I stayed up way too late last night, but my brother Shawn woke me up around 9:00 am. I've seen him about twice in the last ten years. He came to our wedding nine years ago and I saw him about five years ago at my sister's place in Ottawa on a summer visit. Twenty years ago I joked that Shawn and I were in a heated contest to be the black sheep of the family, but over the years I think Shawn has pulled ahead.
He went through a rough divorce after his son Brendan was born about fourteen years ago, and he seemed to withdraw from a lot of family interaction after that. Shawn and I have never been particularly close, but it was good to see him and I was glad he and his son came down to visit my parents.
The plan for today was that my father and I would go pick my mother up at the hospital late morning and bring her back home. His mood is buoyant.
"She was doing well yesterday," he says. "She was up walking around the hospital floor on her own, getting exercise. But she can get tired easily during visits. Sometimes people don't pick up on the cues." Even though my father is happy for my mom to be getting visitors, this clearly annoys him.
"Brendon saw her starting to roll her eyes yesterday," Shawn said. "Then she just fell asleep for a while."
My father and I headed out to the hospital together in his car. Call me neurotic but I had my check list of things I wanted to talk about. Palliative care. How long did she have to live. Funeral arrangements. Where would my dad live after my mother was gone. All really easy topics. And it wasn't so much that I needed to know the answers to anything, but I wanted to make sure that my parents were talking about it.
"So mom doesn't want to do any more chemotherapy?" I asked.
"No," my father said.
"What did the doctors say about that?"
"Well, they don't like to give any kind of direct answer. They're too worried about getting sued. If they said not to do treatments and then it turns out she could have lived, then they'd be setting themselves up for a lawsuit." He paused. "But these doctors are good and they sort of guide you to the right answers. They lay out all the options and then guide you to it."
"And they don't think the chemo would do any good?"
"No, not at this point." Ulp. "Have they said how long they expect her to live?"
"I was going to ask the doctor about that yesterday, but your mom beat me to it. So the doctor says 'I'll tell you the same thing I told Mary.' He said he'd be happy if she made it to Easter. But I took that to mean the best case."
"I see." I have no ideas when Easter is. Is it March? April? My parents have become much more religious in recent years but it seems kind of silly to ask. I can always look it up later. Then it occurs to me what if Easter's earlier than usual this year? Or later? Maybe the doctor doesn't know when Easter is either.
"Did you guys talk about whether mom wants to buried or cremated?," I ask.
"I think cremation is better," my dad says. "But I haven't wanted to bring it up with your mother. I figure if she doesn't mention it then we'll just go with that." I have to smile at this, the idea of using an 'assumptive close' on someone's last wishes. It's one way to get the final word on things.
"I'm ok with cremation, too. But it's important to avoid any ambiguity. You don't want any confusion or anyone questioning what mom's last wishes were."
"I don't think anyone will mind cremation," he says. And I guess he means none of us kids, but not necessarily my mom.
"I'm ok either way," I said, "but you want to make sure it's what mom wants," I said, pressing the point. After all, she's the one who would be cremated. Who cares what anyone else thinks? "Have you looked into the funeral arrangements?" I ask.
"Your mom has already picked the pallbearers," he tells me.
"Did I make the cut?" I ask in jest.
"She wants it to be people outside the family," he says, missing my joke. "She thinks it would be too emotional for family." She's probably right. And it's one less thing to worry about anyways. "But I need to contact a funeral home." My father has some dread in his voice. This isn't something he's looking forward to.
"Dad, if I can help with this, just let me know," I say. "When Gregg's mom died, Gregg and I went to the funeral home and took care of the arrangements. We just bought the cheapest cremation option they had and then went and bought an urn somewhere else. They give you all kinds of BS about 'dignity' but it's just a racket."
"That would be good," he says. And then we're quiet for a while.
* * *
We make our way to the hospital and up to the 11th floor where my mom is. She looks better than I thought she would. She has the sparkle in her eyes and is happy to see us. But she is also thinner in the face. And when I see her hands, I notice for the firs time they are covered in age spots. My mom is old and I never noticed it before.
We make small talk about the hospital, the view from the window. She's already packed up all her stuff and wants to go home. But we have to wait for her intravenous drip to finish and then have a nurse to check her out. She gets a bit tangled up in the tubing which we all find comical. "I'll be glad to be unplugged," she says laughing. We talk a bit more about the hospital and then she takes a deep breath and closes her eyes. She falls dead asleep instantly. My father gives me a look saying it's ok. It's normal.
She wakes up about five minutes later. She's aware that she fell asleep. But it doesn't bother her. We resume our conversation. She's happy that they drained off 3 litres of fluid from her abdomen. As a result she's much more comfortable and that has improved her spirit.
"So what do you think of all this?" she asks. By 'all this' she means the fact that she's dying. This is my mom at her most direct. There's no embarassment and precious little preamble. It's just a straightforward question. It's not judgemental, it's not angry, it's not sad. What do you think of all this?
"I think you're really strong," I say. "I'm glad you're not in pain." I feel like I should be saying something more significant. But I don't want to say anything maudlin. And I don't want to say anything negative either. But what I've said is true even if its not everything I feel, it's what's important right now. It's about my mom, not about me.
The nurse comes in and I suppose I am off the hook for a while. She goes through the various prescriptions she'll be getting through the local hospice they've set up. There's some confusion about getting a nurse to visit the house later today but they work it all out.
Eventually I take my mom down in a wheelchair, which is pretty much standard hospital procedure, while my father gets the car. My mom is full of thank you's to the hospital staff and the volunteers. And I can't help but wonder if I could summon up this much kindness if I dying of cancer. But then again, she always set a good example for us when we were growing up.