes, Lord, You can take him home.”
On Sunday, he had been eating Chinese food and ice cream at the food court and walking in the mall. Now it was Tuesday, and he was unresponsive, despite all their efforts.
“I thought we had the DNR in place when you left the hospital,” Mom confided to my brother and me.
I was sick, unsure what to say. “I signed a paper last night before we left. I thought I signed it.”
“Do you want to keep him on life support?” the nurse asked my mother.
Mom looked over at me. I knew taking him “off” was the right thing to do, but I didn’t want the responsibility of saying it. I wanted her to make the decision. My brother said the same thing, “It’s up to you, Mom.” My emotions were drained, my stamina sapped, my heart weary.
Close friends came. They couldn’t say it either. “Take him off life support” was a hard line to utter. “Would you like some lunch, Mom?” I offered.
Could we have some history on this? Mind you, no one, except in the last century had to make this kind of decision. Medical breakthroughs are great. Mom lost her hearing at thirty-five. At eighty-nine a cochlear implant gave her the ability to hear. She cried being able to hear our voices, the rain on the windshield, the blinker. Who likes to hear the blinker? It was amazing to her. While sitting in her room, she heard something. Then it occurred to her; it was her stomach growling!
My father marveled at the wonder drug, antibiotics. Sulfa and penicillin saved many lives during WWII. Now the slow breathing of the ventilator was all that was keeping him alive. Withholding something that is keeping a person alive is heart wrenching, moral bending, unimaginable? In this world of modern technological advances in medicine we are forced into making these decisions that no one could even imagine one hundred years ago.
Dad used to say, “In a hundred years, all new people” and “It’s a tough life, nobody gets out of it alive”. Smallpox during the Revolutionary War had a thirty-percent death rate. Death was a near neighbor to all that lived before the 1900’s. Consider our first president. Martha’s first husband died at the age of forty-five. Then she became Mrs. Washington. Many of George and Martha’s friends were on their second marriage because of a spouse’s death.
I find solace in old cemeteries reading the tomb stones about the dear departed ones. They give testament to situations so sad it is hardly comprehensible. Whole families dying within days of each other. Smallpox, dysentery, and malaria took their toll on unsuspecting healthy lives. These reflections remind me of how easy our modern problems are. All except this one, withholding treatment.
Hospice tries to alleviate the pain of dying. A friend was distraught at all the morphine they gave her mother. She felt she had killed her mother by allowing it.
Another friend’s beloved stood on death’s shore. When she left the room, he said to me, “Tell her this is something I have to do alone. I have to cross the river by myself. Please, explain it to her. She won’t hear it from me.” After careful scrutiny of his living will, reading it out loud to me several times, emphasizing the part about no extraordinary measures are to be taken, she consented to let him cross the river. The next day, he asked us to pray, to pray for him to pass over. We did. In less than twenty minutes he was gone.
My husband arrived at the hospital. Mom asks him the question. He has seen more death than most. At an early age, being a lifeguard on the beach he retrieved the lifeless body of a young boy of six, left by his parents on the beach to play. Even earlier, his aunt asked to see him one last time. In goes a little tow-headed boy. His aunt is unrecognizable to his new eyes. The brain cancer had left her a withered shell. His grandparents, his mother, his brother are all gone, so death is not a stranger or an enemy.
“Peggy, take him off life support,” my husband articulates. Mom needed to hear it from another voice, apart from the one in her head.
I was glad he could say what I could not.
Our two sons in their twenties came to say goodbye to their grandfather. My husband told them emphatically, “Should I ever be in that condition medically, pull the plug. Don’t wait, don’t hesitate.”
Mom asked if he would die immediately when they took out the ventilator. The nurse confessed, “We don’t know.”
Mom held his hand.
All the parts he wasn’t born with were removed. He continued breathing. Labored breathing.
I waited. Then my hacking reminded me that I should go home and rest. Was I contagious? I blew my nose. Yes, I better go home.
My brother from out of town came. Mom’s two sons stood by her side. She had company.
I languished on the couch wondering what was happening at the hospital. The phone rang. It was my brother. “He is still breathing, but we are going to get some food.”
Even as we talked, the nurse called them back. “He’s gone.” They retraced their steps to the hospital room.
“Are you sure? His hand is still warm...” the one she held when they got married, when they had children, when they had gone to Israel, when he wouldn’t leave her side, his memories gone. Now he was gone.
I said he has only moved. He was being embraced by his brother, Joe, who had already swum across the divide that separates this life and the next. He moved first, so he could welcome him home.