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See You Later, Mom

  • 2002 28 Dec
See You Later, Mom

I think the last thing my mother-in-law, Sally, heard before she died was my voice.

It was only a week after she had called Sarah to say she didn't feel well. Sally had been housebound for a few years, and she always worried about being a burden to us.

"I hate to bother you," she'd say on the phone. "Could you come over and change my furnace filter?" She always hated to bother us, but she had emphysema, and she had to change the filter often.

We always went right over to her little apartment when she called. We liked to visit her, anyway. We'd been trying to have children unsuccessfully for several years. She always encouraged us, saying she was sure my wife, Sarah, would get pregnant eventually, and that she was really looking forward to seeing our first child. We only lived about four miles away, but she always tried to give us money for gas.

Sally treated Anita, her home health aide, the same way. Sarah's a nurse, and she'd offered to help take care of Sally, but Sally wouldn't hear of it. Sally acted as if Anita was just a friend helping her out instead of an employee. She even helped Anita pay for nursing school.

So when Sally called that Friday morning in January, we figured she must really feel awful. Sarah grabbed her stethoscope and blood pressure cuff and we left. We were shocked when we arrived. Sally's face was grayish-white, and she was gasping for breath even more than usual.

"I'm so sorry to bother you," she said. "I just can't catch my breath, and my heart's kind of pounding...." Sarah took her blood pressure, and I could tell she was scared when she saw what it was.

"Mom, you need to go to the emergency room," she said. Sally didn't want to go anywhere. She said maybe she'd feel better if she could just catch her breath.

We sat around and pretended to chat casually for a while. Sally tried to joke and talk about current events with us. She insisted she didn't need to go to the hospital. I think she was afraid she wouldn't be coming back if she left.

Finally, Sally let us take her to the emergency room. She had a respiratory infection, which would be merely annoying to most of us. They put her on antibiotics, and she felt a lot better. For a few days it looked as if she might make it. Tuesday night we visited with her; she talked about buying a treadmill to get some exercise and help her breathing improve.

Wednesday the hospital called and said things didn't look good. Sally's doctor told us that even with the antibiotics, he didn't know if she could fight off the infection. He thought she'd had a heart attack to boot.

Sally was pretty weak. She could only speak in short gasps, but she and Sarah talked for hours Wednesday. They talked about our impending move to Oregon, about how long we had hoped and prayed Sarah would get pregnant, about the grandchildren Sally already had.

Mark, Sarah's brother, flew in on Thursday. Susan had come on Wednesday evening. We talked with Sally's doctor, who reminded us about Sally's living will. The doctor respected Sally's wishes, he said, but he didn't think a respirator would keep her alive anyway. He didn't want us to feel guilty about it.

"She's just so weak," he said gently. "All her major organs are damaged from long-term oxygen starvation. It's just a matter of time now."

Anita stopped by on her way to work, gave Sarah a letter, and asked her to read it to Sally. "If I'm not here ― at the end, you know," she said.

A hundred years or so later, the nurses told us Sally had only about an hour left. "Somebody call Anita," Sarah said. One of the nurses did. Sarah and Mark and Susan told Sally they loved her, and not to worry about them.

"See you later, Mom," Susan said, stroking Sally's hair. Sally didn't say anything. By this time we weren't sure if she was unconscious or just too weak to move.

"You better read Anita's letter," I said to Sarah, looking at my watch.

"I don't think I can," Sarah whispered, her face crumpled in despair as she watched her mother die. She handed me the letter.

Great, I thought. I stepped over wires and tubes to get close to the bed. Sally was propped up with pillows to help her breathe. Air whistled in and out of her oxygen mask. Her eyes were closed as she leaned forward, struggling to draw in just one more short, shuddering breath.

"Sally? Can you hear me?" I said quietly into her ear.

"Uh..." she gasped a few seconds later.

Somehow, I read her the letter. Anita said she loved Sally like her own mom, and she would have worked for her for free, and she could never thank her enough for paying for nursing school or for being her friend.

We stood around the bed and watched the little misty spot inside the oxygen mask grow smaller and smaller. Come on, you're the ordained minister here, I scolded myself. Do something ministerial, for God's sake. I couldn't think of anything to do except hand Sarah a Kleenex.

Anita showed up about 10 minutes later. Sally died a few minutes after that.

It was Saturday morning. We'd only known Sarah was pregnant since Wednesday morning. I'm glad Sally could still smile and say "Congratulations" when Sarah told her. I'm glad we had so many chances to tell Sally how much we loved her.

Greg Hartman is a senior editor for Focus on the Family. Copyright 2002, Greg Hartman. All rights reserved.