June 29, 2018. On a plane over the Pacific.
As soon as the plane left Sydney the weight of my mother’s passing retreated, as if it, like her, was rooted in Australian soil, imprisoned by that country, that place. She and I had lived victoriously, lifelong best friends who created a life time that we both dreamed of. My second novel has just been published. She’d made it to 86, living independently in the company of a dog that she adored. As much as a life can be considered a success, hers has been.
Among her belongings I found a simple piece of paper that said, I Love My Dog Ebony. I wonder if she wrote it as a reminder, a talisman against the dementia that was ravaging her mind and her memory. The past two weeks had been nightmarish. Her descent was rapid and inelegant. The original intent of my rushed visit was to locate a nursing facility. The doctors had evaluated that she could no longer live alone, in her home with Ebony. I knew this move would kill her spirit, and soon thereafter, it would kill her.
The blocked bowel was a surprise development coming out of nowhere. Several days of tattered hope followed with vague hints that if it did not clear, the results would be serious. Nobody said death. I spent my days cleaning her house. Dementia had turned her hoarding into something more clattery than sentimental. Regardless of what happened to her, the house I’d lived in off and on since I was eight needed to be dealt with. As she worsened, she told me she had finally decided to come and live with me in Los Angeles. She had enjoyed the city during visits but like my father, she considered the thought of leaving Australia to be a betrayal of something deep and primal. I know that her change of heart was shorthand for acknowledgment. As her body fought the blockage in her stomach, she vomited bile every minute or two, her weak hands fumbling for tissues, struggling to clear her lips. The nurses kept up the hope. As long as the spittle stays gray, they told me, there was hope. After a few days it turned an alarming bright green, the color of engine coolant or a midori sour. The furrowed brows of the doctors said enough.
I would sit with her daily until she became tired. I’d wipe her lips and fetch new bags for the vomit. After that, I’d walk a mile back to the nearest parking space, then drive home alone to the empty, messy house. Friends called and texted but there was no sound. I played the new Mazzy Star and Ty Segall LPs on rotation, music still my best accompaniment. I cleared room after room, following a curious jumbled trail of her assemblage. Somehow in her deteriorating mental state she shuffled papers, photographs and papers from the span of her life into unsettling piles. I would find baby photos, cards I’d made in kindergarten and letters we’d exchanged sandwiched in between recent bills. Every pile was a minefield, nothing was safe territory. Every sheaf of paper made me miss her, before I knew that things were as bad as they became
I was summoned to meet the doctors. They told me that the blockage was permanent. A mix of vintage scar tissue and outmoded surgical techniques, likely caused by a distant childhood surgery. The surgeons declined to operate. She was already too weak to survive anesthesia. They told me that he was best if I told her she would die and that they were switching her to palliative care. I wasn’t able to ever tell her that, instead talking to her of meals I would make her when she got home. She told me that she wanted us to have a “party of cakes”. Nothing ever seemed more perfect. To have her at home, healthy, feasting on a supper of cakes from our favorite cake shop, Barto’s in East Gosford, purveyor of the perfect apple turnover with cream and old school Neinish tart.
As her health deteriorated alongside my sanity, we kept up the charade. She worried about small details. She wanted to send birthday cards to her niece’s kids. She fretted that she’d be late. I bought the cards in, on a rainy Friday morning. She had started to vomit streams of fluorescent goo. In between bouts, she used Herculean energy to write those cards. By the second card she was struggling, her handwriting, once so careful and exquisite, was unraveling with each letter. At the end of the second card, her brow dotted with sweat, she asked to be moved back to her bed.
A nurse and I got her comfy, and I brushed her thick, Snow White hair. She had always loved having her hair brushed. Now it was her only pleasure. She’d been forbidden food or drink for 12 days at that point. She fantasized about orange juice and ice cream. Our lifelong friend Heather arrived, and fed her some ice cream, which she reveled in the taste of. After a while a nurse came to administer her first shot of the morphine that constituted her “end of life” treatment. As I brushed her hair, she drifted off in a cloud of junkie bliss. She never woke up again.
That was a week ago. Since then, I’ve visited her almost daily. I took a break to go and pay for her cremation. That’s a creepy conversation to have about a woman who’s alive. A woman I’m so not ready to lose. The lady was professionally gentle but there’s no shaking the underlying ghoulish aspect of having to pay extra for a doctor to remove a defibrillator from my mothers chest before cremation because they “explode when… you know.”
After that exchange I went next door to the graveyard where my father and my mothers sister’s ashes reside in a sad forest of ailing rose bushes. There’s a creek near their grave with signs that promise platypuses. I had a look but I’m fourteen years of visits, I’ve never seen one. Still haven’t. I implored my dad to go help mum pass over. Crying furiously. I turned angry at her sister, yelling at her to get off her arse for once and do something for my mother, the one person who never abandoned her. They didn’t listen.
The doctors told me that nobody survives “end of life treatment” for more than a week. Yet here I am, on a flight back to Los Angeles, and she is stubbornly holding on. When I saw her yesterday, the nurse told me that she’s still peeing. That her body hasn’t even begun to shut down. The nurse also told me to leave, to go home, that mum was waiting until she knew I was in the care of my family in Los Angeles. That’s her. That’s the woman who taught me determination. She taught me that women are equal and that she was a pro to feminist, working “a mans machine” in a factory at fourteen years of age and even then, angry and full of protest that even if she worked at a higher quota than the men, she only got paid sixty percent of what they did. My mother taught me that the love of an animal is equal to the love of a person. Sometimes it’s worth more. And she showed me that stubbornness is an attribute, not a failing.
But as Australia retreats behind me and the South Pacific stretches out in a green silver sparkle, my pain feels less. I cried inconsolably as I drove past her hospital on my way out of town, my tears matching the torrential downpour that accompanied my exit. Now, I feel a sad, memory-rich peace. I’m focusing on my life in Los Angeles, a life founded on the qualities that she gave me, an unlikely success for an uneducated butcher’s son from a working class suburb of Sydney. I feel a satisfaction that she lived her life with little compromise, and that she was still smiling right up to the end, surrounded by the same love and protections that are wrapped around me, as I hurtle back to the arms of my husband and our little house in the hills of LA. She will likely pass while I’m in the air, and that should terrify me but oddly it feels appropriate. I hope her energy knows how to find me, because our journey is not done yet. I feel close to her, and I’m so goddamned lucky she was my mum.
Now, missing her is going to be another matter entirely. But right now, they’ve brought me a gin and tonic, and I have a wonderful woman to toast.