The last time I spoke to my mother she was cranky, which I took to be a good sign. One thing I learned in our 52 years together was an irritated mom was a happy, healthy mom. The cause of her irritation? The hospital had served her a no-salt breakfast. “I don’t have heart disease, I have cancer,” she said with a delighted exasperation. She had me tell her friends to smuggle some salt in to the hospital. Many volunteered but before they could act a nurse took care of it, no doubt flouting some hospital protocol.
However, that afternoon, just as mom was about to be moved from the ICU to a regular hospital room, her condition suddenly got worse. Her blood oxygen levels plummeted. I was mom’s healthcare proxy and around 5:30 I got a call from her doctor, telling me the end was near and wanting to confirm her “do not resuscitate” order. I called Anna Highsmith and was crying so hard I was barely able to ask her to put out the word to people. She did just that and in the hour or so it took my wife, son and I to drive down from Boston the Tribe of Ann had begun to gather.
The ICU has a “family only” policy for visitors and we adhered to it strictly despite many of the people there not being legally related to her. In the course of the next 18 or so hours the room contained two sons, three daughters-in-law, a grandson, a nephew, a son and a couple of daughters she never quite got around to adopting. There were many friends who had known her for forty plus years and remember it only takes seven years to qualify for a common law marriage so certainly these people were at the very least common-law cousins. There were also parents of the many children who she had been a de facto grandmother to. (Not that mom would ever put up with the word grandmother. She declared herself to be Meme and to all those kids, many now adults, that’s what she was.) There was her personal, in-house blues musician and, of course, far too many potters to count. And there was one Bruce. A Bruce is a unique family member, a combination aid, confidante, organizer and person who goes to with you to scary doctor’s appointments and helps you understand about them afterwards.
When I got to the hospital mom’s eyes were half-open but she wasn’t seeing anything. Her breathing was shallow. At first when I held her hand and talked to her she would respond by slightly curling her fingers around mine but after a while that stopped too. People can hear long after they stop being responsive in other ways, Deb Bruce and someone in a set of medical scrubs both told us. So we all did what usually did around mom: We talked. We talked to her one at a time, we told stories to each other. Except for all the crying and mom not interrupting us with her own stories it was almost another evening around the dining room table on Ivy Street or in Chicago. Sometimes there would be a lull and Martin or my son Greg would play guitar and sing for mom backed by an all-key chorus of whoever remembered the lyrics.
At 1.20 my brother Alex leaned over and whispered something in mom’s ear. A few minutes passed and then suddenly mom opened her eyes, sat up, looked around at all of us and said, “Holy shit!” There was a stunned moment and then Marie and Jennifer rushed to hold mom’s hands and comfort her. A pair of medical types hurried in and gave her some more sedative and mom relaxed back into the bed. Then laughter started to pop up around the room as we all realized these were the perfect last words for mom and a last gift for all of us.
A story to go out on, as she would say.