Ar Hyd y Nos
I am called to the hospital. My mother is here, bleeding, unresponsive, dying. The doctor on call is the one my mother and I like. She is the doctor who diagnosed my mother with DLB, dementia with Lewy bodies, several years ago. My mother has been deteriorating. Dissolving. As was the prognosis. And now the doctor is pretty sure this is the end.
I arrive. Thanks to COVID-19, it’s been awhile since we’ve seen each other. Our weekly visits grew patchier and patchier. And I arrive ashamed. Poking out of the sheets, she is shockingly thin and gnarled, like they have tucked into the bed only a walking stick.
I kiss her, take her hand, tell her who I am. It’s Andrew, your son, your boy. I’m here with you now.
She does not open her eyes, but she squeezes my hand. This could be a twitch. She was squeezing air before I reached for her.
They leave us, the doctor and the nurse, after showing me how to call for them if I need anything—a buzzer on a string.
My mother is fiddling with my hands. At the nursing home, she cannot have napkins. She shreds them. All the energy she has left is in her fingers. But it’s not much today. It is a light fluttering. Like butterflies dancing. My fingers are in no danger. I think even napkins would be safe.
The only other moving thing is a throbbing blue vein in her neck. She is so thin, her veins appear fat. I am holding her hand, which is mostly fat blue veins. Her skin is like tissue paper. You can see skeleton hands under the skin, bones with darkness in between.
I sing all her favorite songs. Ar Hyd y Nos. Penny Lane. Gounods Ave Maria. What the World Needs Now Is Love Sweet Love. Going Home. Ode to Joy.
I run out.
I sing my favorite songs. Begin the Beguine. Abide with Me. Mayn Rue Platz. You Are My Sunshine. Go Tell Aunt Rhody.
I have to stop several times from sobbing and then having to blow my nose. My songs are too sad. I sing hers again.
She is stroking my arm. I think the horn sounds of my blowing nose kicked her mothering reflex in. She is patting my hand. Good lord, she will be comforting me with her dying breath.
I don’t know for sure that she can hear me and make sense of what I say. But in case she can, I think about what I want her to know as she goes out the Life Door. I say, “You are the best mom I know. You gave me a beautiful start in life. I am a good person and very happy. You did so well. I am proud of you.”
That last little bit is her. What she says to me: “I’m proud of you.” Since I was a wee baby all the way to the last time we really talked when I was a 58-year-old baby.
That’s a lot of pride. She won’t ever say it again, but she doesn’t need to. I got the message. I walk around in life as a man whose mother is proud of him. I know how precious that is. Not everyone has been so mother-blessed as I.
When the nurse comes to check, I ask for Kleenex. I have been using the one-ply toilet paper stolen from the bathroom. However, all hospital tissue is one-ply. She apologizes and leaves me with a box of something no better. She is wildly kind. I notice the stuff is more opaque than my mother’s skin.
I sing all the songs again. My mother has figured out my hand and is holding it properly with less fiddling. Her breathing is so shallow I cannot hear it or see it. Her stillness could be final, but no, there’s that pulsing vein. And the warmth of her hand. Not yet.
I am a writer. We are terrible. Even when something very sad is happening, we are thinking of the sentences to tell it.
I become slightly obsessed with describing the room. The bag of liquid on a pole that pours down the long tube into my mom. Can I say “bag of wet”? The eye-level row of electric sockets. Ten of them for the many machines. The inside two are beige and the outside eight are red, for some reason. What can I do with that? Sockets are a stacked pair of faces. The eyes are vertical slits and the mouth is an igloo, a dome. Like a sawed-off Oh! These 20 electrical faces are like my mother’s, because of that half-Oh! Except her eye slits are horizontal and she has a nose. I’ve been looking up the nostrils for hours. But other than that, the same. Rough drafts are rough.
My mother is religious. I say the Lord’s Prayer. She doesn’t seem to respond to it. But I’m glad I thought to say it. I have been here 3.5 hours. I wonder if I am bored. Am I? Would that be horrible? I think so. I think to myself: you only get one chance at this. It’s not something you will get better at. This is your one shot. Do not check your messages with your other hand.
I do not.
I kiss her papery face. Funnily enough, her cheeks are smooth. Her neck is wrinkly as a rhinoceros, but her big cheeks are flat and glowing. Decades of applying Oil of Olay? Or just the way it ended up. She is 87 but she will die a beauty. As she lived.
I sing all the songs again and she squeezes my hand. I decide to believe with all my heart that it is not a spasm. I remember how distraught she was at her own mother’s death, a continent away. Fallen between the bed and wall, stuck and died and not found for a week. Such aloneness as that is a terror. I want her to feel me here. This is why I keep singing. Music has always gotten to her.
I think about how she used to sing to me. So I sing her all the lullabies I know. Rock-a-Bye Baby. Mockingbird. Shortening Bread.
She is my baby now. Sobs overwhelm me again. And then the raw nose on the rough tissue brings me back.
When my mother first began to show glimmers of dementia, we sat down and had the talk. She wanted no extraordinary measures. No machines. She wanted to go when it was her time. She has always liked nature.
So we have a DNR. Do not resuscitate. And a plan done with our doctor on file, which is here now at the hospital and why a nurse comes in and takes out the drip. She detaches my mother from the machine that checks her pulse and blood pressure. We are on our own.
This plan is why no one has explored why she had vaginal bleeding. The nursing home doctor began an exam and my mother pulled away, unhappy and distressed. So they double checked the plans and called me to make sure. No intrusive measures means no intrusive measures, and what could be more intrusive? The doctor does not even know why she became unresponsive today. But this is what she wanted. The simplest slipping out of life. None of this is a surprise.
It seemed noble at the time we signed the plan. It seemed brave. Profound. It seemed all kinds of things. Everything but real.
Now, the only thing it is is real and now I want to change my mind.
But not really. Her little warm hand in mine is so calm. And the pulse in her neck will go until it stops. It’s a bit beautiful, isn’t it? The fat blue worms slowing down. The song fading out.
The doctor comes back to say that we can admit her or send her back to the nursing home. It is our choice for where this will happen. We decide to stay put. An ambulance ride feels like an intrusive measure. We are moved upstairs. I am told I can stay as long as I like. They bring me something to eat and drink. The nurse asks me if I think my mother needs a narcotic. We look at her. She is the model of peace. She looks comfy in the better bed and the real room with less machinery and softer light. Nothing is needed but time and patience.
In fact, she has fallen asleep and is snoring. The nurse tiptoes out and I watch an old woman sleep for hours. It is not boring.
I think: she will live. She will get better. We will go for a walk this summer. She will come to my Ph.D. graduation. This has only been some kind of infection. And she’s fine now. She is breathing so loudly! I am not going to be an orphan.
I want to hold her hand again. But maybe I was keeping her awake with all my singing and sobbing and speeches. So I let her sleep and I tap these sentences on my iPad. Through the night. Ar hyd y nos.
The nurse comes in and I tell her, I think she’s going to be fine. She looks at me in shock. She is stunned. And then she looks sad. And then she looks charmed.
She shakes her head. I can give you no hope, she says. But I have it anyway. Hope. What I feel is that I can heal her. This hits me like a smack.
And here I sit. Dripping life into her. Dripping love. She is snoring, kicking in her sleep. Her chest is rising and falling more and more robustly. She is wildly alive. It is 3 a.m. I will nod off myself in this uncomfortable chair. The nurse brought me a blanket. I suppose I could die in my sleep, too. Anyone could. One, none, or both of us is going to go by morning. We’ll wait and see.
That’s what we have to do. You and me. Whether we feel powerless or powerful or the usual mix of the two, we wait and see. Wait and see. Wait and see.