Hospice called me at work around 3:30 Monday afternoon. It used to be that their calls were, “no real change in your mom this week.” I missed those calls. The hospice administrator warned me that the end was nigh.
“Would I be surprised if she passed in the night? No,” she said.
It had been coming for a while. The day before, I’d gotten an “I love you” out of Mom, but that was pretty much it.
I sent an email to my boss that I’d gotten bad news from hospice, had to leave right then, didn’t want to even talk to anyone because I was a total mess so then he showed up at my office door, right then.
“I need to leave,” I said.
“Can I help?”
“I won’t be in tomorrow,” I said. He nodded and I pushed my way past him. Stopped at the customer-service atrium to tell Mo “hospice called about my mom” before bursting into tears and running out the door.
Made some calls as I drove down Euclid Avenue toward East Cleveland. Auntie Rita. Bitsy. My aunt, Lynn, for whom I am named. Rita was home and I declined to leave Bitsy a message and when I called Aunt Lynn, her house sitter answered. I knew who he was before he gave his identifier. Aunt Lynn was out of the country, skiing. I didn’t say who I was and I didn’t leave a message.
When I arrived at Hillside Plaza they buzzed me in and I went straight to her room. I asked the aid for a couple hand towels, a couple of washcloths. I turned the TV to an episode of Bonanza — we’d always joke about how Little Joe was a magnet for trouble and his brother a magnet for bad-news women — and found the chocolates we’d given her for Christmas three weeks before. Pulled up a chair. Texted a little bit because she was never much into hand-holding. Got some clean water, dipped a washcloth in it, cleaned the mucus from between her lips and gums. It came out yellow so I did it until the cloth came out clean.
Her eyelids didn’t move but she smiled.
“Hey Mom,” I said. “I love you.”
Her eyes closed some more. I ate another piece of candy and commented that Little Joe was bound to fall for the pretty trapeze lady from the aerialist troupe camping on the Ponderosa. Commented on how it wasn’t a surprise when Little Joe got framed for the murder of one of them.
“Little Joe,” I said, “always getting into trouble.”
I stayed through the denouement of “Bonanza” but then had to go. Our closest neighbors and our kids’ best friends were moving back to Japan for good that week. We invited them to dinner at Michael Symon’s “The B Spot,” home of the best burger/brat/beer happy hour in town. Our party of nine (four adults, five children) rang up a total of $110. We said our goodbyes for the first time of what would actually be three times and drove home.
“Do you want to go back to the nursing home?” Brian asked after we put the children to bed.
“No. I’ll go back in the morning.” I didn’t think it would happen that night, and even if it did, Mom and I had left nothing undone. We didn’t need a deathbed scene to realize the hold we had on each other’s heart.
We went to bed early. Brian had started teaching that day for the new semester and had a full load the next day, too. Mom always seemed to tank right when Brian had an important deadline and I wondered whether he was thinking about that, too.
It took me a long time to get to sleep but I finally did, and I slept soundly until the phone rang.
“Hello?” I knew it wasn’t the nursing home because of the different area code.
“Hello, Marilynn?” A male voice.
“Who is this?”
“It’s Cousin Bob.”
“What time is it?” I asked.
“Oh, 11:00, midnight,” Cousin Bob said. “I was just calling to see how your mom is doing.”
“It’s two-forty-five,” Brian growls from across the bed.
“It’s two-forty-five in the morning,” I said to Cousin Bob.
“I will call you in the morning,” I said, and hung up.
Cousin Bob was someone I hadn’t heard from in six years. The last time we’d spoken, Mom was still living in California. She’d gotten sick but assured me everything was fine, that Cousin Bob was calling to check in on her, everything was fine. I was living in Massachusetts with Brian then Mom’s story sounded fishy to me, so I called Cousin Bob’s home and spoke to his wife, who, after I explained what was happening with Mom’s illness, etc., told me, “So you want my husband to take time out of his incredibly busy schedule so that he can call your mother?”
I don’t care who you are: if you get a phone call in the middle of the night when you’re expecting your mom to die, there’s no way you’re getting back to sleep that night. Mom did die that morning, right around 10:00. I’ll never know if she died while I was in her room or while I had stepped out for two minutes to get a[n ironically expired] Diet Coke from the nurses’ station. So, my mom died, but at least I got to go through the worst day of my life on three hours sleep. Thanks, Cousin Bob.