A Birthday Missed
It was either 15 or 16 days that passed from the time I saw my mother in ICU to the moment I watched her cease to exist. I don’t really remember. I stood in my backyard trying to rapidly put the past two weeks behind me; watching people pick and scavenge through my belongings on the front lawn, the cars on the North Road whizzing past and the bitter October air pushing itself over the vineyard. I saw familiar faces from town picking through our things, giving condolences, cash, and taking off. At the very front was my brother’s old car, and beside that my bedroom furniture with a big “FREE” sign taped to it. My life quickly became a question of where I was going to go on Long Island, if I was ever to stay, and why everything just crumbled the way it did.
I had just said my goodbyes to my mom the first week of September. “I’ll be home for your birthday.” She just smiled sheepishly and said that she wished she could have spent more time with me this summer. Rather, the warm months on Goose Creek were spent in a dark room; the stale air sitting idly in the open bedroom door, blinds drawn. No sunlight. She slept almost all day every day, only to rise after the sun went down, where she would turn on the television and get lost in the Lord of the Rings or some other lengthy film. Her swollen feet would be resting on a chair — silence —except her occasional cough and green water gently lapping against the dock outside.
When I would catch her home, I’d just sit patiently with her, listening to our breathing and the incessant ticking of the clock on the wall. It seemed to get louder and louder with each tock and I would have to get up and leave the room.
I was already planning my trip back for my mom’s birthday when I left Long Island that September. I would be home by October 8. I was going to have a present, and a card, and make her dinner — I got really used to making dinner that summer.
I sat outside on the John H. ferry taking in the afternoon sun while the salty air coated my face as we passed through Plum Gut. I was excited to go finish my senior year of college in Massachusetts.
Getting the phone call that your mother is in the hospital is something that always haunted me up until the day it happened. The strained voice on the other end was my father’s, but it might as well have been a child, lost and helpless.
“Mom is really sick. Don’t come today. Come tomorrow. There’s nothing you can do.”
I was sitting on the bottom step inside of my apartment. I crumbled. I slid down to the cold linoleum floor. I felt like a dying star as I began to compress into my own mind. I was a baby again. I was a child. I was not a traveled scholar. I was no longer an adult. My mother was fading across the Sound and a light was going out within me.
The ferry was booked for the following day. I woke up before the sun rose and took to I-95 back to New London. Providence was post-apocalyptic – dark and empty streets, blank. Again I boarded this ferry, the sun coming up over the Sound, and the water black. I drove back through Orient, beyond Greenport, and past my home on the corner.
The old farm lined with grapes and trees readily anticipating the fall. I met with my dad, brother, and grandfather as we made our way up to Peconic Bay Medical ICU. Four years prior I lost both of my grandmothers, and now I was losing my hero. Although I was in the car with those three men, the pillars of strength, I was already alone. I was already mourning. I knew my mom wasn’t leaving that hospital. I think they knew too.
The following days were a blur of people in and out. My mother lucid and sometimes coherent, poisoned by her own liver, sarcastically rolled her eyes at me, loosely held onto my hand, and made her announcement that she accepted her fate.
“I am scared.”
I rubbed her arm up and down, trying to avoid the needles that tracked through her veins.
“I am sorry that I let you down.”
We looked each other in the eyes and tears rolled down my face but I made no noise. I couldn’t comprehend that the woman who raised me thought she let me down. I didn’t know how to assure her that she was so unbelievably wrong.
The call of mom being in the hospital was trumped by the call that she went into a coma. It had been nine or ten days since she first entered the hospital. The night before, she asked me to stay with her just in case something happened. I should have taken the hint, but was not brave enough to accept that. I watched as they gave her last rights with her eyes closed and her head writhing around, unable to submit to a higher power. Her machines were removed and she was wheeled to the top floor, where the lights were brighter, it was quieter, and she could be in a larger room. I sat alone in my mind while my mother lay there breathing heavily and labored behind an oxygen mask. A mother came in.
I went to school with her daughter. She adjusted my mother’s pillow, spoke gently, hugged me, and left.
Another mother entered.
Donning scrubs like the one before, she put medication along my mother’s gums, touched her hand, and left. Two more scrubbed angels of the top floor of Peconic Bay Medical Center entered that night. One was later seen crying in the elevator. They brought food, and baby wipes, and blankets so my family could lay with my mother. I could not sleep, though, and held on until the grips of exhaustion dragged me into unconsciousness. Day after day, it was a battle with my head and will while other mothers tended to us. It was comfort in a time of peril. It gave me hope.
One morning I woke in the bed beside my mother to a phone call from a friend asking how I was. I looked around at how empty the hospital room was for once. I hesitated, forgetting where I was, and said that I thought she was alright. The fluorescent lights were overpowering the sun outside, and I gazed on my mom. She breathed in deeply and exhaled.
She breathed in again, this time slower. She exhaled.
I watched and waited. There was nothing. I looked over to the clock and it seemed to stop. I found a mother – a nurse.
“I think my mom died.”