She awakes in a panic, and the tears come swiftly. Was she dreaming? The TV is still on, and her husband is watching next to her. But she’s sobbing uncontrollably. The voice is still in her head. “Hey, Bec! It’s Mom…” Over and over on a loop. What is happening? She can’t breathe she’s crying so hard. Her husband holds her while she cries until she wears herself out and falls asleep.
The alarm goes off at 7:30 a.m. She rolls out of the bed, the hotel room pitch black. We need blackout curtains like these, she thinks. Her mind still heavy with sleepy fog, she grabs her phone and heads into the bathroom. The light flickers to life and, as per the morning routine, she checks her phone. One missed call. One new voicemail.
“Hi, Rebecca, this is Dad. Listen, I just got a call from the nurse and your mom is unresponsive…(long pause)…(deep breath)…if you can get a flight home, I think you should. And if you can get someone to come pick up the boys so I can focus on your mom…(another long pause)…ok, hon, well, just get home if you can….god bless…bye.”
She lifts her head and takes a long look at herself in the mirror. She sets the phone down and leans against the door, sliding down to the cold floor. No, there’s no time. She grabs her phone and leaves the bathroom.
As gently as she can, she wakes her husband. “My dad called. My mom is unresponsive. I need to go home.” He’s barely conscious enough to fully understand what she’s saying. She walks over to her computer and turns it on. As soon as it connects to the internet, she pulls up her itinerary and the number to call the airline.
He finally rousts enough to ask her, “Do you really have to leave?”
She says, “Yes, I am leaving. But we have the hotel through Sunday. You have your reservations. If you want to stay, you can stay. I am leaving, but you don’t have to come.”
She gets through to an agent and explains the situation, barely keeping her voice even as the sobs threaten to burst out of her.
He agrees to leave with her, and she relays the information to the agent. There is a 10:30 a.m. flight back to Denver, and they are both booked on it.
They pack in relative silence. She calls a friend to pick up her children from her dad; she cancels tickets to the show for that evening; she cancels the transportation back to the airport for Sunday. Winning this trip to Las Vegas turned out to be not that lucky after all.
They check out of the hotel, tears are streaming down her face, and the desk attendant is visibly uncomfortable as she tries to maintain composure. The taxi line is short, and they get to the airport with time to spare.
The airport is a blur, security a breeze, everything that needs to happen to ensure they make this flight, happens. They get to their seats on the plane and she texts her dad.
We’re on the plane, about to take off. Tell her I’m coming. Tell her I am on my way.
She passes the time on the flight playing Plants vs. Zombies on her phone. Every so often, a shudder overtakes her and she has to catch her breath. They travel in virtual silence throughout the plane ride, then on the shuttle, then the car ride. Her husband drops her off at the hospice facility, and she walks briskly toward the door.
Is she walking briskly? Everything slows down as she makes her way to the outer door. As she inputs the code to enter. As she walks down the hall, hit with a mixture of smells: antiseptic, urine, cafeteria food, camphor rub. She can’t help herself as she thinks, This place smells like old people and death.
She strides across the hall and upon entering the shared room, she sees her family. Her father, her three sisters, her brother…her nieces and nephew…her brother-in-law. All crammed into a space not much larger than an office, surrounding the bed where her mother lies.
Her mother. She is so small, so frail and thin, on the bed. Being unresponsive that morning, the nurses put her on morphine to keep her resting in case she regains consciousness. Her breathing is heavily labored now, oxygen unable to make its way into her airways. Fifty-seven years of smoking cigarettes leading up to this moment. Oxygen tubes in her nose, as they have been for the last seven months. Her head is unnaturally turned to one side, her eyes not-quite-closed. She doesn’t really resemble her mother any more. It’s hard to look at.
Hugs are exchanged and updates given as she enters the room. The pungent scent of urine mixed with cleaning products hangs all around.
After an hour or so, her mother begins to stir. The morphine is wearing off, not enough for her to speak or move, but her eyes are open and aware. She makes eye contact with her mother and sees confusion and fear. She stands above her, holding her hand, trying to smile through her tears. She says, “It’s OK, Mom. I’m here. We’re all here. You’re safe. We’ll be OK.” She recalls her mom’s words months prior, I’m worried about that one. She’s my baby. “I’ll be OK, Mom. I love you.”
She gets her dad so he can look into the eyes of his partner of 51 years. Her mother becomes agitated, tries to talk, but the morphine has made that impossible. A nurse called, more morphine administered. And with it, her mother disappears for the last time.
Another hour goes by. Food arrives, and the family takes a break to eat in a little kitchen area down the hall, stretching their legs and enjoying some sustenance as they have no idea how long the night ahead may be.
A niece comes running in, urgency in her eyes. “You better come back in. It’s happening.”
Of course she waited until we were all out of the room. Her mother never was one to be the center of attention.
They gather around the bed, and she lays herself across her mother’s legs, tucking herself into the crook of her knees. She wraps her arms around those legs that once danced the most gorgeous ballets, feeling their warmth melt into her. Searing that warmth into her memory, feeling every time her mother had wrapped her in joy, sadness, understanding, and strength.
Her mother’s breath is choked. The air has nowhere left to go. She gulps and gasps, drowning on dry land, like a fish out of water. Mouth gaping, opening and closing, throat pulsing, chest convulsing.
Her brother cries out, “Goodbye, Mommy!” and then it’s over. They lay on her, holding her and each other as they cry, feeling her stillness below them.
She lays there for some time, until the shared warmth becomes one-sided. She slowly rises and hugs her father so fiercely, it feels as though a lifetime of sadness and pain courses through their embrace. It’s over, but it’s also just beginning.
She texts two words to her husband.