September 16, 2004 began as a typical morning. Emmeline and I went for a walk and then she settled down for her morning nap while I worked on laundry. I decided to call Mama; we usually talked to each other every day. Since Emmeline was born nine months earlier, our conversations had grown to several times a day, as I called her to share Emmeline's latest "firsts." She had called a little more than normal to check on me. A month earlier I had my first severe reflux incident. I was eating lunch when I experienced the normal discomfort, but this time, it got worse and it was as if my windpipe was closed and I couldn't breathe. I felt like I was choking, but I could talk, so I knew that I wasn't. I was alone with Emmeline, so I quickly snatched her out of the high chair and put her in her crib. I worried about what I would do if this did not pass quickly and I stopped breathing. I actually called 911, and told them I knew I wasn't choking, but I was having a lot of trouble breathing and when they found out I was alone with an 8-month old, they sent an ambulance just to check on me. The paramedics were wonderful and told me I had done the right thing and they showed me how to breathe slowly through my nose so I wouldn't hyperventilate. Mama was very worried and we talked about choking--what a horrible way to die that would be.
My dad answered the phone, which was unusual. I asked how he was doing and he hurriedly told me that the ambulance was there and they were working on Mama because she had choked. I let him go quickly and then called Joey at work. I told Joey what I knew and he prepared sub. plans, in case we needed to leave before school ended. You see, at this point, we were thinking everything must be alright if the ambulance was there and they were "working on her." We thought the ambulance couldn't have gotten there in time if she had actually choked; she must have suffered some damage and needed to be checked over. A few minutes later, one of my parents' neighbors called and told me I needed to come. Now.
I called Joey and he got ready to leave school. While Emmeline was still napping, I quickly got ready to go and prayed the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. I couldn't think; I could only pray. I packed our suitcases; it was an easy task since laundry was freshly folded and had not been put away. I remember people commented about how cute Emmeline's clothes were and they asked how I managed to have a different outfit for her every day. That's how; I just threw all her clean laundry into the bag, making sure I included her "Grandma's Little Angel" outfit. Emmeline woke from her nap as Joey arrived and we were quickly on our way.
I was on the cell phone for much of the drive, as we headed toward Hemphill. Then, the neighbor called again and told us Mama was being air-lifted to Nacogdoches. Air-lifting was not a good sign. I called my friend Amber, who was at work, and told her what was happening. She was able to look up the phone number of Mama's friend, Beth, so I could call her. Then, I called Regina. No answer. I couldn't remember the name of the school where she had just started a new job. I called my cousin, Linda, who was in an Oklahoma classroom at that time. I let her know what was happening and I remember asking, "Linda, what will I do without her?" I called Fr. Dean and let him know what was happening so he could keep us in his prayers.
We finally arrived in Nacogdoches and made our way to the hospital. Mama's friend, Beth (whom we affectionately referred to as Sister) and her husband, Jim, met us there. The nurses told me that Mama had just been brought in by ambulance because they couldn't air-lift her. And then they immediately let me go in to see her. Immediately. No time for any cleaning or fixing. Immediately. And I was not prepared for what I saw. Mama lay there, her features fixed as they had been as she lost consciousness. And I knew. I knew what her last conscious moments were like. No one wants to lose a loved one, but we hope that if we do, they will not suffer and will go peacefully. That comfort was not to be. In movies and television dramas, someone always lowers the eyelids of the dead with reverent ceremony. I now understand what a tremendous act of charity is that simple gesture. The doctor explained to me what she knew. Her guess was that Mama had suffered a stroke while eating, but she couldn't be sure. She was brain-dead, but the hospital at Hemphill had managed to get her on a respirator. Her tone implied, "Do you understand what I'm trying to say?" but I could not understand what it really meant.
I had to go back out to the waiting room and tell Joey and the Whiteheads what I knew so far. Daddy was there now. We questioned him and found out they had gone to garage sales that morning (I come by it honestly) and Mama wanted to go to Belk's to look at baby clothes that were on sale. So, they went back to the house, where Mama dropped off her finds from the morning and took her medicine. She had to eat with her meds. Daddy said he was in the bathroom when he heard Mama banging on the door. The door that was at the end of a long hallway. Where she passed pictures of Emmeline. Daddy said he opened the door and saw Mama standing there and that he tried to help. I don't know if he attempted the Heimlich, but even if he had, it would have been ineffective with the peanut butter and bread or crackers she was eating, according to paramedics. Then, he said he left her--alone-- and ran next door the neighbor's house. Over the coming months and years, these haunting images affected me as much as missing her.
I asked him if he called 911, but he kept repeating that he couldn't because "Mama always kept all the numbers." This from a man with a Ph.D., a professor and dean, who had a rare combination of common sense and knowledge. Mama and I had suspected for over a year that he might have Altzheimer's and Mama had tried to hide it from others. She had only recently started to share with me just how bad things were. So, he couldn't dial 911, because he didn't know the number. And Dot, the neighbor, dialed it for him. He said she had been tired the night before as she had cleaned out a cabinet and ended up laying on the floor to rest. Mama had been under a lot of stress in caring for Daddy and keeping it a secret. You could actually see the pressure behind her eyes sometimes, but she was under a doctor's care for her diabetes. I felt guilty because I hadn't called the night before. I had called three times during the day, but I didn't call at night like I usually did.
Mama was moved to an ICU room. The nurses explained all the equipment and monitors. She's not actually breathing. The respirator is making her lungs inflate and deflate and her heart is just beating because of that, not because of her brain. She is brain-dead, but specialists will come in to make the official diagnosis. And we waited. Waited in a place maybe between life and death, or maybe with death. We weren't sure. Two neurologists would evaluate Mama and report there was no brain activity. She was not in a vegetative state or a coma. One was not a native English speaker and he kept shouting at me, "She is brain-dead. There is nothing there. Do you understand?" Joey and I had just watched quite a few shows on EWTN about end-of-life issues and ethics, but we had no idea it had been in preparation for the next week. I called Fr. Dean and gave him an update. He explained to me that the Church defines brain-death as a person's actual death. He told me that removing life support would not actually be removing life support because there was no actual life there once brain death had occurred from a lack of oxygen for too long.
Amber came as soon as she could get away from work. She instantly set about taking care of us, making sure we had eaten. She took Joey to Wal-Mart so he could buy anything we needed, like baby food for Emmeline. She made sure we had blankets and pillows, since we would sleep in the waiting room that night. She stayed late and then drove back home, about 45 minutes away. It was a drive she would make every day, after a hard day's work, to make sure we had everything we needed and to offer comfort, support, and love.
I called Regina and she answered. She had left her phone at home. And I told her, sobbing, I told her that Mama was in the hospital, and they said she was brain dead, and she had choked, and...Regina wailed. Deep from within her, a wailing cry, followed by, "No, it's not fair, not Mrs. Louise." And a sound was put to what I was feeling, and it was joined to my own pain. I told her more details and when we had both calmed down she reminded me that I still had Mary, my mother, and I could talk to her and turn to her because she loved me. Regina, my Baptist friend, told me this. And I took heed of it.
My memory is full of details at the beginning and the end, but the days in between are still a blur to me. We met with hospital ethics panels. Their ethics officer was wonderful; he had trained at a Catholic hospital and respected our beliefs. He told me that if we had been in a large city, the decision would have been made for us. We did not want to remove her respirator, on the slim chance that maybe the doctors were wrong. Joey and I thought of how we could care for her, even if she never "woke up." Fr. Dean called me each day, and I remember sitting in the hospital chapel, speaking to him for over an hour.
My mom's sister, Pat, and her husband, Buddy came. They brought a pack-n-play so poor Emmeline was finally able to get down and move around. And Buddy took her on lots of strolls, which she loved. Regina took off from work and came, with her two girls. She stayed at Amber's house and the girls went to their grandmother's house several miles away. The Whiteheads came each day and our friend Annie helped Joey keep lesson plans up-to-date for his classroom while he was away. He was able to go to SFA's library and use a computer each evening. God sent someone to give us everything we needed. We asked for people's prayers and we felt them. The image of Moses, having his arms held up for him toward God, as he was not strong enough on his own to stand in prayer, kept coming to my mind. I could actually feel myself being lifted up in prayer by family, friends, and anyone they asked to join them in prayer. Emotionally, I was being drained, but spiritually, I was on a high, and I felt especially close to God.
I slept at the hospital, in the waiting room each night, while Joey took Emmeline to a hotel, so she could rest. I remember thinking how much Mama would have enjoyed visiting with people in the waiting room. She loved to meet people. I cannot tell you how many hours of my life were spent standing beside a grocery cart, listening to Mama strike up a conversation and make a new friend. And she would have loved showing off Emmeline. She carried a full-size photo album with her everywhere she went. People saw her coming with pictures of that baby. Her world revolved around Emmeline, after she was born. People actually came to see E from other parts of the hospital because they had heard about that sweet baby that was so good. One couple bought her a little doll from the gift shop. She never cried or fussed all the time we were there. Mama would have been so proud and I sat by her bed and told her all about it. I told her a lot of things.
Then, one day, one of the nurses (who must have drawn the short straw) took Joey and me aside and explained what would happen next . She told us that each organ would begin to fail. She told us how the day before it all started, Mama would be beautiful. That her skin would glow but, after that, the next day, her skin would begin to turn black. She was preparing us and letting us know, in as gentle a way as possible, that we needed to remove the respirator.
My dad did not want to remove the respirator. In his state of dementia, he believed he was killing Mama if he signed the papers. He would not sign the papers. I didn't want it either, but I knew we had to and I begged him to sign.
Then came the day the nurse had told us about. Mama did glow and she looked the best she had in the hospital. And Daddy ran away. The hospital broke the rules and allowed my Aunt Pat and I to spend the night in Mama's ICU room. We stayed up the whole time, reliving memories we shared, and sharing others about Mama. Aunt Pat told me how much Mama loved being pregnant, how she never complained about pregnancy because she enjoyed it so. How she stayed up nights to feed my brother Greg every couple of hours as long as he lived at home. About the person she was as a young girl. And we laughed and filled Mama's room with only the good memories. It was a precious time.
We had no idea where Daddy went and he stayed gone until the next morning. The next morning -- when all the things the nurse had told us would happen began to actually happen. I remember telling Fr. Dean that I thought we had reached a point where it was now wrong to have her on the respirator--that this was an affront to her dignity as a person. He agreed, but reminded me that it wasn't my doing because my dad was the one who had to sign. And he finally relented on Sept. 21st. He made me sign the papers, too. I think it made his tortured mind feel less guilty.
Regina took Emmeline to the hospital chapel and kept her for me while I went in with Mama. It was a tremendous comfort to know that she held her. And the respirator was removed. Everything was unplugged. It wasn't silent because other people were there. Aunt Pat held one of Mama's hands and I held the other. I just kept staring at Mama's hands, because the lifeless face before me was not my mother as I knew her. But those hands--hands I had watched deftly peel and chop in the kitchen, the hands that had brushed and fixed my hair each morning of my early years, those hands that had tended beautiful plants and flowers, the hands that had turned countless pages of novels and cookbooks through the years, the hands that had held me and comforted me, the hands that had held and caressed E, the hands that to me could do anything. And I looked at my hand next to Mama's. And I thought, I prayed, I hoped, that one day my own hands might be able to accomplish as much as hers, with the same love.
Her heart was still beating. Stubbornly, defiantly beating. As a Christian, I understand that a husband is the head of the family, but the wife is the heart of the home. Standing there, watching the monitor, I thought about that. I thought about how for the past years, even though my father was not fully functioning properly as the head of the family, Mama, the heart of our family, still stubbornly, defiantly kept fulfilling her role as wife and mother, independent of his actions.
And then, the beating stopped. And a door was closed. No longer were we in the confused state of having Mama still there, attached to machines, but not really there. She was truly gone. Only muffled cries, and sniffles filled the room, as nurses tip-toed around us. And I held onto her hand. In the midst of my sadness, I felt the privilege of that moment and of my life--of having her as my Mama.
And then, reality blew in. At real-life speed, unlike the slow-motion-time of the last hour or so. You have forms to sign, decisions to make. Funeral homes, funeral, burial. There were no plans, no arrangements. I had no idea where to begin. And Daddy left, again. And Joey and I were alone to figure it all out.
We made the first arrangements with the funeral home in Hemphill, where my parents had retired on the lake. The viewing would be there and further arrangements would be made in Oklahoma, where my mother was originally from. And then I had to leave her at the hospital. The next few days would find me having to leave her again and again, each time getting closer to that final moment I already dreaded.
We left to drive to Amber's house for the night. And we stopped at Wal-Mart so I could run in and buy Joey a birthday cake. Mama's official date of death is also Joey's birthday, September 21. My parents always visited us for our birthdays and Mama always gave us thoughtful, carefully selected presents. I knew that she would be very upset if his birthday was not observed. She wasn't one who wanted to be fussed over; she was always happiest helping others or making a fuss over them. So, we ate birthday cake for Joey. Now, every year on September 21, I honor Mama's memory by celebrating Joey's birthday as she would have wanted it. "Life may end, but love lives on," go the words of a Paul Overstreet song from so many years ago.
Amber put us all up for the night. She cooked a meal for us while I bathed E and put her to bed. I called Daddy and found him at home. I invited him over and he agreed to let someone pick him up. He was afraid to be there alone, I could tell. It was the first time I ever saw my father frightened. I spoke to my cousin Linda about the Oklahoma funeral and burial. My mother thought so much of Linda. I was a little in awe of her and still believe she can do most anything. She made all the arrangement for the funeral in Oklahoma. She was amazing and I don't know what we would have done without her. Mama's uncle had a plot available in Bluejacket Cemetery. Bluejacket was the little community where my mother grew up. It was the location of so many of her favorite memories she shared with me. It was where she was married. It was where my grandparents and brother were buried.
Joey went to the funeral home with Daddy and made the Texas arrangements. The owner was so helpful and he made the arrangements with the Oklahoma funeral home. We went shopping, since we had not packed for a funeral, and we bought a new dress for Mama. Joey and Amber went to my parents' house ahead of me. They cleaned and arranged the hallway so I never saw signs of Mama's last moments. It is one thing to stand beside someone on the happy days, but what they did... I found pictures of Mama to have out at both viewings, along with one of her paintings--attempts to capture just how wonderful she was.
The viewing in Texas was that evening. The people and flowers began to arrive. Friends from Louisiana drove to pay their respects. We left and drove until midnight before stopping for the night, then we continued to Oklahoma. Joey, E, and I followed Daddy. He insisted on driving and we thought maybe he could visit his brother after the funeral. Along the way, I saw places Mama would have wanted to stop, such as the big antique malls and I would think, "I'll have to tell her about that," before I realized it. It took over a year before I stopped reaching for the phone to share something with her, before I could catch myself.
We stayed at Aunt Nadine's house in Oklahoma. Aunt Nadine was the oldest of five surviving siblings and Mama always spoke of her as a second mother. She was one of Mama's heroes, along with her husband, Bob. Mama would tell stories of her "Nini" as she called her as a little girl. We were welcomed with those big, silent hugs people share at times of funerals. I thought about the last time I was there with Mama and how she would have enjoyed being there with us.
The viewing was that evening, at the funeral home. I got to see family I had not seen since my grandfather passed away. Some of Mama's friends from high school came. One of them told me how pretty Mama looked and that she wasn't surprised because she was always so beautiful and fashionable in school. Now, when Mama compared herself to a movie character, it was always Ouiser, from Steel Magnolias (although in terms of caring for others, she was like M'Lynn). When I was a child, she was too busy gardening, garage saling, cooking, etc...to worry about fashion. She was notorious for her fly-away hair and she rarely wore make-up, other than her red lipstick. I learned more about Mama from those who knew her in her younger days. That's part of my motivation for this blog. I'd like my children to have a window into my life at different times and stages.
The funeral was the next morning. It was to be at the Bluejacket Church of Christ, where my parents were married in 1956. Linda had made arrangements for a retired pastor, a very nice man, to preach and had asked me if there were any special songs I wanted. Mama's daddy loved The Old Rugged Cross and I always loved In the Garden (one of the lines goes "and the joy we share as we tarry there..." and as a small child, I thought my name was in the song!). Someone took Emmeline from me, seeking to help by holding her. And I sat on the front row, arms empty, and listened to a sermon on hell, and the need to make sure you were ready so you did not end up there. I cannot fully express my desire to have a crucifix before me at that moment. Before I was Catholic, I was taught how horrible were Catholic crucifixes. Now, though, as a convert, I understood that I find my hope in Christ resurrected, but my comfort is in Christ crucified. So, I tried to picture the crucifix in our home parish, and at one point, I pictured the adoration chapel there, and imagined myself curled up, resting beneath the altar. And I dreaded the next part.
The burial was immediately after the funeral. It was a beautiful sunny day. I don't remember the graveside service. I just remember thinking how I was going to have to leave Mama again, but this time it would be the last time. The thought of the casket being lowered into the ground made me ill. I took some of the beautiful red roses from her casket spray. And I had to say that good-by I most dreaded, not realizing that it was just the beginning of good-bye.
Only two months later, I would get a call in the night from my dad, who believed that Mama was back, sitting on the couch, with no arms or legs, and she wouldn't come to the phone. I would stay on the phone for about five minutes while I heard him talking to the person he thought he saw. Months of court to get my father to a doctor would begin and then, my role as care-giver for my parent, while still myself, being a parent of young children. I didn't have time to deal with Mama's death or go through all the stages of grief. Life was there, with dirty diapers, meals, first words, first haircuts, new jobs, ups and downs,...
When my dad died last year, Mama's death was before me again and I was at a stage where I could finally "deal" with it. I am still going through the process, for lack of a better term. And I am blessed with a husband and friends, old and new, who understand that and who are there for me. I have come closer to closure, as my parents' homes have been cleaned out and put on the market. And I feel like I am getting my life back. It's what Mama would have wanted. What better way to honor her memory than by loving and caring for them as she taught me? And as I go through some moment that I wish I could share with her or I catch a glimpse of C, with her fly-away hair and resemblance to Mama, I smile. Slowly the pain lessens and the happy memories grow sweeter and dearer. And the prayers of my friends and family are still holding me up when I need it, and God is still there for me, through it all.
Louise, Lou, Mrs. Louise, Aunt Louise, Mama, Grandma...Requiescat in pace.