Towards the end of her life, my mom had a number of health issues. These included high blood pressure, diabetes, heart failure and eventually, dialysis. In the fall of 1999, her right leg began to turn black and blue. It was diagnosed that her heart was not strong enough to pump the blood to the lower extremity and thus caused the leg to discolor.
To correct this, mom had surgery on her artery to increase the blood flow. She came through the operation fine. She was alert that afternoon and was able to converse. The next day, the hospital staff tried to stabilize her vitals. As the day progressed, my mother’s blood pressure would not return to normal. The doctor pulled me aside and said he was sorry but he didn’t think she would make it through the night. I thought to myself, “but it’s only 3:00 in the afternoon; maybe she’ll rally.”
At 11:30 that night, her blood pressure was still slightly lower than normal but had remained stable for several hours. She was resting peacefully, and I was exhausted. I hedged she would make it to morning. My plan was to come back early and more refreshed.
I asked the head nurse to call me the moment anything changed. I kissed mom’s cheek and left. I arrived home where my dad, who was a paraplegic, was waiting. We talked briefly about the day and I went to bed. I was asleep as my head touched the pillow.
The phone rang at 3:50 AM. As dad answered it, I was already getting dressed. My father said it was the nurse and mom was slipping. With my car keys, I headed for the door, telling Dad I would call him later. I made every traffic light to the hospital. I parked in the space closest to the entrance.
Even the elevator door was opened when I got there. I thought maybe these were signs I would see mom one more time. When I got to her room, the nurse was walking out. She stopped and said, “I’m sorry, she just passed!” She said I could have as much time as I needed with mom. She also said that a hospice nurse was on the way.
I went in her room, closed the door and quietly viewed my mother from every angle around the bed where she laid. I remembered so many memories of my life with her. Obviously, I was sad about her passing but I was prepared. We were not a particularly close family, but we ended phone conversations and visits with “I love you.”
We spent as much time together as possible. “I’m sorry” was also sprinkled into our conversations when we realized our shortcomings might have affected the other. From that standpoint, there were no regrets, nothing needed to be said.
But I always thought I would be with her when she took her final breath. I would hold her hand and formally say goodbye. She would leave this world with the only child she mothered, there beside her. There would be closure. But this expectation didn’t materialize. Now I was feeling guilty that I went home. The doctor told me her situation and I didn’t listen. I thought because of my selfishness, we never said goodbye.
Just then, the hospice nurse walked in. She introduced herself as Sandy, offered her condolences and asked how I was doing. I said I was okay but told her of my issue. Sandy assured me that it was normal to have that doubt, but that I did the right thing by going home. She explained that in her experience, many patients pass on when no one is around.
By design or by choice, they “go home” when they’re alone. She asked me if I ever thought that maybe mom didn’t want to say goodbye. Sandy rationalized, “If the two of you never said goodbye, then it’s not the end of your relationship.” She let me digest that idea.
She asked if I believed in the hereafter. I said yes. She affirmed, “Then, it’s not goodbye! You both believe you will meet again!” Sandy also made me realize that though my mother and I did not physically connect when she passed, as I had hoped, we were connected by the same faith that we would be together again.
At the end of my father’s life, he was taken off a respirator and peacefully lay in bed. He closed his eyes and never opened them in my presence again. On the day he passed, I spent an extended lunch silently looking at him as he lay in bed, remembering our life together. At 4:30 that afternoon, I received a call at work saying he died. As with mom, we never said goodbye.
But this time was easier. I thought about Sandy and the lesson she taught. And I realized another thing; not all of life’s lessons come with fanfare or fireworks. Some of the most profound conversations we have in our lives are delivered with gentle words from caregivers who become our best friend if for only a few moments inside of one day. Their words lift us up and remind us that those who have left are in a better place and they wait for us there!
Tony Falzano 2011