My Sober Life, Chapter 27

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.

She’s gone

My Sober Life, Chapter 26

In which we are given bonus time

On December 20, 2014, my family and I were in the beautiful Rocky Mountains. We had come up the day before and planned on staying through the morning of Christmas Eve. After the very long nights of the previous two weeks, the break was necessary and desired. My mom’s condition had improved as had her mood. Friends of mine had visited a couple of days earlier, and she not only recognized them, she brightened at their appearance. Although I’d been questioning whether we should go to the mountains, the shift in her helped convince me we could still go.

So go we did. We were enjoying a lazy morning, the kids watching Saturday morning cartoons as my husband sipped his coffee while reading an article. I poured a fresh puzzle from its cardboard confines onto the long, wooden table, ready to lose myself in its 1,000 oddly-shaped pieces.

My phone jingled. A text message from my oldest sister. “No need to panic, but mom was just taken to the hospital in an ambulance. She’s OK, but they’re going to keep her at least overnight until her O2 levels stabilize.”

I didn’t wait to text back. I called immediately. “What happened.”

The long and the short of it was my mom couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t breathe, the nurse couldn’t help, 9-1-1 was called, and the EMTs used a C-PAP to force air into my mom’s lungs. And it worked. O2 charged through her bronchioles and popped open her shrinking alveoli, and her respiratory system began to work again.

For three hours, I hemmed and hawed about whether or not we should drive back down to the city. My sister said everything was under control, and I should stay and enjoy myself. But how could I enjoy myself? What if something happened overnight? I was an hour and a half away. Could I live with that decision? I could not. We drove home that night, and I went to the hospital first thing in the morning.

As I walked down the hospital corridor of the intensive care unit, I spotted my dad speaking with a doctor. As I came to his side, he held back tears as he said, “We almost lost her.” It was then I realized how close we really came as he recounted the story of calling 9-1-1, and the EMTs, and the seemingly interminable ambulance ride to the hospital, and the waiting. So much waiting.

She’d had a pretty good night and that morning, my mom was the most popular person in the ICU. An unending stream of family, friends, and neighbors joined us. The nurses continuously commented on how fun it was in her room. It was the place to be. She seemed to be her old self again, as though the last few weeks of sleepless, fitful nights had never happened. She crafted sarcastic comebacks and laughed raucously at a misheard comment from my dad about the “Flahertys praying in the bushes”. My mom was back.

Later that night, after she was settled into a regular room, one of my sisters and I were sitting and talking with her. She had finished eating and became restless. Then, out of nowhere, she began having deep coughing fits, so hard she would spit up phlegm and saliva. She couldn’t stop. The only thought that kept running through my head was, “She’s going to die. I’m watching her die. She’s going to die. I’m watching her die. She’s going to die. I’m watching her die.” on an endless loop. And I felt so fucking helpless.

So I did the only thing I could think of. I pulled out my phone and earbuds. I popped one in my ear and pulled up Spotify. I searched for Simon & Garfunkel, scrolled until I found the song I was looking for, and hit play. And I sang.

I sang one of my mom’s favorites songs. I sang while she heaved and hacked. I sang while she trembled, hunched over. I sang as she tried to hold my hand, but had to pull it back in an attempt to cover the body-rocking barks expelling from her frail frame. I sang about weariness, and tearful eyes, and being on your side, and bridges, and water, and being down and out, and comfort, and taking your part, and darkness, and sailing on, sliver girl, and shining, and dreams, and more water and more bridges. I was going to sing her across this bridge and ease her mind. I sang and I sang, and I squeezed my eyes shut as I did. I tried to block out the coughing because it was so loud. Her dying was so loud in my ears…why can’t this troubled water block it out? Block it out. BLOCK IT OUT.

And yet.

She didn’t die then. She probably should have died that weekend. She probably should have died on December 20, 2014, when her lungs closed. But she didn’t. The first responders forced air into her lungs. And with it, bonus time into our lives.

I often think back to that day, and I wonder. I wonder, did she know? Did she know she was dying? Was she scared as she gasped for air? Was she panicking when they held her down? Did she feel terror as they forced the mask over her nose and mouth? Did she feel pain as the oxygen sped down her throat, expanding her lungs? Did she feel helpless as she flailed? Did she understand they were medical professionals helping her? As they carried her down the stairs, did she gaze at the pictures of her five children on the wall? Did she try to stroke the banister? As they hastily, yet carefully, pushed through the front door, did she notice the rocking bench on the porch? Did she see the empty flowerbeds she meticulously curated for almost 40 years, imagining the hibernating bulbs in the earth she’d tilled with her bare hands? Did she think of her tulips and bleeding hearts blooming come Spring? As they loaded her into the ambulance, did she get a last look at the house she’d made a home?

Did she know she would never return?


My Sober Life, Chapter 25

In which I realize things are never going to be like they were

In early December 2014, my mom took a turn for the worse. She wasn’t sleeping well, keeping my dad up most nights. She was often confused and disoriented. As a family, we rallied together, as we’re known to do, to take night shifts so my dad could get some sleep and we could figure out what we needed to do next. For me, this meant working a full day at the office, coming home to have dinner with my family, changing into comfy clothes and heading to my parents around 9:00 p.m. to start my shift. You didn’t sleep on these shifts. The second you thought you might be able to nod off, she was up again. It was exhausting and tedious and heartbreaking and difficult and anger-inducing and sad. Below is a log of one such night.

December 13, 2014.

10:00  – Morphine, Haldol, Nebulizer
10:00-12:30 – Restless, messing with sheets a lot. “I don’t know what is wrong with me.” “I think I should just give up.” “Why do you keep asking me if I need something?” Longest Rest: 10 minutes
11:00 – bathroom
12:30 – bathroom; checked oxygen: 88
12:30-1:15  – Mostly slept, couple small bouts of talking
1:15 – “Were you looking for me?” me: no
1:17 – Sits up. “Bec? What do I have to do?’ me: nothing, go to sleep.
1:19 – “What do I owe you?” me: nothing, just get some sleep. messes with her oxygen for a minute, fusses with sheets, closes eyes, more messing with oxygen tubes, sheets. this continues for 5 minutes.
1:25 – Sits up, grabs sheets/comforter. Lies down. Squints at me as though seeing me for the first time.
1:27 – Sits up, messes with oxygen, grabs sheets. Lies down.
1:28 – Sits up. Grabs glasses and puts them on. Looks around. Takes glasses off. While sitting, messes with shirt. Pulls on sheets/comforter. Lies back down after a few minutes.
1:32-1:41 – rested
1:42 – Sits up. Asks me again if I need her for anything. Starting to feel like she would rather be awake right now (sundowners).
1:45 – Sits up, I go to get meds, she’s laid back down.
1:46 – Sits up, messes with sheets and comforter. Lies down.
1:58 – Sits up. Lies down.
2:00 – Haldol. Seems to become drowsy pretty quickly, can’t do nebulizer.
2:00-2:35: Mostly slept.
2:17 – Raises head, hmmm? Lies back down
2:36 – Bathroom; insisted on going back and turning the bathroom light off
2:45 – Nebulizer, checked oxygen: 97. Lies back down and closes eyes.
2:55 – Ran downstairs to lower oxygen from 7 to 6.5 per Dad’s instructions if she got up to 97. As I came back up, I heard her calling for me. “I didn’t know if I needed you and didn’t know where you were.” Reassured her and had her lie down. She lies on her back, which I will see if it makes a difference vs. being on her side..
2:57 – Pops up, “Oh!” But then realizes she doesn’t need to do anything. Sits up for a few minutes. Lies back down on side.
3:00 – Pops up again. Genuinely surprised when I tell her it is 3 o’clock in the morning. “I never know what time it is anymore.” I ask her what she is thinking about. “Where is <my sister>?” me: she’s sleeping, it’s the middle of the night. Everyone is sleeping. Sits for a few more minutes. Arm is trembling holding herself up. Get her to lie back down on her back.
3:09 – Sits up. Says she needs advice on doing something, but can’t remember what it is. I tell her that it is the middle of the night, so let’s try to get some rest and we’ll figure it out in the morning. Lies back down on side. Eyes not completely closed.
3:15-3:55 Sleeping
3:55 – sits up. talk to her gently, she lies back down.
3:58: sits up, messes with bedding, lies down
4:00-4:42 – sleeping
4:42 – Sits up, lies down.
4:55 – Sits up, bathroom; checked oxygen: 84. Turned back up to 7.
5:00 – <sister> takes over
I didn’t know if I needed you, and I didn’t know where you were.

I Kept My Name

Recently, I have come across several instances where people have gotten my name wrong. Sometimes it’s the first name. One c, or k-a-h, or two b’s and one c. This last error is made even by my own father. He just wants the double consonant to come first, I s’pose. I’ve been confused with other -ca names like Jessica and Erica and Monica. I have been called Rachel so many times, it’s a running joke between me and some friends. (This is made all the more confusing when I am with my friend Rachel. Two ‘R’ names? Heads EXPLODE.)

But more often than that, people (incorrectly) assume I took my husband’s last name after we were married. Most times, I can shrug it off; they are strangers who don’t know me, and who I will likely never see again.

But there are people in my life – who have known me my whole life – who either don’t realize I did not change my name after marriage (over eleven years ago…), or they knowingly ignore that fact and use an incorrect name for me anyway.

I don’t want to assume people are being purposefully rude. On the contrary, I practice living in such a way in which I assume everyone is doing the best they can. It’s better for them, and it’s better for me. If you’re doing the best you can, I can extend more compassion and empathy toward you than if you are being willfully malicious. Win-win.

So with that generosity in mind, I am going to make the assumption that people who continually put my husband’s last name behind my first name are doing the best they can. Even though all of my correspondence is signed, “Rebecca Vega”; even though all of my social media names are “Vega”; even though all of my legal documents are “Vega”.

Maybe it’s because my email address is a combination of my last name and my husband’s. I created it originally as a joint email address for each of us to access, but we didn’t use it that way, so now it’s just my email address. Maybe it’s because we refer to ourselves as the Vega/Massaros. But I always put that slash in there; a clear separation. I am the Vega; they are the Massaros.

There are a handful of reasons why I didn’t change my name. First, it is a huge pain in the ass. I listened as my friends talked about the months and months it took to change every single thing over to the new name. I’m just lazy enough to not want to deal with that. Second, it was not a deal breaker for my husband. Third, and most importantly, I didn’t want to.

I didn’t pull a celebrity thing where I changed it legally, but still publicly go by my maiden name. I have no maiden name. I have only had one name.

I never changed my name. I will never change my name.

Asked by old boyfriends, they scoffed at my insistence of maintaining my name, stating emphatically if we were to ever get married, I would absolutely change my name. They demanded it. And I laughed in their faces. One of them said it was a deal breaker, to which I said, if you feel that strongly about it, then so be it. To no one’s surprise, we broke up a few months later.

In the months leading up to our wedding, my husband and I spoke freely and often about this. I told him if changing my name was important to him, I would openly listen to his reasons why and consider them. He may correct me, but I don’t remember him ever bringing such assertions to the table.

I recall us attending a wedding six or so months before ours and looking at our name cards at the table. I ripped the “Vega” off of mine and set the torn card over his so it said, “Rebecca Massaro”. I stared at it for a long while, candlelight flickering over the embossed lettering. Then I looked into his eyes and said, “That’s not my name.”

And he got it. No questions, no prodding, no cajoling, no begging, and definitely no demanding. He didn’t need nor want me to change anything I didn’t already want for myself. He respected me and my desires. He wanted me to marry him. He didn’t need me to change my name to become his wife.

I want to be clear so this doesn’t get twisted around into a thing where I’m dissing anyone who did or does change their name after marriage. Like religion and veganism, it’s a personal decision. Which makes it up to each person. Everyone can do whatever they want. I wholeheartedly accept and respect what others have done in their own lives with their own names.

Which is why it is so hurtful when people continuously get my name wrong. When I catch a glimpse of my name in someone’s contacts, and they have my husband’s last name there, my first thought is always, “Who is Rebecca Massaro?” and then the realization rolls in, and I feel like I’ve been punched. How do you not know my name? Why do you not respect me?

My name is a huge part of who I am. It is part of my identity, my personality, my character. I define myself by it, and I love it. I love my name.

I love my husband with all my heart, but his name is his. If you have my last name wrong in your contacts, please do me the courtesy of correcting it. I would do the same for you.


My Sober Life, Chapter 24

In which the storm rolls in

The fall of 2014 brought with it a storm unlike any I’d experienced to that point. Not a storm on land. A storm at sea. Roiling and raucous, where even in the breaks, you’re still on a rocking boat. Unable to find your bearings. In a state of constant vigilance. A state of fear from when the next wave will crash.

In June of that year, my mother’s COPD diagnosis was confirmed. Almost sixty years of smoking could no longer be outrun or outsmarted. Her lung capacity was diminishing rapidly, and they wanted her to quit immediately and go on oxygen. She said she’d think about it.

A few months later, my siblings and I joined my parents at an appointment. Things had been progressing, and they were doing a biopsy of her lungs as cancer had become part of the conversation.

That Friday, I had just arrived at home with my kids after picking them up at school, ready for the weekend, when I received a text from my husband. He’d just been let go from his job. No warning, no reasonable explanation, no nothing. Just a check slid across a desk.

Two weeks later, on Halloween, we met at my parents’ house to call the oncologist for the results of the biopsy. The seven of us gathered in the family room, with the doctor on speaker phone, we listened as he relayed the grim news. Stage IV small cell lung cancer. Small cell is aggressive, he said, and can very quickly spread to other parts of the body. He estimated she had less than six months to live.

They had noticed another spot on my mom’s shoulder blade. They wanted to biopsy it, and if it was benign, they could aggressively go after the lungs with both radiation and chemotherapy. But even then, there was only a 20% chance of remission. Twenty percent.

Rising from the brick in front of the fireplace, I stepped over my mother’s outstretched legs, sat next to her on the couch and fell to the side, laying my head on her lap. 35 years old and wanting nothing more than the comfort of my mom’s thigh against my cheek, her hand caressing my hair, as tears carved rivers down my face.

We thanked the doctor for his time, and sat quietly, each fixated on a different focal point in the room. The eclectic collection of art on the walls; the classic books on the built-in shelving; the coffee table that had been a part of the family longer than I had, strewn with the day’s newspaper; the well-worn, woven, greyish-blue carpet. Someone broke the silence and asked my mom what she thought. She shrugged, and said, “It is what it is. I’m not going to do the biopsy. I’m not going to do the treatments.”

I don’t fault her for it. She was 76 years old, already dealing with her swiftly deteriorating lungs. Nothing could reverse the COPD at this point, and the cancer was only going to speed things along, especially if it had spread to her bones. Quality over quantity. I probably would choose the same for myself. But there was a finality that came with it. The weight of understanding, how much more finite our time just became.

Shortly thereafter, we met with a palliative care team. A social worker, a psychologist, and a nurse walk into a bar… They emphasized how the goal now was to keep my mom comfortable until we reached the hospice phase. They were there as resources for all of us, whatever we needed. They asked a lot of questions directed both at us and my mom. She’d always been a stoic woman, rarely showing emotion of any kind, but during all of this, she’d been especially impassive.

One of the team members asked her what concerns she had. She shook her head, and said she had none for herself. She paused, her eyes went glassy, and she pointed at me as she breathed, “But I’m worried about that one.” Her voice tremored, “She’s my baby.”

It is the only time I ever saw her cry.

Not long thereafter, it was Thanksgiving. Our big family holiday. If you must choose between coming to Thanksgiving or Christmas, you probably want to choose Thanksgiving. The food is top notch, the company divine, and we put on a mean talent show. Stories of old, interpretive dance, stand-up comedy, singing, skits…you name it. We look forward to it every year, and some skits take months of planning.

Although we knew somewhere in the backs of our minds it was the last Thanksgiving all together, it didn’t dominate the day. As I sang that night, looking at my mom, the words, “Stay present,” kept drifting in and out of my consciousness. “Remember this.” But we did not know things would escalate so quickly after that day. We didn’t know within a week, we’d be rotating night shifts at my mother’s bedside. We didn’t know in less than a month, there would be ambulances and emergency rooms and hospice facilities.

We didn’t know it was the last holiday we’d have our whole family completely intact.