Tuesday, September 13, 2016


Lucy May Pinkerton Strachan
My mother in high school.

Dr. Naito, my mother’s doctor, called me at work.  I was the clerical support for the Site Development team, a half dozen gentle soil scientists and one loon of a landscape architect.  I had never met Dr. Naito and had no clue that my mother was reaching a crisis with her blood cancer.  I just knew that she was running out of time, gradually.

“Mrs. Scriver, I’m calling because I cannot convince your mother and brother that she has cancer.  She needs to go into the hospital but she won’t.”  I was standing at attention, like a soldier.  “I’ll take care of it.  Thank you for calling.”  The guys were listening, wanting to help.  I knew that to my mother, cancer meant a lump somewhere, but there is none with a blood cancer.

The matter was resolved when she had to stop fixing dinner — she prepared a rather elegant balanced meal every night, mostly for my brother who lived passively watching television.  On this night she had made spaghetti, but had been seized by ejection diarrhea that wouldn’t stop.  She ended up in the hospital.  Her intestines were leaking blood.  She was in a very nice hospital with a private room, all paid for by her excellent health insurance from teaching.  The intravenous packet hanging by her bed was platelets for clotting.  The doctor had said this wouldn’t work for long because her body would begin to reject them.

The next bits are confused.  I had asked Dr. Naito if this was close enough to the end to summon my other brother.  He said yes.  Mark was the brother my mother gave special status.  For all her railing against primogeniture, she believed in it, but only for males, so he was the crown prince.  A quiet man who had no desire to excel, he had earned the equivalent of a Master’s but spread over so many fields that he didn’t qualify beyond a BA.  The one he had been most serious about was veterinary medicine, but he said he didn’t want the responsibility for life and death, even for animals.  He was dating a veterinarian’s daughter and they broke up, which had something to do with it.

When he came, it was direct from the airport in a cab and we spotted him below from the high window of my mother’s room.  He had a duffle bag, like a sailor, and we waved back and forth as though he were coming off a ship.  He hadn't been "home" for many years.  Having him there was a great shot of adrenaline for her, but it also meant she realized that the end was near.  

When we went back to “the house” that had been the center of our family since my father cinched his proposal of marriage by buying it, I tried to show Mark the file I’d accumulated and to explain what I understood.  He brushed me off.  He considered his pre-vet courses qualified him as if he were a doctor.  My hospital chaplaincy meant nothing to him.  I backed off and went to my own apartment.

Early in the morning, maybe 3AM, I woke up feeling intensely that my mother was alone.  This hour is the one when many people die.  I took a very hot shower and went to the hospital but couldn’t get in.  Everything was locked for the night and no one answered the porter’s bell.  I walked around the grounds until I found the Emergency entrance and went in that way.  The place was silent except for the shushing of machines and the dinging of the elevator.  

When I got to my mother’s floor, her room was dark.  At the nurse’s station they told me she’d had a hard night, hemorrhaging intestinally, and she needed to sleep.  So I went to family waiting room.  A young woman was there with a little plastic sack of things and a plant in a pot.  She was crying and I knew the sack meant the hospital was clearing the room because it was no longer needed by a patient.  So I sat with her and asked her questions so she would talk.  

Her husband had just died.  He was a serviceman and they hadn’t been married a long time, but it was cancer that killed him.  I gave her the conventional reassurance: that he was lucky to have her to stand by him, that he would always be with her, that happiness would eventually return, that in spite of the pain, she would not want never to have loved him.  In a while she said she needed to get home, but then she asked me to hold her and I did.  “You smell so good!” she exclaimed.  I was right out of the shower.

The floor began to wake up and my mother’s room lights came on.  I told her about the young woman.  “Did you comfort her?’  

“I did my best.”  My mother’s sole conviction about ministry was that the point was to comfort people.  It’s the way her mother had thought and her mother had had regular visits from her minister, but no one from my mother’s church visited her throughout the last years or at the end.  She didn’t want me to call them.  

Pretty soon the nurse asked if my mother would like to talk to the chaplain because my mother still insisted she did NOT have cancer and therefore was not in mortal danger.  I went behind my mother’s back and asked that the chaplain stop by casually.  It was a middle-aged woman and my mother admitted she talked to her but wouldn’t say what about.

When one hemorrhages intestinally, it is a laxative and also turns black as tar.  A big pool of 'tar' had gathered in and around my mother’s bed before she understood enough to ring the nurse’s call button.  After the bleeding had stopped and the bed had been changed, a older black woman came to mop up the floor.  This humiliated my mother.  “No one should have to do such jobs,” she said.

After I’d been there a while, she suddenly near-screamed,  “Am I ever going to get out of here?  Am I dying in this hospital?”  I said no and that she was only being stabilized.  In fact, she was discharged and taken home by my brothers.  She insisted that I had to go to work, since I was the only one with a job.  Indeed, by the time we were through I had used all my compassionate family leave, vacation, sick leave, and elective days’ off, even though the City of Portland has generous policies.  

My brothers weren’t quite keeping up.  My mother wanted a bed in the “sun room,” where I had stayed on a rollaway but it was suddenly way too small and low.  I got the single mattress I carried in my pickup in lieu of paying money for motels and we added that on top of the rollaway, which was not a fit.  My mother had no single bedding nor did I.  I went to Fred Meyers and bought two sets of sheets and a comforter.  When she seemed safe and comfortable enough to sleep, I went home to my own apartment.  The next day Mark rented a hospital bed.

The only bathroom in the family house was upstairs, which my mother sometimes cursed but then she claimed that her life had been lengthened by the exercise of going up and down those stairs.  Now it became impossible for her to get up there so Mark contacted Dr. Naito to authorize a potty chair for beside the bed.  He said,  “Why can’t she use the downstairs bathroom?”  All the houses he knew had two bathrooms.  But he signed the papers.

Then it became clear that she could no longer even get over to the chair so I went to Fred Meyers and bought a bedpan.  It didn’t come with directions but it clearly had two different ends, so which end pointed north?  Finally, in desperation, I put a thick towel between her legs and said,  “There, now you just go ahead and pee on that.”  As she had insisted all her life, she said faintly, “Pee is not a very nice word.”  

“Oh, all right.  Just micturate, then.”  I was out of patience.  Mark scowled at me.   Paul was like a zombie.

Hospice came, a very nice young woman with a big binder who finally gave us the plain raw facts.  Someone would come to bathe my mother.  She came once and I helped her change the bed, vaguely remembering a Red Cross unit in grade school when we thought we might be invaded and everyone should be prepared for wounded people.  I remembered about “draw sheets,” which is a sheet put across the bed instead of along it, so if you pull the draw sheet, the patient can be easily turned. 

I was too convincing.  She never came back, thinking she wasn't needed, I guess.  Mark refused to call her because it might embarrass her.  My mother begged for a bath and I offered to do it, but she rejected that out of hand.  “Never!” she said.  She thought I was too quick and rough and would hurt her.  Finally Mark told me to call the hospice person, but I didn’t.   I thought, “I’m going to regret this later, but I will NOT be bossed around.”

Brothers and mother at the time of my father's death

The dressed-up lady hospice case manager sat with us around the dining room table.  “How many weeks does she have?” we asked.  

She stared at us.  “She only has a few days.”  We were stunned.  I took a chair in to the bedside so we could sit by her.  She was putting on a show:  “I hope the next planet is as much fun as this one has been!”  She did NOT want to talk religion and did NOT want me to call the old minister who did the visiting for her church. 

At some point I sat beside her and asked to hold her hand, which I hadn't done since childhood.  Then I said,  "I love you."  I can't remember ever saying that before, but she answered, "I love you, too."  Now everyone says it all the time.  Lightly.

She was wearing the old short threadbare nightie that she had refused to replace with new ones, saying they would be a waste of money at her stage of life, but now she was embarrassed to be seen that way.  I did not go to Fred Meyer.  But I went home and sewed a flannel hospital gown, extra generous with little pink rosebuds.  She refused to have anything to do with it.  Pretty soon she slipped into being unconscious.  I pried her false teeth out, a full set.  When she was carrying Paul through pregnancy, they pulled all of her teeth at once and forced the uppers onto the swollen gums.  That’s the way they did it then.

The doctor had given Mark little sticks with sponges on the end that were saturated with morphine and told him to rub them on her gums if she seemed in distress.   He said, "Don't worry about overdosing."  Mark used them a lot.  Her breathing got worse and finally her back arched as she slipped into open-mouth “Cheyne-Stokes” breathing.  Paul had rigged an intercom so he could listen from his bed rather than being present, but when she was clearly near the end, Mark made him come down so we would be together.

I had a plan for the moment after death, basing it on an account of Last Rites that a minister had done for his father, though they were not Catholic.  The point is to bless and thank each part of the person’s body for the good service they had given in life.  So that’s what I did, putting my hands on each part.  When the boys saw that, they put their hands on mine.  Then we didn’t know what to do.  It was the middle of the night.  We agreed not to call the mortician as hospice had explained until it was light.

Paul went back to bed.  Mark got into my mother’s strange collection of wines and became very drunk.  (The doctor had told her to drink a glass before bedtime but she didn’t like any of them so only one glassful was missing from each bottle.)  I napped on the davenport.  Mark called the mortuary at early dawn and we put her nice housecoat on her.  It wasn’t easy since rigor had begun.

When the mortician and his assistant came with their gurney and body bag, I asked them to pause long enough for me to put her last bouquet with her.  It was pink tulips and Stargazer pink lilies.  Then they went out into the empty street with her.  The sky was the color of the flowers.

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