The Day I Watched my Mom Die

I don’t know about you, but I don’t puke very often as an adult. Therefore, whenever I do, it is indelibly marked in my memory. The most recent such event was at the end of May in 2017 when I felt nauseous all evening at work. I left early because of my nausea, and on my way out the front door, I was overcome by my body’s rebellion against itself and I puked all over the entrance’s very large carpet. Gross, I know. After it all came out, I dragged the carpet outside, found a hose and cleaning supplies, rinsed it thoroughly, cleaned it the best I could, and headed home. What I assumed was the beginning of a stomach bug or food poising ended up being something much worst.
That incident was on a Thursday night. Friday, I took the day off and laid around the house. I had a sweet friend  swing by with ginger ale, crackers, soup, and flowers. I hoped I’d be able to keep food down in the next day or so. Unfortunately, that was not the case. I woke up on Saturday morning and found myself concerned by what I saw in the toilet after a morning urination. My urine was dark brown. Like well-brewed sweet tea. That disgusting feeling you have reading that distasteful metaphor, is precisely how I felt when I saw that come out of me. The fact that I still couldn’t keep anything down, mixed with the uncomfortably dark color in my toilet bowl, led me to the decision that if I didn’t feel better by Sunday, I would go to Urgent Care.
Sunday rolled around with no change, and so I texted a friend who lived close about the situation and asked if she’d be willing to swing me into Urgent Care to get a prescription so that I can knockout whatever this sickness is. She picked me up a few hours later and we went to Urgent Care. All my symptoms pointed to some sort of stomach bug. They confirmed the Wal-Mart I pick up my prescriptions up at and were about to send me on my way when I reiterated about my odd urine color-and so they gave me a sample bottle.
Minutes after shamefully handing them my odd sampling, the nurse came back looking much graver than she had the interactions prior. She told me that she sent my information to Lancaster General Hospital, and that I need to go there right away. She showed me my paperwork and explained to me what levels were high and where they were supposed to be. LGH would be expecting me. When we arrived, the emergency room was pretty packed. I quickly got onto a rolly bed, had my vitals checked, and was hooked up to an IV. I slept in the hall most the first night. I remember telling Kate to go home, that I’d be fine and I’d let her know as soon as I hear anything. I remember a nurse taking 6 vials of blood from me, and once they left my side, I finally let hot tears race down my cheeks. I wasn’t in pain. I knew God always had good purposes for everything he does, but I was still scared and lonely and confused.  After a cat scan, and a sonogram a doctor came by my bedside and let me know they can rule out pancreatic cancer, and that I’d be in my own room soon. I remember him being very kind and putting a comforting hand on my shoulder.
The next three days I stayed in the hospital being pumped with fluids by my IV, giving vials of blood constantly, and being visited by a stream of wonderful friends and a great hospital staff. It wasn’t too long when they figured out that I had contracted Hepatitis A from a recent missionary trip to Central America. Comorbidities of the Hep A virus was mononucleosis and jaundice, and all I really needed to do was to rest and drink plenty of water. So rest I did. My parents were eager to visit me in the hospital, but I suggested they stay home and that I would come to them as soon as I was able to. So when released from the hospital, I drove 2 hours down to my parent’s home in Maryland for another week of carefully monitoring my health and slowly working up to activities and normalcy.
I fondly remember my mother’s care that June. She loved doting on me and taking care of every detail of the day. From my food, to slow morning walks, to making sure my water bottle was always near me—she was on it. It was especially sweet to me because there had been many seasons of life where my mom wasn’t able to “mom” me. She wrestled with depression, workaholism, and alcoholism, which resulted in times when she wasn’t home and or able to care for me so sweetly and wholly. We talked about mental health and family issues. We cried together, baked cookies together, and snuggled on the couch. I read to her a presentation I was going to give to a local church about mental health and she openly talked about her struggles and the success that she’s had in overcoming these things because of the support of Dad, family, and her faith.
When I went back to work in Pennsylvania, I distinctly remember telling people that perhaps the only reason God allowed me to contract Hepatitis A was for that sweet time with my Mom. It was among my very favorite memories  with her. And that time was especially a gift considering what the next few weeks were going to hold.
In mid-July Dad took mom into Urgent Care because she was having trouble breathing. They thought perhaps she had some form of pneumonia and admitted her for testing. The first week’s stay in the hospital wasn’t too bad. Mom was in high spirits, I was able to visit during the weekend, and it seemed that they were going to soon get answers. It was a sweet time with her in the hospital. I painted her nails and did her hair. I stole too much of her milkshake and we laughed at inside jokes and her ridiculous life advice. My brother, sister, and Dad were able to be there often as well, and mom had a steady shower of cards and gifts and visitors. Mom and Dad celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary in that hospital and they both spoke lovingly about all that they have learned in married life about unconditional love. But as week two rolled around and her breathing became more and more labored, and a scan of her lungs showed rapid graying and deterioration, we began to get more concerned. The oxygen tank levels kept increasing. Her mobility kept decreasing. Her pain with every breath continued.
We finally had a diagnosis-Pulmonary Fibrosis with a life expectancy of 3-5 years. We started to come to terms with the idea of Mom being on oxygen, and in pain for the the rest of her life. She spoke of her desire to live at home for as long as possible, and to be move to assisted living only when absolutely necessary. We encouraged her with truth about her quality of life despite being connected to a tank.
Then on a Wednesday, July 26, 2017, her health took a dive and I got a conference call from my brother and sister with instructions to come to Maryland as quickly as possible. Mom wants us gathered around and wants to say her last words to us. She felt like her time was coming. The doctors didn’t know why-but her Pulmonary Fibrosis was exacerbated and increasing at a rate much faster than anyone anticipated. They were doing what they could to help-but nothing was helping.
She had been moved to a different room in the hospital, and I remember rounding the corner with my siblings after we met in the parking lot, and seeing how much she had aged in just two days. How could the downhill journey be such a fast one? We gathered around her and listened to her sweet and serious words. She had special wishes for each of us, and she made very clear her wishes to not be kept alive via life support. She told us that she is ready to go, and that her prayer has been that she would go with grace. We all told her how proud of her we were, and how incredibly grace-filled she had been in every step of this journey. We laughed with her and told her how much we deeply love her and how incredibly thankful and blessed we are to have her as mom.
I came back on Thursday morning and checked in on her. The doctors seemed to think that last night was a little scare, but they were still hopeful that Mom had more time and fight left in her. My boyfriend (and soon to be fiancé) was coming home from his deployment that very evening and we were scheduled to spend the weekend-Saturday, Sunday, Monday—with my family. I was making sure Mom was stable and okay for me to be gone Thursday and Friday. She said she felt good and that she looked forward to seeing Nathaniel and I on Saturday. I kissed her and said goodbye.
I had no idea that would be the last time I saw her eyes open, heard her laugh, or felt her hand squeeze mine.
Being with Nathaniel was a joy. I was able to share with him the burden of the last few weeks, we attended a dear friend’s wedding, and Saturday morning began our drive to Maryland. However, a few confusing texts from my Dad led me to worriedly call him, and I found out that Mom had an awful Friday night. He told me of the panic and pain in her face, and of the doctor’s quick decision to sedate her and transfer her to University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore. With little information, and much fear and worry, we set off for Baltimore. When we arrived to the Critical Care Unit, we were instructed to put on protective gear to go back and see her. I slid on a face mask, gloves, and a gown that I swore you could see my heart pounding out of and walked to the back of the room where dad stood by her side. She looked absolutely awful. Horrendous. A pussing sore on her face, colorless dry skin, heavy heaving chest, and tubes and wires everywhere. She was on the very life-support she asked to not be on long.
In moments of tragedy and trauma-everyone responds differently. I’ve found that I respond by finding answers. Who do I talk to who can best explain to me where we are currently and where we need to be? And so I began asking questions. The answers to most of my questions were “it’s too early to tell”. UMMC doctors needed to run more test and try a few more things for them to know if mom would ever be unsedated or off life support.
The next day was my birthday, and thinking that we had time, Nathaniel offered to take me away to a shore house for a day to relax and celebrate before returning to the hospital. So we drove to the shore and spent a few hours with my toes in the sand and the smell of saltwater in the air. We had walked around the cute shops of Long Island New Jersey, and retired to the shore house in the afternoon hours. Around 3:00pm I received a call from my older sister, Glenda. It was bad news. She relayed to me what the doctors had been doing, and what they concluded. They thought it would take days to know for sure-but their findings were inevitable and the disease rapidly eating away at her lungs, inexorable, and the damage irrevocable. The long and short of it was that Mom is not going to get better. She will die when she comes off of life support. And it would be awful to take her off of her sedation, because if she awakes she would be in severe pain and severely panicked due to an inability to breath. Glenda asked me to come back to the hospital tomorrow, August 1st, and that when I arrived, we would take her off life support.
I hung up the phone, relayed the information to him, and sobbed into Nathaniel’s chest. It’s amazing how a stinging string of tears, muffled cries, and a subsequent headache brought a small level of relief to my breaking heart. I laid in bed that night thinking of the timeline of Mom’s soon to be death. I felt angry and allowed all the little slivers of anger that I had been pushing aside all come to the forefront of my mind. I was angry that my birthday would forever be shadowed by this pain. Angry that mom won’t be the first person I call when Nathaniel proposes. Angry that she won’t see me on my wedding day, or give me advice about being a wife or mom. Angry that Dad has to be alone when he has worked so hard for so many years to keep mom in his life and by his side. Angry that she had just started to mend some broken relationships with old friends who would be such a blessing to her. Angry that my brother, sister, and I have to watch our mom die tomorrow-59 years young. Angry that this woman just began to be the healthiest, happiest version of herself, and now, NOW?! she is going to be taken from this world. I stewed in my anger and pain for minutes or hours-I don’t know. But I do know that, I ended my mind racing with this thought, “I believe, help my unbelief. I believe that God is good and kind and purposeful in all life’s moments, help my unbelief in this moment.” I wiped the last of my tears from my face and neck, and fell asleep.
The next morning, as Nathaniel drove us to Baltimore, I mediated on the last minute truth the Holy Spirit brought to me last night. I thought about who I know God to be, and what that means in this situation. God is omniscient-meaning that he knows everything. He knows what I need and what Dad, and David, and Glenda needs. He knows what would happen if Mom stayed alive another 2 years, 5 years, 10 years. He knows the future that will be, could have been, and shouldn’t be. He is omnipotent-meaning he is all powerful. He is powerful enough to keep any and all diseases away from Mom if he wanted to and he is powerful enough to sustain my family and I through this trial. He is powerful enough to provide peace and acceptance, and trust. He is perfect- he always does what is right and good and best. He works on our behalf, lovingly, purposefully, and with justice and kindness. This day, therefore, August 1, 2017 must be the PERFECT day for my mom to die. It must be the BEST day out of all the possible days, for her to go home. He has looked at them all, measured each one, and said today-today is the perfect day for her to end her fight with depression. End her fight with alcohol. End her anxiety and fear and insecurity. Today is the perfect day for her to stop worrying about finances, or future, or the crippling abuse of self-degradation. Today is the perfect day to be with her Savior-Jesus Christ who loves her more deeply that I can even begin to imagine. She will get to finally see him perfectly, and finally see herself the way that he sees her-a spotless and radiant bride.
My family stood around Mom that afternoon as the doctor and nurse assigned to her gently took her off life support. We prayed over her, sang to her, shared funny and endearing memories about her, chocked back tears, wiped one another’s tears, and peacefully and painfully watched her take heavy breath after heavy breath. For an hour we shared and sang and laughed and cried, all the while her chest resting for moments at a time and then suddenly surging with a large yet strained inhale. The color slowly drained from her face, as all energy and emotion were draining from each of us still standing. When the doctor announced her official time of death, a crowd of hospital personnel filled the room, and stood around and with us. Our doctor announced who mom was and the wonderful life she lived with the family she loved so much, and then led the room in a moment of silent. Then everyone filed out of the room until it was just us kids and dad. We watched him with her, treasuring his last moment with the love of his life. And then we left the hospital.
In the days and weeks that followed, I was bombarded with realizations of God’s goodness in this tragedy. God had allowed me to be hospitalized weeks before mom, and I thusly felt very comfortable and able to comfort mom during her stay in the hospital. Also, God gave mom and I that sweet, sweet time together prior to her being sick-that I will treasure forever. God gave me an amazing employer who gave me days off during my sickness, mom’s sickness, and an extra week for bereavement to help dad with the Celebration of Life Service and all the dozens and dozens of things one must do after someone dies. My boyfriend, now husband was able to be home from deployment the very week that I needed him most, the week that my mom died. My sister’s husband is a widow and was able to love and care for her well during this trial. Mom’s service was one full of grace and hope and God’s glory. If she would have passed at a different time and season in life, it could have been a very sad service. But because of God’s grace in redeeming her story, saving her from alcoholism and turning her life and purpose around-the service and her story was stunningly beautiful.
I am posting this summary, two years after Mom’s death. And it has been a 2 years full of heartache and tears. I missed her laughter at my bridal shower, and her hugs at my wedding. I miss the way she rolls her eyes at my dad’s cheesy jokes, and her protective heart for my brother. I hate that my kids won’t know this grandma and that Nathaniel didn’t get to experience her more. My heart breaks over my dad’s continued loneliness-though I know he clings to Christ. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve reached for my phone wanting to tell her something or ask her something, only to be met with a wave of grief that still stings. Yet despite the aching sadness, in my heart also dwells abiding peace. Peace abides because I know God’s grace will meet me every step of my journey. As I lack and as I come face to face with my many insufficiencies, I turn to the God who has none. He provides every source of comfort, every relationship, and every blessing. He is the Good Shepherd. Peace abides because I know God is perfect in everything he does, including the moment and the way he brings his children home. And all the brokenness and sorrow and guilt that once plagued my mom this side of heaven—she is completely, resolutely freed from. Peace abides because my mom is free to be happier and more complete that she has ever been. She is free to experience a fullness and a joy like she has never know.
So August 1, 2017 wasn’t the day I watched my mom die, it was actually the day I watched my mom become free.