The phone was ringing and I was warm and cozy in bed and not being the type to HAVE to pick it up, I let it ring expecting the machine to pick it up and so it did and my mother's voice commanded, "Get up NOW. I need you. Why aren't you here already?' Dad didn't call her 'The Admiral' for nothing. My boyfriend at the time groaned and rolled over and I reached out for the receiver and before I could say a word she said, "I can't believe you're still in bed.' "Mom, it's Saturday. I'm an adult. I have a life. Would you just.....' I trailed off. Something was wrong or rather more wrong. I felt the vibe like a cold breeze and pushed his shoulder and said, 'Don't bother showering. Get dressed. We have to go." I too got dressed and we checked the cat's food and water in case it was an overnighter, left a light and a TV on low for him and telling him to watch the house, locked the doors behind us and ran down the steps to the car.
My mother was dying.
She'd had some kind of gastric discomfort for as long as I could remember but was either too busy with raising us or her job or too ashamed of her weight to actually go to a doctor to see if it was anything more serious than acid reflux. The doctors she would go to were in and out internists at clinics that had one eye on the clock and one eye on the door for the next patient so would just prescribe her a little purple pill or whatever it was then. She tried all kinds of herbal stuff too. We thought it was her gallbladder, honestly.
Finally she found a doctor who would actually listen and I accompanied her to a battery of tests at a series of hospitals while often at the same time accompanying my father to the same hospitals for his chronic kidney stones and frequent procedures. I was as much a fixture there as the wall fountain in the center of the annex lobby. I still am grateful to the company I worked for that let me take off so much time and when I actually did show up for work, allowing me to spend the entire day weeping and sometimes wailing in my cubicle. I was the oldest of four and there was no negotiation. It was my job to keep it, them and all my shit together and with the help of Prozac and Xanax I put on an epic performance.
The day of my mother's diagnosis, my father and I were pulled aside into a little private room and the surgeon close the door behind him and my blood turned cold. I realized we were in a 'crying room'. He began to show us photographs of the inside of my mother's abdomen. The abdomen that I and my siblings once nested and grew inside, that gave us life. It was now pockmarked with little white innocuous circles and I was faintly hearing, 'It's spread too far. I'm very sorry. It's one of those things that have so many similar symptoms to other benign things that you can't be sure unless you specifically look for it." and on and on.
Again he apologized and left the room and we got up and staggered out into the hallway and I said very calmly, "I don't want to lose my mother" and collapsed in my father's arms there in the hallway of Geisinger Center in Danville, PA.
A bit later we were informed that my mother was now in her room, very comfortably numb on morphine and we went upstairs to see her. She was nearly totally out of it and didn't see me wiping my tears and I think I even bit my wrist to stop from screaming. I remember the short stint of cutting myself when I was a kid and my mother noticing the initials I'd engraved on the inside of my elbow with a piece of broken glass I'd found on the street and her grabbing my arm and her words terrifying me so much I immediately stopped that shit, she was so fucking formidable and here was something even she couldn't chase or stop or scare away.
I excused myself to make a few phone calls. The entire family was on alert. I called her only brother, my uncle John with whom I had a tenuous relationship at best, and I didn't realize I was sobbing until I heard my father calling me from the other room, Elaine, Elaine, Elaine....then I called my brother David and his wife as usual said he was busy and what was it and I said, 'Put him on the phone NOW.' and I heard my mother's voice in my ears. And so on and so on and so it goes.
So here we were now at the house, my sister pulling into the driveway as we were. Future-spouse said hello and immediately went for a walk. He was never one for the warm fuzzies and frequently left me to my own devices when I was falling apart. One of the first nails in the coffin of my marriage. What a horrid thing to say considering the subject but ironically apropos.
There was a hospice worker at the house. Before leaving she explained that the device leading to my mother's stomach was so that she didn't starve but it was her wishes that there be no heroic efforts, no attempts to prolong anything. I was stunned. I was in denial and would be even as she took her last breathe. My mother had been unable to ingest anything in months and was literally surviving off the fat of her body and was in the end stages of the disease.
I thoughtlessly walked in with a Solo cup of watered down cranberry juice and ice and she asked me what that was and I looked at the hospice worker, who nodded that it would be okay. "She won't be able to keep it down but it will refresh her." so I handed it to her and she downed the whole thing and exactly what the worker said would happen did, but my mother wiped her mouth and said, "Mmmm that was delicious" and I burst into tears.
My sister climbed into bed with her and cuddled up alongside and I sat in a chair at the foot of the bed and asked my mother if she wanted me to rub lotion on her feet. I remember a few weeks before asking her if she'd like me to give her a sort of pedicure and she was delighted and so this day, as the scent of French lavender filled the room, I began to cry again thinking of that and she said, "Elaine, it's okay to cry." I did cry and she said, "I'm sorry for not being the best mom". I said angrily like a child told to lay down for a nap, "YES, you ARE the best Mom"' and she said I was the best too. I said, 'Oh yeah? What have I done for you lately?" She said, "When you were little and I couldn't reach my feet to cut my nails, I'd ask you to do it and you'd get grossed out and just the other week you gave me a pedicure.....that's just one...oh and the cranberry juice..."
I got up and wet a washcloth with warm soapy water and began to rub down her arms and the back of her neck. She changed my diapers. My mother was dying. My mother was dying. My mother was dying.
That day she was remarkably lucid considering the impressive amounts of morphine she was on and she knew it and took advantage. "Go inside and get my jewelry box." I got up and brought it over to her. These were her treasures. Aside from this, she had no material wealth. She began to tell my sister and I, whom each piece would go to. My sister had for years always made an irritating request probably because she'd never comprehend it would actually happen that when my mother died, she wanted her pick of all the jewelry. Sometimes my mother would ask me what I wanted and I always said the same thing, "I'd prefer you live forever." and meant it. The box grew lighter as names were called. Most of the gold chains went to the boys/men as they were least feminine. Her diamond tennis bracelet went to my sister by default because I already owned one, purchased by myself. The box was nearly empty and my mother looked up at me truly surprised and said, "Elaine, I'm so sorry....all that's left are my everyday earrings." I said, "I'll take it."
One sister-in-law got a lovely flawless three-quarter-carat diamond pendant, another got a lovely solid gold San Marco link bracelet. My maid-of-honor and best friend Lizzie got the pearl and gold station necklace she was denied wearing to my wedding because Lisa made such a stink that SHE wanted to wear it, Lizzie gracefully wore the faux copy, and of course, Lisa got the lion's share.
But I don't look at it that way really. Before I said goodnight to her as I was leaving, I leaned down to kiss her and said, 'You know, you were my first best friend.' She said, "I love you." I said, "I love you more." It was a little game we always played but not this time. She grabbed my arm tight and looked me in the eye and said, "NO.... I. LOVE. YOU." I nodded and said, "I know. I do."
I was her firstborn. I had her first just as she had me first. As far as I'm concerned, I got the lion's share. And it was an honor and a privilege to be blessed with such a gift.