A bittersweet miracle


My Mom, Joan Cannon Tweit, the California girl who grew up hiking and camping with her father, who had such perfect pitch that her high school choir director used her voice instead of a tuning fork to start concerts, who met my Dad in college at Berkeley and was married to him for almost 59 years, who earned a master’s in library science and worked as a school librarian despite being legally blind, who fought all forms of injustice, who prized birdsong and wildflowers and mountains almost as much as chocolate, and who passed her passions to my brother and me, died this morning at dawn.

It’s been a wild week, beginning on Sunday when Richard and I drove to Denver to spend what we thought would be two nights with my folks and my brother, who flew in from Washington state for a quick visit. My brother left Monday night; we figured on heading out on Tuesday before the storm that has walloped a lot of the country this week blew in.

Only… Tuesday morning Mom was clearly weaker, and it was clear she didn’t want us to leave. So we said we’d stay another day, until Wednesday. (Was that really just yesterday?). By Tuesday afternoon, Mom couldn’t really swallow, so her hospice nurse, Pam the magnificent (“magnificent” isn’t really her last name, but it’s fitting), changed Mom pain meds to a liquid form, and we went from a dose of two pills every four hours to a dose squirted in Mom’s mouth every hour during the day.

My dad, who has lost most of his once-hawk’s-eye-keen vision to glaucoma, can’t see well enough to squirt a syringe into Mom’s mouth, so I took over as medicine dispenser. And hand-holder. And coordinator of care. Which was all okay with me, because I had something useful to do as my mom went hurtling willy-nilly into her final days.

Richard pitched in wherever he could–he is my rock, my stability. My dad told stories about my mom; our friend Peg and her wise-beyond-four-year-old Mariela came to visit. Mom’s caregivers came and went, tending to her meds, her vitals, bathing… Time blurred, marked by the mundane milestones of end-of-life care: Tuesday morning, Monique, Mom’s wonderfully patient daytime caregiver charmed Mom into eating a small carton of yogurt; Tuesday evening, Mom lost interest in food again; Wednesday morning, Mom didn’t want to drink; that afternoon, she quit speaking, but she was still listening and responding with facial expressions.

Late that afternoon, while Peg and Mariela were here, and just after Pam and Sharon (the hospice nurse’s aide who in her words, “loves on” Mom) had left, Mom clenched up, tried to rear up in bed, and began sweating heavily. I called Pam, and got the okay to increase Mom’s pain meds. That didn’t do the trick, so I called Pam again, and we added another drug. Same again, so we added a third, a heavy-duty psychoactive, and then a second dose.

An hour later, Mom was calm, lucid: she smiled at Richard, wiggled her nose like a rabbit the way she used to do when I was a child, lifted her eyebrows at something silly my dad said, smiled when she heard him humming… (That’s Mom, on a trip to Norway in 2008, with my brother Bill, and Dad. Thanks to my sister-in-law, Lucy, for the photo.)

Mom fell asleep at about eight, and when I checked on my folks an hour later, things were quiet. Same in the middle of the night. At dawn, my dad called: “I think she’s gone.”

I pulled a pair of jeans over my pajamas and raced down the hall, Richard following.

Mom was still, but her skin of her face was warm and soft. I felt for a pulse. Nothing.

I called Pam, her hospice nurse. I hugged Dad, and we talked quietly about how she’d let him get a good night’s sleep before she went on.  After a while, I sent Dad and Richard to the dining room to get breakfast.

Then I sat with Mom, holding her hand as her skin gradually cooled and her face, so peaceful, lost all color. The sun rose, and then vanished behind a gray line of cloud. Snow began to trickle from the sky.

Pam arrived, checked Mom’s vitals, and soon I was caught up in phone calls and forms to fill and tasks to complete. Dying takes a great deal of administration, I’ve learned.

Tonight, my dad goes to bed alone for the first time in more than 58 years. And Richard and I sit across from each other at the table in the apartment down the hall, grateful that we have each other. And that while we may be exhausted–we are–we’ve just witnessed a very difficult miracle: a graceful death at home, helped along by love and kindness and caring.

We should all be so lucky. Thanks, Mom.

(Those are my brother’s hands holding Mom’s frail one in the photo above. I didn’t have time to take one of me holding her hand.)