A few years ago, I lost my mom to cancer. At least, that’s what I tell people. She was diagnosed just before winter and passed away in the summer. She knew she didn’t have long to live when she went into the hospital. It was for a tracheotomy. The tumor was creating a lot of pain in the neck area and slowly choking her. All she wanted was just a few weeks – preferably at home. I remember her laughing after the surgery. We tried to make the hospital room as comfortable as possible. The nurses and staff let us use the second bed. We brought in a CD player and her Chinese newspapers. I would bring in my photography magazines so she could look at some of the wonderful outdoor & wildlife photography. Everyday she would ask what day it was. Eventually we would just tell her the date right once we showed up. Her bed was too low and too far from the window. All she saw was the sky. We would describe the scenery to her.
One day, my dad said “listen to this”. In her new guttural voice, she said “Happy Birthday” to my dad. My dad laughed. It was the first time both of them laughed in the hospital. I had forgotten it was my dad’s birthday. She started to talk cautiously about coming home and to see her garden. I wondered how we were going to handle this but was glad that there was a chance of her coming home.
Then the cruel daggers of reality struck. Several times a day, her throat had to be cleared of mucus. It was a tube sucked the mucus out. She struggled and it was a painful ordeal. The nurses wanted teach us how to do it. Both my sister and brother tried. I didn’t. I couldn’t bear to see her struggle as if she was being choked. There was also a rotten smell from the opening. My mom’s sense of smell was very keen and I don’t know how she coped with it.
One day, my sister and I were with her. She wanted to go to the bathroom. I had done this before with my brother. I held on to her while my brother wiped her. I felt her shame. This time my sister was there so I thought it might be a bit easier. But as she went into the bathroom, she fainted. I held on to her desperately and let her body leaned on mine. I had the wall to support my back. But my arms couldn’t hold on to her. I slowly slid down the wall to the floor while holding on to her. The nurses came in and took over. I felt so useless.
When I spoke to my mom afterwards, she didn’t remember what happened. A couple of days later, I got a call from my sister early in the morning. My mom wanted to meet with all of us. When we got there, she told us in that strange new voice “I want to die.” I didn’t say anything. I noticed my dad slowly walking out of the room. He put his head to the wall and started to cry. I walked over and just put my hand on his shoulder. The next few moments are a blur. A priest came in to give her the last rites. I mumbled the Lord’s Prayer. Later that day, a nurse removed the tube for her peritoneal dialysis. Her doctor saw us afterwards and assured us the diabetic coma would be painless. There was a part of me that was numb to all of this. One night, it was just me and her in the room. She was asleep. I started by rattling off the date. Then slowly as I held her hand, I thanked her for being a wonderful mom and for raising me. I struggled because I had to speak Cantonese. I felt like a child again. I told her she would see her mom, dad and sister. Then I said she would see her beloved cats. She suddenly smiled and held that for about a second. I knew she heard me. I just wanted her to know things would be ok.
She passed away while my brother and I were in the funeral home making arrangements. I realized then why she kept asking us for the date. She hung on 1 day past her wedding anniversary. I knew she didn’t want my dad to associate that day with her death. The cancer didn’t beat her. She was brave to the end and died on her terms.
To my readers, I’m sorry if all of my recent posts have been grim. I need to slowly get this stuff out of me.