I got the call on Monday, July 19, 2004 when I was at work. My sister Mary called to tell me Mom was in the hospital. One of Mom’s friends had called Mary, after finding Mom stranded and immobile at home. Thank God the friend had insisted on coming over to take Mom to the doctor. When Mom didn’t answer the door, the friend went around the house to a back window and saw Mom inside, unable to move and calling for help. The friend broke into the house (we all need friends who will do that for us, right?) and called an ambulance.
When Mary called me, we argued about who should be the one to go to Atlanta to see Mom in the hospital. We figured she’d be out in a day or two, and wouldn’t want us to come meddle in her affairs. (She was VERY private.) Mary was busy with the end of her school year as a teacher, plus her husband’s return from Iraq and her own two children. I had a part-time job and a 1-year-old to take care of, plus VIP tickets to see President Bush the next day. I did NOT want to go to Atlanta, but ended up being the chosen one.
I didn’t think Mom would be too happy to see me. We had been having issues for the past decade, ever since Dad left her. She had closed herself off to me during the divorce, when in the past we had been incredibly close. Then I broke her trust one too many times when Dad manipulated me against her. The result was lots of distance and unhappiness on both our parts, and those feelings festered for the next five or so years.
I flew to Atlanta, and walked in Mom’s hospital room on July 20th. I thought she might roll her eyes at me or worse, but her reaction wiped away the decade of pain. She saw me and said simply, “My baby.” I hugged her, and we went forward from there. No more talking about the past hurts, no more accusations. I wish I’d known then what I know now.
Mom was in the hospital for the rest of her life – about six weeks total. There were numerous complications from her years of living with lupus (and not properly taking care of herself), which thinned her mucus membranes and caused her to bleed internally. We were fighting battles on multiple fronts: two strokes in her brain, blood clots in her legs, C-Diff (an awful bacterial infection), a diseased gallbladder, bedsores, pneumonia, a congestive heart, and ovarian and/or breast cancer. We never cleared up the other issues enough to even start testing for cancer, but her doctor was emphatic that Mom had either ovarian or breast cancer and told Mary and I to include it in our family history. Of course, those were only the physical battles Mom was fighting. She was also struggling mentally with hallucinations brought on by the medications and an extended hospital stay. She was transferred through almost every wing of the hospital, including the sub-ICU and ICU.
Throughout those six weeks, Mary and I tag-teamed Mom. I can’t tell you how many calls I got at 2am that Mom was bleeding out again and I better get to the hospital NOW, or get on a plane to Georgia as soon as possible. It was exhausting and emotionally draining. Thank God Mary was there to walk with me, and Dan was there to pick up the slack when I had to leave in the middle of the night.
It was my turn in Georgia during Mom’s last week in the hospital, the first week of September 2004. I went down there with the intention of packing her house up and moving her to North Carolina to live near Mary. I brought her photos of every single area of her house, so she could decide what she wanted to take with her and what she wanted to give to me and Mary. Dan flew in that Friday, and we rented a U-Haul truck with the plan to move her things on Saturday. Instead, we moved Mom to hospice.
Mom’s doctor sat us down Saturday morning and told us that Mom was fighting a losing battle. We could continue with surgeries and medical care to help prolong her life, but she would probably be confined to a rehab hospital for the rest of her life. Her body was shutting down and giving up on her. Would she want us to continue performing painful tests and surgery, or would she rather finish her days in peace?
I balked and couldn’t believe we were talking about hospice for Mom. I had been in battle mode for so long, and couldn’t imagine “giving up.” When we moved her to hospice that day, oh. Oh. Every fiber of my being fought it. We told her where she was going, and she looked at us with eyes of a child, full of fear of the unknown. Her tears fell because, in her hallucinogenic state, she didn’t know what hospice was. (Yet she did know because my brother was in hospice care before he died. Her brain just wasn’t processing.) I rode with her in the ambulance transport, and she clung to my hand the entire time.
While the nurses settled Mom in to the hospice center, I went to the back patio and sobbed. I couldn’t believe we were giving up on her. I was convinced that we’d give her a week or two in hospice, and she’d get better and we’d move her back to the hospital. She wasn’t dying, for Pete’s sake! C’mon, people! The nurses said that based on their experience, Mom had at least a week to 10 days before her body started shutting down. I thought they were crazy.
That Saturday night, Mom was allowed food (which she was rarely allowed at the hospital because of the intestinal bleeding) and looked better than she had for weeks. It was so reassuring to see her feeling well. Sunday was even better. She slept well because no one woke her to draw blood or take her temperature. She told us, “I know I’m not a butterfly, but I feel like I’m in a cocoon,” going from this life to the next. (And that is why Mary and I collect butterflies now, to remember our mom.) We left her on Sunday evening with a kiss and a hug, an “I love you” and a promise to see her in the morning.
We got a call Monday morning (Labor Day) to tell us Mom had moved into the “actively dying” stage. Her breathing had turned ragged, and they couldn’t wake her. We rushed to the hospice center and sat by her bed all day, listening to her struggle to breathe. Mary slept by her that night, and Dan, Wally and I slept in the waiting room. I was awakened at 7am on Tuesday, September 7, with the words, “She’s gone.” I ran into Mom’s room, and she was silent. Gone.
There are so many things I remember from the following days: writing her eulogy and obituary, hurricanes in Georgia, picking out urns, eating at Arby’s, notifying friends and family, selecting two calla lilies, celebrating Dan’s birthday (also on September 7), celebrating Peyton and Dad’s birthdays (September 9), trying to figure out the words to “Check Your Tears at the Door,” and seeing all the people who loved Mom so dearly at her funeral. The day after Mom’s funeral, Mary and I begged friends for help and, once and for all, loaded Mom’s things into a U-Haul truck. We left our childhood home, and drove away. I have never felt so lonely or abandoned in my life as when I drove up the road and said my last goodbye to my mother and my childhood.
I inherited a legacy from my mother, along with my curly hair, the Gantt chin, and some of her most precious belongings. I inherited her ability to make friends with anyone, her ability to make something out of nothing, and her ability to walk tall despite intense emotional and physical pain. She’s the reason I am who I am, with all the faults and qualities that I have.
I miss hearing her voice, holding her hand, and watching her cry at old hymns. I long to hear her say she loves me and is proud of me and the mother I’ve become. Sometimes I can feel her beside me, holding me as best as she can from far away. I miss you, Mom. Thank you for the love you have given me, and the love you continue to give.