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Smile, Though Your Heart is Breaking

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Posted 10-26-2013 at 11:28 PM by Jeff Westover
Updated 10-26-2013 at 11:34 PM by Jeff Westover

My mother is dying.

It has taken me a lot to get to the point where I admit that.

I have written about her a great deal but here and on my personal site over the course of the last several years. Her journey has been a long one.

Over the past two months Mom has been in several hospitals and through two stints in a rehab facility. At every step of the way she has done nothing but decline.

Her health issues are complex and it seems trite now to boil it all down to dementia.

But dementia is not a cause of is a symptom of winding down, of saying goodbye.

Recognizing all this is what leads me to admit that Mom is leaving us, and likely soon.

As a person of faith I am not uncomfortable with the concept of death. As we've explored together a bit this year with losing Louann how we deal with death is something individual to us all.

But as Mother dims for me I cannot help but hear echoes of an intensely personal conversation I had with her in the hospital just a few weeks ago.

My father was out of town with my little brother -- not by choice, but by force of wills. My sister and I ganged up on him and pleaded with him to take a break. As Mom's primary caregiver it was clear my Dad was in need of a change of venue, the stress of the past several weeks and months, and indeed, years, have exacted a heavy toll on him. It was hardly a relaxing escape -- he was gone for only four days and driving across country in a truck with my little brother. But it was time away from the pressure of doctors, hospitals, insurance people and constant stress of keeping things going.

While Dad was away Mother developed an infection, which they treated with aggressive antibiotics, which caused her to swell with fluids in her body, which crowded her lungs and very nearly drowned her.

For all of those four days my sister was there by day and I was there by night as my Mom fought through the infection and the treatment, breathing the whole time like she was running a marathon. We would call and text Dad nearly every hour, at one point I made a video of my Mom breathing to send to him to get him to see how poorly she was doing.

I've seen my Mom in a lot of bad spots the past seven or eight years but never had I seen her suffer than during those nights this whole breathing episode was taking place. She was first on her c-pap and then on something they call a bi-pap to help her breathing and her efforts were so labored I could see the veins in her head, straining just to get air.

It was more than I could bear. Mom was cognitive through all this but had no interest in food or conversation. One word responses were the best we could hope for.

While breathing was the focus so too was the concern for her ability to get sleep and we worked to find ways to help her get what rest she could.

It was during a dark, long night of watching Mom labor and finally fall asleep that I stood by her bed, holding her oxygen mask in place, so she would sleep. It was strapped on her head but she hated the strap and would just hold the mask there in front of her. I took over for her for a while so she could sleep and I thought she was asleep finally when I decided to say a little prayer. It wasn't vocal but it was heartfelt -- suffering is something none of us want to witness and I was watching my Mom suffer in a cruel way.

Well, we got through the night. Mom did get a little sleep and it seemed to help her. Within a couple of days and after my father returned they finally engineered things so that the fluid build up diminished and Mom was finally able to breathe easy.

On our anniversary Sandy and were in town and stopped to see Mom. I was greatly relieved to see that part of her crisis was over.

As I grabbed her hand she looked into my eyes and said, "Well, we've had a hell of a week."

Those were welcome words to me. Mom isn't prone to swear much though she doesn't get shy about it. But it told me her will and her fight on the inside was still there.

But her eyebrows dropped and she looked me straight in the eyes: "Did you pray for me to die?" she asked me.

No, Mom, I didn't. I couldn't. I wouldn't.

But suffering is part of this life and while we have to accept it in my childish mind it occurs to me that I still don't have to like it.

In the two weeks since my Mother's comments about that prayer she has declined further. I don't know if it was the lack of oxygen in her brain during those days or if something else had happened -- another unseen infection of some sort or whatever -- but over the past week or so especially Mom's memory and grip on reality has severely declined.

We saw this in a temporary basis during the summer of 2012. It lasted about a week and it was hell.

But there was a triggering event to that. We were told it was temporary. We were told how to find a way out and we did.

The doctors are only wringing their hands this time. They just don't know.

I had a heartbreaking conversation with my Dad today as we discussed all this. Things are rapidly progressing to a conclusion we know is inevitable.

Mom loves this time of year. She loves to enjoy the holidays and everything that goes with them. I suppose I've inherited that from her.

I'm determined to move forward. It is easy to wallow in the grieving.

But I came to a funny conclusion today. I hurt more for my father right now than my Mom. I don't know where my mom is now mentally but I know the anguish of my father. I would give anything to relieve him of what he is going through in making difficult decisions for the love of his life.

Mom can now breathe but Dad is suffocating. And my heart aches for him as much as it aches for Mom.

Dad is still my Dad though and he tells me things any good father says. "Son, know that you are loved." he told me tonight on the phone.

How does he do that?

Dying doesn't mean you stop living. My mother has told me that many times. My Dad reminded me of it again tonight.

This is hard, I won't lie.

But we're going to celebrate Halloween this week.

We're going to send out Christmas cards, celebrate Thanksgiving, sing Christmas carols, decorate the house and the tree and the yard. We going to do all the things we normally do and the things we did do when Mom was able.

Wherever Mom is we will do these holidays with her as much as circumstances allow. She will live as she goes through these last days of her life, however long they will be.

And as the old song goes we will smile, though our hearts are breaking.

I'm not certain what the lessons are from this we are to gain.

But I am determined to endure it well. Celebrating Christmas seems as good a way to do that as any other.
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  1. Old Comment
    Many prayers to you, friend. I can't begin to imagine what your family is going through.

    Your words were beautiful.

    My mother is the citadel of our family, the rock we all lean on. She is also my best friend (other than wifey). It's through her love and compassion that I am where I am today....probably much like you.

    God bless. May your mother, father, and remainder of your family feel God's grace and mercy in these times.
    Posted 10-27-2013 at 07:58 AM by ballcoach ballcoach is offline
  2. Old Comment
    MerryCarey's Avatar
    God bless you all, Jeff. It's a blessing that your family has each other through all this. And know that you have many of us on MMC, too, to listen and pray.
    Posted 10-27-2013 at 09:05 AM by MerryCarey MerryCarey is offline
  3. Old Comment
    Rob's Avatar

    My prayers and thoughts are with you and yours

    Posted 10-27-2013 at 09:24 AM by Rob Rob is offline
  4. Old Comment
    caninemomssister's Avatar
    I will remember you and your family in my prayers tonight.
    Posted 11-23-2013 at 04:44 PM by caninemomssister caninemomssister is offline
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