This time last Saturday night, I was sitting on the floor of my mother's room in the surgical intensive care unit at Baptist Hospital working crossword puzzles. I hadn't planned on making a trip down that weekend, but after phone calls on Thursday and Friday that Mom had been having some trouble with shortness of breath, I was seriously thinking about heading down on Saturday evening after my husband got home from work.
The phone rang about 3:15 on Saturday afternoon and it was Kyle. I could tell by the tone of his voice that he was discouraged. "Things don't look good," he said. "The doctor says she could go today."
"What are you saying?" I asked, scarcely able to believe what I was hearing. Hadn't she been improving as recently as Wednesday? Weren't the doctors saying that each morning's chest x-ray was looking better than the one before? What was going on?
I could tell he didn't want to be so direct with me, but I needed to hear it straight.
"Sheryl," he said as gently as he could, "Mom's not going to make it."
I threw some clothes in a suitcase as fast as I could and grabbed my bag full of makeup and hair essentials which was still packed from my previous trip home. Standing in my closet, the strangest feeling came over me. How odd it was to be picking out a dress for my mother's funeral while she was still living. It had to be done, however, and I grabbed hose and pumps to match.
During the three-hour drive, I kept repeating the same prayer again and again in my mind. "Lord, please let her hang on until I get there. And please don't ask us to make the decision to disconnect her from life support." It was so important to me that I get to kiss her one more time and tell her how much I love her. And equally important that we not be forced to determine when she would take her last breath. I felt like that decision belonged to God alone.
When I got there, I was relieved to find that God had answered my first prayer. Her vital signs were still relatively stable, so after I spent a few minutes talking to her with absolutely no response at all, my brother, his wife, and I felt okay about leaving the hospital for an hour or so to grab dinner.
On our way to the restaurant (which incidentally was the same Mexican restaurant where my brother and I ate the night after Mom received her cancer diagosis), Kyle made an interesting observation. "You know, we've all been praying for a miracle here and wondering why God hasn't done something," he began. "What if this is it?"
My whole perspective shifted at that moment. We knew Mom had bone cancer, but I hadn't realized just how extensive it was until earlier that evening. Should she survive the surgery, the outlook for the future was extremely bleak. By rescuing her from any more suffering, God was giving all of us -- especially Mom -- a wonderful gift. I just hadn't quite seen it that way before.
We stayed with her throughout the night, never letting our eyes drift for long from the screen that displayed her oxygen saturation, heart rate, and blood pressure. Occasionally, it would appear that her heart rate was slowing, but then it would pick back up again. She was hanging on with everything she had.
Somewhere in the night (around 2, I think) her nurse attempted to turn her, and afterward, we noticed her breathing became very rapid. A stat chest x-ray was ordered, and after my brother looked at it, he came back into the room and whispered to me that it was the worst chest he'd ever seen in his life. Her right lung was almost completely collapsed, and when they asked us if we wanted a chest tube (she already had one on the left), we all agreed that it was pointless.
Once the pneumothorax was discovered, I think we all expected she would go quickly at that point, but she continued to hang on through the rest of the night. At some point, I started feeling myself become delirious with fatigue and retired to the waiting room to collapse on a couch. My dad joined me in the waiting room after giving instructions to Kyle and Traci to awaken us immediately if the situation changed.
Another chest x-ray was performed several hours after the first, and according to Kyle, it was even worse than the one before.
Somewhere around 8:30 a.m., we went over the situation with the on-call doctor, who was kind enough to let us step around behind the nurses' station and read as many of her reports as we wished and answered all our questions as kindly and compassionately as he could.
"So, you're telling us that without some sort of miracle, there is absolutely no hope?" I asked.
He nodded his head slowly. I could tell it was hurting him to deliver this news.
I looked across the narrow hallway into my mother's room. "How much longer do you think this might go on?" I asked.
"Oh, possibly another 24 to 48 hours," Dr. Church said and then paused. "Or until you as a family decide that it is time to pull the life support."
"Oh, God," I groaned inwardly. "It wasn't supposed to come to this."
The four of us looked at each other, and we just knew. It was time. Mom's 65th birthday was the following day, and if I knew anything, it was that I didn't want 9/11 to be my mother's birthday, the anniversary of one of the worst tragedies our country has ever seen, AND the anniversary of my mother's death.
We were given several more private minutes to spend with her, and when we felt the time was right, Kyle went to the nurses' station and gave Dr. Church the go-ahead.
We stepped outside the room briefly while the nurse turned off all the machinery and pulled the tubes out. When she was finished, we were allowed to go back in to be with Mom as she spent her final minutes on this earth. A hospital chaplain was summoned by the nurse, and he appeared with his Bible, ready to offer spiritual counsel if we desired.
I had thought it would be very nice to sing hymns, but when the time actually came, we stood in complete silence. The words to "It Is Well" were being sung in my mind, but it just didn't seem fitting (or possible) for any of us to make a single sound during those last moments together.
She didn't last long. I watched her chest move rapidly at first and then gradually slow to only several breaths per minute. I was holding her right hand and Kyle her left, neither of us able to feel a radial pulse. Several times I thought she had stopped breathing, but then many seconds later another gasp would come.
Finally at 9:15 a.m. on Sunday, September 10, 2006, my mother exited this life and entered into eternal life. And in doing so, she changed our lives forever.