The Daily Post’s weekly writing challenge this week was “In an Instagram.” Bloggers were asked to tell a story about a moment when our life was changed in a split second. If you’d like to read more about the challenge check out their blog post:
A Moment of Levity
It was late-October 2005 when the dizzy spells, near-fainting, chills, and vomiting had finally gotten the best of her. “Okay, I’ll go.” Momma allowed us to help her down the front steps and into her Ford Explorer. She clutched the bowl we’d given her “just in case” and waited patiently for us to take her to Johnson Memorial Hospital.
After hours in the emergency department, the doctor came in to deliver the news. The lights in the room had been turned low to allow Momma a chance to close her eyes for some sleep as night had crept in. “She has a large tumor. We’re going to admit her.” More waiting. Then a slow meander up to her room. “Visiting hours are over,” we were informed almost immediately by the nurse on duty. I kissed her goodnight and promised that we’d be back first thing in the morning.
When we returned to her room the next morning, we found her in a johnny. She was sitting up in bed with her back to the door. She smiled when we came in. “I’m not staying here,” she decreed.
“You have to stay. Let them do the tests they want to do to make you better. You can’t just go home.”
She agreed that home wasn’t the right place for her. But neither was Johnson Memorial Hospital. “I want to go to Hartford Hospital,” she announced. Her primary care physician was none-too-pleased as she doesn’t work in Hartford Hospital. But Momma insisted. And Momma gets her way. Within a few hours, we were getting her settled into her new room at Hartford Hospital. I remember lounging in her hospital bed that day, adjusting the controls to incline the back as I crossed my feet at my ankles. Momma wasn’t there at the time—they had her off for another test. My sister Bree and Momma’s best friend Frankie were with me. I remember one of them said something about an oncologist and was met by a funny look from me. “What’s that? A blood doctor?” They book just looked at me.
“You do realize we’re in the oncology ward, right?” Frankie asked.
“Yeah, but what’s that mean?”
“Oncology means cancer.”
I let a plump tear roll down my cheek as the reality hit and the worst case scenario flashed through my mind. Quickly, though, I returned to my youthful optimism. She’d get through this. I just knew it.
The following months are a blur to me. I remember snipets of events—both happy and heart-wrenching.
That Halloween, I brought decorations and a big bowl of candy from home to set up her room for her Trick-or-Treaters—my sister’s boys. They came decked out in their costumes, knocked on her hospital room, and held up their pumpkin containers to accept their surprises from GranMommy. She welcomed them in and let them climb all over her bed while she reclined in the chair and chatted. She was herself then.
As the weeks wore on the tests continued to mount up. Biopsies and blood transfusions became the norm. Chemo started. She lost a lot of weight. The skin on her hands and feet began to peel, no matter how much lotion we applied. Her legs lost a lot of strength so getting up to walk around began more difficult. She was afraid to take her hair out of the scrunchie she had it looped up in for fear of it falling out in her hands.
She had a visitor with her at all times—Poppa, Bree, Frankie, or I never left her side. And we had no choice. Momma was a very private person and insisted on submitting a written request to the hospital that they do not release any of her information to anyone asking for her. “Don’t lose her,” nurses warned us. “If they take her for a test, you make sure you find out where she’s going and when she’s coming back. Because if you don’t know where she is, no one can tell you.” I spent lots of nights curled up in a cot on the side of her bed, listening to her IV pump (which sometimes pumped fluids only and other times pumped “liquid Big Macs” as she referred to the nutrients they gave her when she wasn’t able to keep food down), trying to ignore the nurses who came in to check her vitals every hour, and trying my best to enjoy the “quality time” with Momma.
One day, Momma was feeling especially adventurous. Her mouth was dry and she wanted nothing more than to brush her teeth. Though the sink was only a few steps from her bed, her legs weren’t strong enough to walk her there so we improvised. We swung her legs over the edge of her bed, sat her up, and handed her a spit cup and her toothbrush. After we stepped aside, she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror and literally did a double take. Her eyes filled up as she took in her reflection for the first time in weeks. Her cheeks and eyes had sunken in, her face was pale, and her hair was a knotted mess in her scrunchie. “I don’t even look like me.” She didn’t ask to brush her teeth again after that.
At one point, she got discharged to the care of a visiting nurse. And after a few days at home, she had to be returned to the hospital. She didn’t want help getting from the living room of her raised ranch to the car, which Poppa had pulled across the front lawn and literally up to the front porch. So she sat on the top stair and slowly lowered herself down one stair at a time. “Goodbye, house,” she said on her way.
At another time, she was transferred to Haven Health—my 47-year-old mother in a nursing home!—to undergo therapy to help strengthen her legs again. She was there for three days and despite the staff’s urging that we leave at the end of visiting hours, one of us was there for three days, too. They didn’t encourage overnight guests which meant they had no cot to offer us. So Poppa moved the recliner from our living room to her new room. During her short stay there, we handled about 90% of her care ourselves. And it was probably better off that way, especially after what I observed on her first night there. A nurse came in to check her vitals and said she’d be back to do a finger prick for a glucose test. When the nurse returned, she positioned herself between where I sat (by the door) and my mother’s bed so I couldn’t see what she was doing. But I heard my mother say, “What’s that? Don’t prick my finger with that!” I questioned the nurse on her way out the door and was told that she was just doing a glucose test. When she left the room, my mother looked at me with huge eyes and insisted, “She used a syringe!” A few minutes later, the nurse returned and produced a lancet for me. “I realized after I left I should have just shown you what I used.” Mmhmm. My mother was sick. Not senile.
It was mid-December and we were back at Hartford Hospital when I finally convinced her to let me brush her hair for her. “I’m afraid,” she admitted. I assured her that even if it did fall out, it would grow back. Poppa sat on the cot strumming Christmas carols on his guitar as I carefully took out her scrunchie and began brushing. When I saw how much hair was coming out with each brush stroke, I moved the trash bin to my feet so I could discretely clean the brush out without her noticing how often it had to be done. But she noticed. She gripped my forearm and gazed up at me with glossy eyes. “It’s okay. Just cut it off.” I did hunt down a pair of scissors from one of the nurses that night, intending to give her the haircut she asked for. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I continued to brush. Carefully. Slowly. Until all of the knots were out. And, sure, her hair looked thinner but she still had a lot of it. And she smiled brightly when she looped it back up into a loose ponytail and thanked me.
We spent New Year’s Eve in the ICU. Her blood pressure was very low and most times she wasn’t lucid. On January 1, 2006, she opened her eyes and whispered something almost inaudible. I moved closer to hear her. She wanted to sit up on the edge of her bed. She said she wanted to feel her legs swinging. I alerted the nurse and was immediately told that she was not allowed to sit up because of her blood pressure; she was at risk for fainting. I suggested that we stand on either side of her to make sure she stayed in place but the nurse still refused. I remember raising my voice and I remember someone (Bree?) suggest I let it go. I collapsed into the recliner in her room, defeated, wishing I could give Momma what she wanted. And then it happened. She moved one of her legs off the bed, opened one eye to look at me, and smiled as best as her dry mouth would allow. She closed her eyes and swung her one leg back and forth. And in that moment, I realized that she may not look the same. And often she doesn’t act the same anymore. But it was that moment that I knew her sarcastic, fun-loving personality hadn’t been robbed by the cancer that coursed through her blood. And sick as she was, she was still my Momma and she knew I needed that moment of levity.
Momma passed away the following afternoon. I’m not prepared to share the details of that day. I may never be. But I was right there with her, holding her hand until after she exhaled her final breath.
Today would have been her 55th birthday. And she would be so pissed if she were to see me getting teary and reminiscing about her final months. She’d rather I be at the casino (which is where she opted to spend her birthdays) or remembering the good times. So I think I’ll go open her bottle of perfume to take a whiff then drift off to sleep while listening to some Kris Kristofferson music.
In loving memory of MaryBeth Kohler
11/14/57 – 1/2/06