Last Walk with Mom: A lifetime of Choice

I must have screamed loud. Mom came running from the house – I heard her calling out from inside – and around the corner to the side of the house next to the neighbors. She looked frightened. I was rubbing my shins as fast as I could. They were still painfully throbbing and tingling at the same time.

“What happened!” she cried. I told her I jumped off the roof of the house.

“Why would you do that?”

“We were practicing stunts.” I thought stuntmen were the greatest though I still wanted to be an actor – especially an actor that did his own stunts. I didn’t expect landing to hurt so bad – and I certainly didn’t expect what she said next.

“You should expect your legs to hurt when you jump off the roof. You made your choice and now suffer the consequences. Keep this up and you may regret the results. This is life. I love you. I’m glad you’re just hurting. Understand there are always consequences to your choices.”

Then she turned and walked around the corner and back into the house – I heard the door slam.

That was fifty-four years ago.

Mom was diagnosed with cancer in December of 2018. In January, the oncologist listed her options. It didn’t take her a moment to say, no treatments please. I’m ready. The oncologist said great and gave us a referral to hospice.

My two previous experiences with hospice weren’t good. I mentioned this to the oncologist. The oncologist asked, “Last minute choices?” I replied, “Yes”. She said give hospice a call.

Mom turned eighty-eight in February. We met with Megan, the hospice representative, the day after her birthday. Megan was fantastic. She made us feel we had all the time in the world with her as she answered questions.

A colleague of mine, Linda, is going through the same process with her mom. They have taken a different route.

It’s July now and mom and I are still on our last walk. She’s transitioning well. A friend of mine has been saying, it’s a privilege to be on this journey with her. I’m just beginning to understand that. This stuff – I’d usually say sh*t, but mom hates when I use technical golf terms – doesn’t come easy for me. My sister’s career is hospitals. She’s a physical therapist and lives in Northern California so she can’t be here as much.

It’s been a struggle for me emotionally – still is. I was fighting it mentally and noticed I was separating emotionally. I was having trouble sleeping and focusing. I chose to face it and just let the love reconnect us. Things are better for me. I’m beginning to see the light and grateful for this time. My dad went just the way he planned – quick and mom taken care of.

Sixteen years earlier, mom and dad had seen all the family in the US and stayed a last week with me before heading to Europe to see all the family there. And as with every trip he ever took, he told me ‘the papers are in the box, the box is in the closet, and all I want is your mom taken care of. I love you and am proud of you.’

And then they took off.

After spending three weeks traveling Europe and seeing our spread-out family, they boarded trolley No. 3 at Zürich Hauptbahnhof heading to his sister’s place for one more night before coming home after a quick stop in London. As he grabbed their bag with one hand and my mom’s hand with the other, he stepped into the street trolley.

As mom describes it, he stepped back down, and she thought he was letting her go first, and then she felt a tug on her arm as he felt back. She said it sounded like a dropped coconut on concrete when his head hit the ground.

A doctor and two medical students waiting behind them were on him as soon as he hit the ground. He turned blue immediately. There was nothing to do. They tried anyway. He was gone and in such a way that he got everything he wanted. They had seen every family member and friend they wanted, and mom was taken care of. With the doctor there, mom never felt guilt as she would have had no one been there to tend to him.

Mom says she is ready to be with my father again.

My sister is good at this. As a physical therapist, she lives in the world of people struggling with health issues. I am not good at this stuff. I’m good at other stuff. I’m good at making decisions in other areas – not this one.

As I mentioned, I was heading down a dark road emotionally, when I realized I was fighting this and trying to make it go away. Death doesn’t go away. So, I stopped resisting and just gave in to the outcome. The difference was monumental. I have long moments of peace now and even the bad days aren’t as bad. Mom and I are connected again – even closer. Decisions make the difference.

Linda complains online about our medical system daily. The surgeries are taking a toll, dementia seems to be a consequence, and the bills are piling up along with resentment.

For mom, the hospice staff has been great. They give her whatever she needs within their power. We have a good flow in working with them and mom is comfortable and getting what she wants most – staying in her home. Even a few laughs on the way.

Immediately, after getting mom in the program, a young man arrived with a hospital bed, wheelchair, and walker.  When mom answered the door, he was dumbfounded.

“If those are for me, I don’t need them now,” said mom.

“I’ve never had anyone refuse them, uhm, but you can if you want.”

“Well, then this is a first for you, isn’t life full of surprises,” she said.

When she told me the story she said, “I hope I didn’t hurt his feelings”. Just like mom to worry about other’s feelings.

That was five months ago, and the walker and bed are in use now. The wheelchair still sits in the corner. The commode was ordered yesterday and arrived today. Everything arrives quickly.

We listen to music while I’m with her. Her favorite station on Pandora is Scottish Moors. I read to her and we talk. It’s hard for her to talk, so mostly she asks a question and then I take as much time as I can to answer. Again, something I’m not usually good at. I prefer brevity.

Memories seem to come randomly and out of left field. “Remember when you jumped off the roof,” she asked me. “You know it was a hard thing for me not to be more sympathetic. I was so worried you’d kill yourself unless you received the message in a way that it would sink in”.

She was right of course. It had only been a month earlier I jumped out of the back of the station wagon before it stopped. I cracked my head on the asphalt hard when I landed. I was so embarrassed I told her I was okay and didn’t tell her my ears were ringing and my vision was blurry. Probably, a good thing I couldn’t sleep for the next few nights. For me, it was a lesson learned: Never jump out of a moving car facing away from the direction of travel. Obviously, that wasn’t the lesson mom wanted me to learn. And she likely saved me from trying it again to get it right.

“Mom, was it a tough decision to make with the oncologist?”

“Heavens no. I’m ready. I miss your father. I hurt every day and I’m not afraid of death. I’ve lived a good life. I’m not going to chase hope at the expense of this time I have. Make your choices and live with the consequences, right?”

“Right.”

I’ve come to realize these talks are precious. It truly is a privilege to share this with her.

I’ve heard you don’t fully grow up until both your parents are gone. Maybe this is true. I can’t tell you if it is cause mom and I are still on our walk. Erroll Garner’s “Misty” is playing in the background with Johnny Mathis singing. We switched the to her Pandora station ‘Misty’ for the moment.

My mom, the ex-Ohio State college dropout because the Dean of Social Science – whose children she looked after for extra money – kept groping and harassing her, who joined the marines to get out of Ohio and be a reporter for the Stars and Stripes, is telling me cancer is part of life not death.

She has good moments and not so good moments. She always has courage and for the most part a smile despite pain.

“Death is part of life and if you cherish life you can be at peace with death. Your father felt this way too – though I miss him every moment of every day.”

Tina, her dear friend, sees her often. She loves Tina and Tina loves her. They have a special bond and the string between them remains strong between visits.

My sister flies in as often as she can to care for her. I promised my sister I would hold my tongue on how uncooperative her employer – a healthcare supplier – has been. No wonder our healthcare system is messed up – again, word choice for mom’s benefit – with unhealthy organizations in charge of healthcare.

I can’t say enough about the great care my mom is receiving from hospice. Everyone seems excited to see her when they come – except for the young man who was just here to help her bath. Just so happened today there were no females available for bathing. Mom said she’d wait until a female was available tomorrow. Modest to the end. And another laugh for us all.

It’s a last walk with mom. Death stands before her with admiration and love. Death is a gentleman with her because she has earned it.

My dad joined the marines to earn his US citizenship. At the time, he needed a second job on base, so he bartended in the officer’s club. In his broken English, he said, “Ch-honey, I’m saving my money for you.”

In typical form, my mom turned to her friend and said, “Does he think I’m a hooker?”

I’m sure my dad is standing next to death. Neither are perfect, but they are perfect with her. In fact, I think my dad is making cocktails for the occasion. Gin and tonics with lime.

And in the background, Audrey Hepburn is singing one of mom’s favorite songs, Moon River.

Meanwhile, we continue our walk on mom’s last journey with no regrets.

© 2019 Jeffrey Hansler

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