A month ago today I was in my mother’s house waiting on death…
This journey seems so short and so long at the same time. A week after I went back to work from maternity leave, my mom was taken to the emergency room with really bad stomach pains. I remember crying and being upset before heading to the ER to meet her. Perhaps my soul knew then what this journey would bring. A routine gallbladder removal was done the following month (allowing her body time to heal from the infection that the gallbladder had caused). The diagnosis of cholangiocarcinoma came on April 6, 2010. Exploratory surgery followed on April 8. A treatment plan was put in place. Radiation and chemo. Three weeks later she became jaundiced and was admitted to the hospital with lesions in her liver and her bile ducts obstructed. Mami was jaundiced. From then, biliary catheters that really limited her movements. A stronger round of chemo. Good progress. Halfway through the chemo the tumors had decreased in size by half. I started questioning the doctor for next steps and I wasn’t satisfied with the wait and the attitude I was receiving. We were able to set up an appointment at MD Anderson with the peace bringers. Dr. Mark Roh brought us a level of peace that I cannot describe. He looked us in the eyes when he spoke. He seemed genuine in his care. His nurse practicioner, Nitzia was the same way, showering us with hugs when we left. I felt we had a chance. Felt good about these people. About Dr. Maddipatla, her new oncologist who sat with me and gave me details that allowed me to fully understand the breadth of the situation in a compassionate and caring way. Never underestimating my intelligence. Through all this mami was at peace.
February 1st came after 2 hospital stays in those last weeks. I went to drop the frog princess off and found my dad sitting on the couch quiet. He said mom wasn’t doing well. I saw it for myself that she was not. I went in her room and told her I was working from home that day. That I had to run home and change and would be back (I was actually wearing an adorable outfit and heels that day!). On the way home, I sobbed. I found strong arms to hold me when I got home. I changed, got in my car and set up shop in her room, on her desk and “worked”. I am not sure what I worked on that day. I followed up on some things. I emailed, etc. I contacted my sister and told her she had to come home. I watched over mom who quietly watched over me, her body turned to me as she cradled the pillow that had become an extension of her during her days in bed. I cleaned her when I needed to. Provided her with comfort that I believe only a daughter could bring. By just being there. Present. We did not speak much that day. I cannot tell you what we talked about. It never occurred to me to cry. My mother had passed her peace over to me.
My sister was blessed to have found an earlier flight home in the midst of one of the season’s snow storm (she had planned on coming that Thursday but suddenly there was an unmistakeable urgency). I reached out to friends and family alike. Requesting prayers through the journey. And I waited. Around 5, The Man stopped by on his way to work. He sat on the bed and spoke with her. They had an exchange. He asked how she was feeling and I believe she said better. In his love language, he told her several times that he loved her. She looked up into his eyes, smiled and said “I love you too”. That conversation was the last one that I recall her having. She talked to my brother and I here and there after that but it was from a distance and through the process that we have been fooled by television into thinking is quick. I told my mom my sister was on her way. Although she’d stopped really communicating and responding, when my sister got home at around 10 p.m., crawled in the bed with her and, like every good little Dominican child, asked mami for her blessing, mami opened her eyes as if she’d just been napping, blessed her and spoke. We gave her time alone. Then The Man took some time with her as well. My father came in and out of the room. I put the frog princess to sleep. I held mamis hand. I tried to give her water to drink. Family was there. Comfort. Nurses came and went. Reassurance.
And we waited.
She gave us these nuggets of words before dawn. Speaking of the pig that we were supposed to be roasting that upcoming Sunday for her birthday and the renewal of her vows. She asked me something about work. Just like her to be concerned about whether or not I was in the office. My dad tried to read the bible to her. When it became difficult, I took over. I read a psalm, though I cannot remember which one (perhaps 84?). Then, I read her 1 Corinthians 13. It is my favorite passage. After mami passed, I realized I loved it so much because deep down in my soul, I always knew it described my mother.
I looked for the signs. Saw her body give the unmistakeable glimpses of it coming to its end. We waited and morning came. So did the doctor and the nurse (she had an appointment with them that morning). The house was full of people. They are stars to my mother’s sun. Finding their way to the place that each and every one, at some point in time, called home. To this pillar of a woman who now lay in her bed, peaceful and serene. After being examined, her breathing slowed. We almost missed it. I came back in the room. Sat on the bed, indian style, and took her left hand. My sister took her right. My father, still deeply in love with this woman, ran out to get rings thinking the priest would make it in time to renew their vows. People would say they were sorry he was not there. I believe his soul knew and he could not stand the idea of watching her take her last breath. Vanetta, the nurse, stood at the foot of the bed. My brother and The Man came in the room. I was grateful that though in life, we had to share her with so many and that so many were present at home, she gave us this gift of being the only ones there. Her head, full of beautiful snow white hair, turned slowly to the left. One breath. Then nothing. We thought that was it. Vanetta, a Hospice nurse too familiar with this process told us to wait. Then the last. The very last breath. Peaceful. Blessed. Serene and joyful all at the same time. The clock said 11:11. I can only compare this moment to that of my child being pushed out of my body and taking her very first breath. Perhaps the word is divine. But, someone put it best when they said that we were present and able to give her back to God. A spiritual handoff.
There was joy in my heart at that moment. Grateful that, although she battled this disease for 10 months, she did not have to endure a painful transition. Humbled at the privilege of being able to hold this woman’s hand. This 4’10” body that could have easily stood 20 stories. This rock of mine with a touch so tender it could melt away all the sorrows of my heart. This shell in whose womb I was woven together. There is joy in my heart today though the pain sustained from the loss is ever present.
A month ago today, I was waiting on death to carry my mami over to where I always knew she’d end up. To a place where she is fully healed. To a place where she is better able to watch over us. I will not know why until I meet my maker. And I am okay with that. I wish things were different but, as she and abuela always used to say, God knows what He does. Waiting on death wasn’t scary for me. Because it wasn’t scary for her. The love that binds us to this day carried us all through it. Carries us now. It allows me to see my mother’s mischief in my daughter’s eyes. My mother’s lyrics in my aunt’s voice. My mother’s jokes in my brother’s laughter. My mother’s tenderness in my sister’s hug. My mother’s face in the smile I give her in the mirror.
I am my mother’s child. And while I waited on death on that very last day, she taught me about life and living for all the days before. About love and giving. About my worth and pride. About faith. She taught me how to love and how to be loved. I am my mother’s child and while her body is no longer here, I breathe life into her spirit simply by being. I lost my best friend’s body a month ago. But her spirit is not lost and her legacy lives on. Because I am my mother’s child.