Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Mom's final full day

We're over four hours into Mom's final full day on earth. Perhaps I'm reckoning that wrongly: as I mentioned before, I think Mom checked out weeks ago, in the early morning on December 22. Wednesday is, at the very least, her body's last full day among us. We spoke with a doctor, a chaplain, and a social worker, and have all agreed that Mom's extubation will occur on Thursday morning at 10AM.

Every human story begins full of promise, and for most of one's life, it's a mystery as to where and when the final pages of that story will be set. We harbor the illusion that that non-specificity can somehow stave off death: as long as we don't know the exact time and location of our demise, life seems to have no limit.

But for Mom-- or her body, at least-- we now know. Mom will die in Washington, DC, inside the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, either in the Ward 40 ICU, Bed 7, or upstairs in a one-bed palliative care facility (assuming Mom lingers longer than an hour off the ventilator, and further assuming that the bed hasn't been taken by someone else). Mom will fade away to a chorus of mechanical whooshes and beeps and drips, with medical staffers outside her berth going about their business-- some serious, some joking with their colleagues, blissfully detached from this, our family's threshold moment.

But Mom will leave us in the daylight, and she'll be surrounded by her family: those who love her most. We four guys will be there for her, along with Pastor Jeri and my other brother Mike. We'll stay with Mom until the doctor declares her dead and announces the time of death. This will set in motion a series of events that are, thankfully, out of our control: the signing of a death certificate, the moving of Mom's body to the morgue, its transferral to the cremation service, and the service's completion of the death certificate.

At that point, we regain some control over the proceedings. Mom's ashes will be delivered either to us or to the church, depending on whatever Dad arranges. We'll continue to hash out the format for the memorial service (probably Saturday, January 16; we'll confirm this). I'll finish the photo tribute and my eulogy; Dad will compose his as well. Sean will rehearse with some musician friends; he's already selected two classical pieces for the memorial-- pieces Mom loved. The family will comb through scriptures for appropriate verses.

But back to the present. This day, Wednesday, is everyone's final chance to visit Mom. I apologize if some of you have been turned away by the ICU staff; we had originally been told that anyone could visit Mom at any time, but we've heard reports from some that the ICU staff is asking non-family members to visit between 11AM and 8PM. The staff itself hasn't been particularly clear or consistent about visiting policy, so please call ahead to confirm that it's OK to see Mom at your desired time.

I'm not sure what I'll be doing; I may stay with Mom a few hours throughout the day, then go home, sleep, and return in the morning to be with her in her final minutes before she steps through the Great Door. Or I may decide to remain with her through the night-- one last vigil at her bedside. I really don't know.


Do you have regular photos or digital photos of Mom that you would like to be included in the pictorial tribute? Please email them to me (my contact info is available through a link on the right-hand sidebar of this blog) or mail them to our family (email me for our address, which I'm hesitant to display in public) as soon as possible. If they don't arrive soon, I might not be able to include them.

If possible, please indicate the YEARS in which the photos were taken. I'm segregating photos by decade, in this format:

Chapter 1: 1940s-1960s
Chapter 2: 1970s
Chapter 3: 1980s
Chapter 4: 1990s
Chapter 5: The Aughts (2000-2009)
Chapter 6: The Cancer Period (4/2009-12/2009)

I don't want Chapter 6 to scare anyone. I have no desire to show vivid images of Mom's disease. There will be no MRI photos, no pictures of her damaged skin or of her craniotomy site, no photos of Mom's final weeks (as you can imagine, I never took any). There will, however, be images of Mom in various stages of disability. This can't be helped. Some images will be painful to see, but trust me: whatever pain the viewer feels won't compare with the pain of having actually been there, with Mom, to feel her misery up close.

Chapter 6 is important to me. This is the time when I reconnected with Mom in ways that hadn't been open to me since my childhood. The cancer gradually stripped Mom of her sophistication and returned her, however cruelly, to a state of simplicity that pared away a lot of the anger and resentment that often characterized my relationship with her, especially during my college years and my twenties. Did I pity Mom during her illness? Of course I did-- who wouldn't pity a person in such straits? Would she have resented my pity? Of course she would have. She did, in fact, get angry with me when she discovered that I didn't plan on returning to my trans-American walk. She knew I was staying because of her, and the thought burned her.

But any disease that rips away a person's dignity will engender pity. As proud as we were of Mom's defiance, it grieved us to see her independence drain away as quickly as it did. At the same time, the disease was a gateway through which I found myself once again able to hug Mom, touch her face, kiss her cheek or forehead, and hold her hand for long, long periods. I walked with her, joked with her, and above all, I fed her. Our relationship had become both a role reversal and a regression.

For Dad, too, this newly docile Mom was finally accepting his tender gestures without her usual Korean brusqueness-- the silly feminine rebuffs that Korean women will use to pretend that a man's gestures mean nothing to them. Perceptive men, like Dad, see through the ruse and understand that, hidden underneath such denials, there lies a deep and abiding love. But with the cancer peeling Mom down to her core, the time for ruses had ended. Dad, too, was introduced to a simpler, more direct emotional connection with Mom, one not complicated by the mind games that couples play. Her "I love you" to Dad was evident in the way she looked at him and embraced him-- toward the end, she was holding on to him for dear life whenever she had to move anywhere. Her dependence was complete, but it was matched by her absolute trust in Dad.

I've spent these months in Mom's role, frequently carping at Dad whenever I felt he was making a serious mistake or being generally loopy. But in the end, Dad was the one who was there to take care of Mom every time she awoke and every time she went to bed. He faithfully gave Mom her meds, following a schedule had been painstakingly plotted out. He was (and still is) the one taking care of all the paperwork associated with regular bills, insurance, and all the rest. He's even been sustaining me during this jobless period of my life with regular monetary infusions. Dad's retired, and neither of us could have taken care of Mom as we did had we gotten jobs. As I said: 24/7 care.

So much credit must go to Dad for the way he ministered to Mom. If imitatio christi (the notion that one should use Christ's life as a template) includes some analogue for foot-washing, then Dad was Jesus a thousand times over. He washed Mom; he insisted on being the one to prep her for travel, and despite the wrenching pain in his back, he was determined to be the one to lift Mom onto and off her seat in the van, almost every single time.

Tuesday night, after the doc and social worker and chaplain had left, Dad stared at the floor and said he felt he had let us all down by not somehow keeping Mom with us.

You didn't let anyone down, Dad-- least of all us and Mom. I saw that in Mom's eyes.

People have been writing me to say that I've done all that I could have for Mom. In truth, all of those good folks should be sending that message to my father.



J. said...

Then you tell him, for me. Some silly girl he's never heard of thinks that your dad's love is a light shining in the middle of Hell. You are the wordsmith, Kevin, and your pain and loss will know no bounds. Your father's, though, is yours plus one. He, like you, like your mom, and your brothers, is in my thoughts and prayers this morning.

Terry Douglas said...

"Every human story begins full of promise, and for most of one's life, it's a mystery as to where and when the final pages of that story will be set. We harbor the illusion that that non-specificity can somehow stave off death: as long as we don't know the exact time and location of our demise, life seems to have no limit."

-Incredibly well-put, Kevin.

DanB said...

"But with the cancer peeling Mom down to her core, the time for ruses had ended."

Albeit different in the particulars, this could be right out of Til We Have Faces, which I highly recommend if you haven't read it.

Thank you, Kevin. I'm coming in on the end of the story, but hope to be able to read some of the rest. Your painful yet beautiful insights help me understand some of what a friend is going through now. Strength and peace to you and your family.