This Is Good-bye
By Stephanie Gold
Behind me, the picture window view of the back lawn in summer-leafy apple trees and brown grass. Before me, the cold metal rails of the newly rented hospital bed. The only sound is the thick, toiling rasp of a breath gone wrong, the distastefully termed death rattle. My mother is in a coma and doesn't seem to mind, but the strained inhalations make me want to climb down her wind pipe and breathe for her: in, out, in, out.
We've been told that hearing is the last sense to go, that it's good to talk to the comatose. My father is excellent at this. "Rhoda,&rdquo he says-forty-five years of marriage and his words flow freely-"I'm going to have a little breakfast, but after that I have to sit down with the mail and bills, which, I'm sorry to say, are spread all over the dining room table, just the way you hate it.&rdquo His tone is loving and informational. It's the sound track in his head, natural and instinctive.
Not so for me. I sit by the hospital bed in their living room, where my mother, per her wishes, has come home to die. I try to speak and my voice catches in my throat. I find no easy words. I can think of nothing that doesn't sound like goodbye.
My older brother and younger sister, both living in New York, are a convenient car ride away; they come on weekends for a few hours, as the needs of wife and children (the brother) and dissertation research (the sister) permit. I live 3000 miles away in San Francisco, so my visit isn't an afternoon excursion; it's a week-long stay in my childhood home.
It's surreal, sitting by my mother-she, blankly distant; I, unable to speak. My mother had been a communication zealot, words her favorite coin to spend. My early years were full of groaning puns, books aplenty, crosswords at lunch breaks and on Sunday afternoons, Scrabble in the evenings. My father, more comfortable with statistical charts than with the tricky, uncharted nuances of words, might have felt left out on this account, had we not included him mercilessly. On long car rides, we passed the time with word games like 20 questions; when my father insisted that trees were not plants, we argued, ridiculed, and ultimately bet him he was horticulturally mistaken. My brother and I each won a pack of colored pencils on that deal, my mother emerged with a new purse, and previously innocuous oak groves and rows of graceful elms became minefields of potential ribbing.
My mother was a psychotherapist and quite the advocate of expressing her emotions and examining everyone else's. She was not one of those mothers with any qualms about saying, "Oooh, what a face! How was I so lucky to give birth to a daughter like you?&rdquo On the flip side, her full voice-audible, even at conversational levels-over the din of any party, could just as easily blaze into "When are you going to clear the table? I'm sick and tired of having to remind you! Don't tell me 'in a minute,' do it now!&rdquo With my mother, you never had to question where you stood. Never until now. As she lies, barely breathing on her narrow, railed cot, I'm not even sure she knows I'm there, saying nothing.
Perhaps because I'm the one who roamed, the only one of my mother's offspring to end up on a distant coast, our mother-child bond weathered the teenage tempests with the least residual damage, evolving into a warm, snug intimacy. "Stephie's home!&rdquo my mother would sing out, back when a visit was a festive occasion, her broad face effusive and proud. We could work the Sunday crossword in easy camaraderie, rehash old battles (yes, this is what I'm wearing, and no, I have no plans to comb my hair), and laugh till our guts hurt, our cheeks wet with tears-no sterile containers for messy emotions between us. At visit's end, she would hold my face between her large hands, her vivid violet-blue eyes peering through the thick glasses she had worn since girlhood into the hazel eyes I inherited from my father. "You go right in,&rdquo she would sigh, indicating her heart.
Later, when the cancer hit her language center, we communicated fluently without words. Too weak for demonstrative hugs, she'd see me walk into her hospital room and something taut in her face would melt. One day, on yet another cross-country visit, I sat perched by her side on the hospital bed. Conversation was difficult-she would start to say something and then seek in vain for the next word, long pauses filled with tense frustration; if you helped out by filling the voids with suggested words, her face clearly showed her irritation. So I sat by her quietly, and she put her hand under the back of my sweater, for it was winter outside. She rubbed my lower back gently, absently, like a mother will do with her young child.
In the progression of death, you don't know when you have it good, because "good&rdquo is only so by comparison. A month ago, I sat in her bright kitchen with her, home again from the hospital till the next emergency room run. She wasn't in a coma then, but neither was she all there. She knew me, though, her elder daughter, and let me cajole her into taking her medications, one spoonful of bitter ground pills in applesauce at a time.
At night, I'd sleep on the velvet couch in the living room-the same couch we used to skirmish over. "Don't sit on that couch,&rdquo she would order, as I'd flop there after school. &ldquoIt's just been cleaned!&rdquo -Which meant it had been vacuumed and punched into picture-perfect shape, an exquisiteness so fragile, apparently, that by merely sitting and sinking into the down-feathered softness, I'd make an imprint and thereby ruin it. "It's the living room,&rdquo I'd say, with all the logic and contempt of a teenager. "It's for living.&rdquo
But living had become tenuous at best in this carefully appointed room. The blue velvet couch, the baby grand, the Bakara red Persian carpet-all eclipsed by the hospital bed, potty chair, medication tray and diapers. At night I'd send my haggard father up to bed, in yet one more odd role reversal brought on by the illness, and I'd camp out in the living room, up with each cough and moan. Sometimes she was just making noises in her sleep. Sometimes she was awake and in pain.
I'd get the morphine bottle, squeeze a couple of drops under her tongue, and she'd sleep again.
One night I slept upstairs in my old bedroom, guilty at the desertion but desperate for a few hours of unbroken slumber. I left the door open, sleeping lightly. In the early morning I heard her voice.
I flew downstairs.
It was a bathroom call. I lowered the bed rails, held her broad but now incongruously bony shoulders, leveraged her up, but it was too late. A cascade, a torrent of urine let loose, a pungent flood soaking mother, bed, and blanket, a deluge of piss on the polished oak floor and Persian rug.
She sat in the midst of the wet and she wailed, staring at the puddles. &ldquoSomething wrong!&rdquo she cried. Her beloved, soft, 75-year-old face was distraught. Her shame, that of a toddler fearing rebuke.
I sat her on the potty-too late for its intended use but handy as a secure, plastic platform while I stripped the bed, sponged the plastic mattress, found clean sheets, fetched another white cotton nightgown. Finally I helped her back into bed. The horror was fading from her face, but traces lingered with the odor. She no longer remembered quite what was wrong. Tired from the ordeal, she slipped back into sleep while I swabbed the floor, dabbed dry the Persian rug. Mops and Sani-Wipes formed the new lexicon of love.
Now, the coma renders her insensible to both shame and, I hope, pain. Ravaged inside by the cancer that spread from breasts to lungs and eventually brain, her body retains its sturdy form. Her mother told her as a girl, "Good thing you're smart in school, 'cause you're no beauty,&rdquo a belief my mother retained until the end. Yet as a young woman in the 1940s, she was astonishingly beautiful; pictures of her lounging long-legged and Joan Crawford-esque on the beach take my breath away. But the shoulder pads so popular in her day made her look like a quarterback, she said.
The hospice nurse has arrived. She's very good. She moistens my mother's lips with a wet Q-tip and explains that the coarse, guttural sounds of her breathing are due to phlegm she no longer has the strength or impulse to cough up. She lifts the sheet from the foot of the bed and shows us my mother's legs, taut with fluid retention and unusually dark. "It won't be long now,&rdquo she says. She explains that as the body prepares to expire, the blood is conserved for the organs, so the extremities take on a bluish tinge. It's a sign.
My father bends low and says softly that he loves her and hopes she isn't in pain. Then I'm alone with my mother, and still no words squeeze past the lump in my throat. But speaking has become unnecessary. There was nothing left unsaid between us, and nothing I could articulate more clearly than I did in our vocabulary of morphine and sponges. Suddenly there is movement and sound, though not from me. Finally, her lungs revolt and a gush of phlegm erupts thickly from her dry lips. And then it's over, and she's no more. There's only me with a tissue, tenderly dabbing my mother's face.