My mother is dying as I write this

I'm scared to leave her bedside even to shower. Is there something I should have said? Something I could do now?

Published July 25, 2015 3:07PM (EDT)

A photo of the author's mother.
A photo of the author's mother.

My mother dying of cancer is a week that feels like one long day, alternating between light and despair. This experience is strange and surreal. Yesterday she seemed so close to death. My face was covered in tears and I was whispering in her ear so many things, then eating lots of trash because in this situation, you get the ice cream, people coming in and out, nurses saying things you don't want to hear, learning how to do more machines, morphine no more than 0.5 (maybe I should try a little myself), calls to relatives to say come now or maybe tomorrow instead or not at all because they are of no help. Then she wakes up looking like a baby and blinking her big eyes and it seems for an hour everything is going to be all right.

But you know it's not really. You just let yourself go into hope, because it is all so intense. So for just a little tiny box of time, you believe it is OK but it really is not because she is dying or maybe ... and then another day goes by, more people, vital signs, up down all around, fear, fear, fear, waves of sadness, guilt, she throws up phlegm, oxygenation down to 77 percent, very cold hands.

"She is starting the process."

Sometimes you think the hospice people are actively trying to kill her. Is that what they want? But they are so nice and they are sending a social worker but will not shut up about us needing a pastor who keeps calling. Enough with the pastor. I am going to tell them next time we are Jews or just go all Madalyn Murray O’Hair on their asses. They are so pushy. Why should someone who doesn’t even know her come into this house? Our spiritual needs are none of your business. Take away her pain. When she breathes, she sounds like my grandmother’s old percolator, the one I used in my dorm room at college.

Is there something I should have said to her that I have not, something that might have kept her alive or gotten us to a better place or whatever? Was there a different doctor or maybe a specialist?

A fleeting sense that you are going to be OK, gratitude that she has lived every good day, then you break down, food, food, a sandwich that is tasty but which you shouldn't be enjoying because she is dying, smoking your cousin's cigarettes in the basement, scenes of childhood streaming through your head. Why would anyone smoke American Spirits?

I am too scared to be gone even long enough to shower. Ten minutes until more morphine and why is my mother looking at Carol and not me when her eyes flicker open? The feel of her old soft nightgown, the beauty of her face now that all the tension is gone. Right now she is in there struggling to breathe, and I am in my room listening to Kylie Minogue's "Can't Get You Out of My Head" because I feel like I have been in this house for days and if I'm lucky, there will be more days, but I can't take more days because I am so tired but please let there be more days.

Do we call the nurse or not? Is the morphine trying to make her better or kill her? They are so damn efficient with this death business. They can put up a hospital bed in the blink of an eye and the hallway is filled with oxygen canisters. This is not the right remix of Kylie. I wanted the Blue Monday remix. Maybe I will listen to Madonna's “Frozen” until it is time to crush up the Ativan into the morphine and shoot it into her throat and should I change the water on the breathing machine or maybe have some more of that good cake?

I have been up so long. My mind cannot prioritize or order anything. I cannot make sense of the demands of the day now. I just write down the last time I medicate her, but remain suspicious because I am just not sure we all have the same goal here. This hospice thing is a big corporation, coast to coast. It could well be just another shady American business. I want to keep her alive, but I can’t. That is foolish. I have to go to acceptance and that stuff I hate so much. What about the funeral? Should I really have someone sing the song from “Dirty Dancing”? Or is that crazy? Donald Trump is all over television. Things are crazy in this country, just like in this house.

Maybe a miracle is possible if I whisper into her ear again that I love her, that I am so grateful that she was my mother, if I do that enough, maybe. Maybe this whole diagnosis was wrong. I have so much work to do. I have to start teaching in a month and have to work on my syllabus. I have to get these people here fed somehow to show I am grateful to them for staying with me. How many times should I do this little prayer I have made up to make a miracle or at least to have one more day with Betty on this planet? If I say it enough, maybe ... Maybe I gave her too much Seroquel last week, maybe it is time to turn her, maybe she will die in five minutes. I wish I had not lost patience with her last week. All I can remember is when she would not stay in bed because of the dementia and kept getting up, up, up.

Maybe this will go on for weeks. She seems heavier every time we change her position. If we dropped her, would she die or wake up? Last week, I yelled at her. Maybe that caused all this. I cannot sleep. Is it still today? You have to turn them in a certain way, but I cannot always make their choreography work. This experience is so strange and surreal. If she does not die, she is going to be so pissed off about her hair. Dry shampoo! They don’t even let her have the feeling of warm water, fingers on the scalp. They just ripped her gown open in the back to get it off easier. They just ripped it, poor old gown. I cannot watch her struggling to breathe for one more minute. I want it to be over. The pizza from Casey's is really not half-bad.

How would you feel if you were her age, so old, sick, in pain? Who the hell cares? I want her to live just a little bit longer, but I don’t know anymore if I am on the side of life or death.

By George Hodgman

George Hodgman is the author of the bestselling book, "Bettyville: A Memoir," about caring for a mother with dementia, published by Viking Penguin.

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