When she woke up from her long sleep the day after her 77th birthday, her eyes had the weariness of someone who had dreamt a lot but could remember nothing.
“My mind is not clear,” she said blankly. “What day is it today?” It was the 18th. “And when did I enter the hospital?” On November 1st, she was told. Momentarily she realized it was the first time she had failed to visit my father’s grave on All Saints’ Day. But the mental calculation she made of the days that had quickly passed distressed her more. “We must have spent so much already,” she protested. “Please take me home.”
It is amazing to see how her mind has cleansed itself of any trace of her nightmarish journey into the region of death. Her last vivid recollection was of my sister Claire kissing her face as she lay dying during hemodialysis. Her pulse and her heartbeat had abruptly stopped. Another sister, Lingling, a US-based ICU nurse, desperately searched her body for signs of life, and finding none, buried her face in the blood-stained sheets of the dialysis bed. The doctor moved to resuscitate my mother and insert a respirator tube into her mouth. But we reminded him of her wish not to be kept alive by a respirator. He said he was sorry we lost her. He then asked my brother Fr. Ambo to anoint her.
As the prayers were being said, amid the sobbing and moaning of her children, my mother opened her eyes and mumbled the nickname of Claire who had been calling her. Her pulse returned, and her ashen face quickly began to flush. She was back. But, unknown to us, the memory of dying got stuck in her subconscious.
In the days that followed, as she battled the toxins that could not be eliminated by a failed kidney and a degenerated liver, her consciousness began to be affected. She bled internally and ammonia buildup began to affect her nervous system. She went through long episodes of seizures and fearsome hallucinations broken only by brief interludes of disturbed sleep. Ambo, the priest, her most treasured child, would scoop her in his arms and soothe her with prayers, until she would calm down and fall into the rhythm of his voice. This went on for 2 days. I begged her doctors to please help her out of her pain, and let her pass on quietly.
It is excruciating to watch death display its dimensions on the body of a loved one. Nothing in my philosophical excursions into the meaning of death had prepared me for this. On her birthday, my mother called for me. She did not open her eyes as she spoke. “I am dead,” she said, “why am I still here? Bury me beside your father.” Through the day, her delirium worsened. She would recognize voices but would be unable to see. She would respond to questions, but would be totally absent to the moment. Death was her context; she talked to persons long departed.
This was not our mother. It was unbearable to see this woman, a pillar of strength and clarity, slowly diminished like this by illness. I cannot remember a sadder day in our lives. But her neurologist told us not to despair. This is a reversible condition, she assured us. Her nephrologist held out the option of peritoneal dialysis. This entails inserting a tube into her abdomen and flushing it with a dialysate to wash out the toxins. The term itself strikes terror in my mother’s mind, for she associates peritoneal dialysis with the tedious and costly treatment that my late father-in-law went through for more than a year before he died.
We agonized over this decision. Any kind of dialysis is extraordinary care: should we prolong her pain? There were risks: she could bleed to death or go into a coma. Or she could recover, and we could maintain her on dialysis, but her mind would be permanently lost. Is this what she would want? My mother is one of the most practical persons I have ever known. I am certain that she would have said, with absolutely no qualification, “Take me home and let me die.”
We are all, her thirteen children, now resigned to see her go “silently into the wind.” We have said our good-byes, and my mother, during fleeting lucid moments, has also given out her final habilin. She remembers even the frozen chicken sitting in her refrigerator, and she has reminded me repeatedly not to get her an expensive coffin. Our tears, however, have not dried up. We continue to hang on to every little sign of recovery. The wild swings that her health has taken have alerted us to the imprecision of medicine and the wondrous uncertainty of living. Most importantly perhaps, this deathwatch has allowed us, her children, to rediscover one another and to bask in each other’s affection as we hold vigil for a faithful and loving parent.
The other day, the hospital chaplain, unaware of her delicate condition, woke her up for communion. Brightly, he greeted her a Merry Christmas. Startled from her sedation, my mother opened her eyes, and said that Christmas was still a month away. It might be more appropriate to wish her a happy birthday, my sister said. Without missing a beat, the priest shifted to birthday greetings, and asked if she had any special birthday wish.
“I want to get well,” mother replied. It is the first time in many months of unrelenting despair that we have heard her express a clear wish to continue living. After taking communion, she asked for coffee and one of the special San Nicolas biscuits from Pampanga she always kept. Then, for lunch, she ordered a simple smoked fish soup, laced with just the right bitterness of ampalaya leaves. Good sign, her doctor said.
She is still not well, but we no longer despair. We celebrate each day she remains among us, but we now know that not even mothers can live forever.
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