I’m sure everyone has heard the story at least once. A friend is enjoying some needed peace, basking in the afternoon sun while reading Chaucer, or Didion, or (insert fav author here), when startled by a loud crash. The bird flying into the window story, of course. If you’ve heard it, you know where this is going. The phone will ring minutes later, notifying our friend that a loved one has died, either unexpectedly, or perhaps they were precariously terminal. Doesn’t matter. Either scenario works, as the metaphor is the point. An ill-fated bird, foreshadowing of an imminent loss.
September 24, 2010.
When I open my eyes, springing from deep REM to wide awake in seconds, there is no bird hitting the window. Just a nurse in my bedroom poking gently at my shoulder, informing me that my mother is gone. Only a few minutes ago, she tells me.
This doesn’t surprise me. Having been home for the past four days, it gradually dawned on me that Mom intended to leave through the back door, quietly, and by herself. It was less than half an hour before that I had left her room. Looking at the nurse, I say nothing while searching her face, unsure what I am looking for beyond a futile attempt to delay what will inevitability come next.
As if to save me from my own question, she says, “Peaceful, she just slipped away.”
“Was my father … “
“No, but I’m on my way to tell him now.”
“That’s fine, I got it. Thank you.” I offer a weak smile.
She reaches out abruptly, then delivers an awkward, brief embrace. The sweet and halting offerings of a stranger … I stiffen, but dutifully smile. If nothing else, Mom had always ensured my manners were beyond reproach.
The nurse smiles and tells me she will inform the coroner. Routine on all home hospice calls, she explains. Predictably, she is surprised when I tell her that won’t actually be necessary, as the arrangements have already been made. Second page in the DNR, I explain. Confused, she flips open the chart. “Oh, I didn’t know you were a critical care flight …”
“No, what I mean is I’m not currently active, though I do what’s required to maintain my certification.”
That had been the plan, anyway. The one that looked to avoid the hassle and disturbance of a medical examiner visit. Unnecessary really, when I could simply sign off on the official pronouncement instead. A formality consisting of a full round of vital sign assessments, concluded by direct cardiac auscultation, confirming absence of an apical pulse for a minimum of one minute.
The wings of a hummingbird in flight may beat up to 80 times or more per second.
Placing the stethoscope over the left apex of my mother’s chest, I search in vain for any trace of a heartbeat present in the woman who gave me life. There is no sound.
The paperwork would later confirm a finding of vital signs absent. The signature next to that specific notion; Allan G W Rae CCFP. In what appears visually to be a late addition on the file, following my name and inside two brackets are the words (patient’s son.)
Gently, I shake my father’s shoulder.
He bolts up, a few brief seconds of panic.“What, is it your mother? Is it time?”
I realize I need to choose my words carefully here. Neutral, minimal descriptions.
“It is. Come with me, okay?”
“I’ll be a minute, I just need to pee.”
Huh? I pause, counting to 3, silently thinking “are you fucking kidding me?” But then I realize with a heart wrenching ache that my father truly has no idea what has just taken place, or is in a desperate attempt at avoiding a reality his denials have, ultimately, failed to keep at bay.
Several minutes later, and after Dad kisses the forehead on his wife of 55 years, I still can’t be sure; is it genuine ignorance, or a desperate avoidance? Ultimately, it is something I will never ask, nor will he ever say. The answer doesn’t matter. Because either way, his wife and companion for over half a century is gone.
We sit in silence for several minutes. Then I tell him to take as much time as he requires, I’ll be in the other room if he needs me. He doesn’t respond. It is at this point I realize Singher, my Lab/Dal cross, silent and curled around my mothers ankles, has been there with her all night, keeping a silent vigil, cocooned in the swell of bed covers.
That realization is enough to liberate my tears that have been welling for days. It is a release that comes fast and hard, and I bury my head in the soft black and white fur of my dog, who remains still and silent. Though I am not aware of it at the time, it will be well over a year until I am able to shed another tear.
When I was young, seven I think, my mother and I held a funeral for a snail I had claimed as a pet. A burial at dusk, from a boat in the Adriatic Sea. Later, I would bury the birds that flew into our windows, gold fish that floated belly up in glass bowls; digging holes in the backyard garden with my mothers silver spoons, carrying a bouquet of wildflowers, I practiced walking like the groom (and yes, occasionally the bride). I understood nothing of the deeper elements of death or sex, it was the solemnity of ceremony that I loved. My first funerals were weddings.
The next few weeks were, and are, a blurry haze of images, condolences, regrets, announcements, in-law mitigation, and the planning and discharge of just how two men, a husband and a son, will attempt to say an appropriate goodbye to a wife and mother. How I will do that, I have no idea.