I remember when my mother was in the hospital, the night they removed her from the breathing machine, we were all in her room. It was the room they transferred her to from the ICU while they were trying to convince the family that there was no point in drawing out the inevitable. They extubated her and put her on a BPAP machine instead. The machine was really there to give the family time to adjust to the fact that her lungs didn’t function well enough for her to breathe or live on her own, and we found out that even on this machine, she still wasn’t receiving enough oxygen to remain conscious.
We were all in her room which seemed like a dark, quiet corner of the hospital. A part of the hospital where people go to wait to die. The staff had finally convinced my family that the way to see if my mother would be able to live was to take her off of even the BPAP and see what happens. I knew what would happen, but the silence when they turned off the breathing machine and took the mask off of her slack face was deafening. She continued to breathe that night in tiny short gasps, her body so wasted that you could barely tell that she was in the bed. I was holding my older brother’s hand, and I looked up at him. He was looking back at me with wide, wet eyes, and at first I thought he was having second thoughts, but he told me later why he was so scared.
“I don’t want to be in there when it happens.”
And that’s when it occurred to me that he hadn’t been there when my father died.
In fact, neither of the boys had. My mother had woken the girls up from where we were dozing in the hospital waiting room, and left my little brother there sleeping… I don’t recall if my older brother had even been in the hospital. He wasn’t close to my father, and for very good reason. She brought all of the girls into my father’s hospital room, and I saw the number on the heart monitor and I couldn’t believe it was that low. They explained to us that even if the body recovered, the brain would never be the same. They shut off the machines, and pulled the tube from his throat, and his lungs were so ravaged by the cancer that had riddled his body that as he died, the convulsions of death forced bloodstained fluid out through his mouth, and caused gurgling and rattling noises. It was terrifying, and I remember my oldest sister tried to catch me as I ran from the room.
I had had this experience, and so I anticipated my mother’s death, not with fear, but with a sort of resigned dread. In my family, it is the women who usher people in to and also out of life. My mother told me once that this is a very old Irish tradition, and I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it was tradition in her family and so it was tradition in ours.
So my older brother was terrified that when they took my mother off of the breathing machine and her tiny breaths were the only noise left in the room, that she was going to die right there. It was a possibility, to be sure. She could have died in seconds, or it could have taken days.
We sat with her in this hospital room, playing chicken with death, none of us wanting to be the first to leave. We didn’t want to run the risk of leaving some sibling there alone with death in the room. We had all been at the hospital all day, every day, for weeks, holding this strange vigil. We were exhausted.
I think it was my older sister who said she had to go first. Our Aunt told us we could go, and that it was fine and that she would stay with mom. So we all left. We went to our homes, or hotel rooms, and went to bed.
Mom died very early the next morning. My Aunt called and told us, and we all gathered at the hospital. I picked up coffee on the way, feeling no immediate sense of urgency. At the hospital, there was a sign on my mother’s room door that read, “Please check with nursing staff prior to visiting. Not accepting visitors at this time.” I went inside; the sign wasn’t for me.
Inside my mother’s body lay on the bed, looking strange and ghastly and saurian. My Aunt fussed at her bedside, saying she could feel my mother’s soul leaving. The body was growing cold; the blood had drained from her face. I stayed as long as seemed decent… my Aunt was not communicating with us in any meaningful way; she was lost in the death, doing whatever emotional gymnastics she needed to get through what was for her a catastrophic event. In the end, none of the children had to witness my mother’s death, and I think that’s for the best… although my mother would have wanted us all there, sleepless and teary-eyed and terrified. She would’ve found that suffering to be a fitting tribute.
Ushering people through the process of death is important. It is a terrifying thing for the dying to have to go through alone. Even with a woman in my mother’s state of decline, it’s possible she felt some comfort from having a human voice in the room at the time of her passing. But it is also a terrifying thing to do and I don’t at all blame my brother for being afraid. If I had known that was why I had been ushered into my father’s hospital room, I might have refused to go. While it may seem cruel for my mother to have made my sisters and I do that, it is an experience that I value having, because it allowed me to face the possibility of watching my mother die without terror. I dreaded it, yes, but death had some of its mystery taken away, and with it some of its power to inspire fear. If my brothers had had to witness it, I know I could’ve held their hands and been brave.