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In the Suburbs / Arriving in time to say goodbye

Published 6:11 am, Thursday, November 29, 2012
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The call I wasn't ready for came Sunday afternoon. My dad was summoning me and my two brothers to Chicago, where my just-turned 90-year old mother had been hospitalized with pneumonia. Mom was near death, Dad said, and we should see her while she was still lucid.

The call threw me into a whirlwind of phone calls and credit-card charges I wouldn't have fathomed. Dad wanted me there that evening, but I explained it was the end of the Thanksgiving weekend and flights were booked. I decided to shoot for as early as I could the following morning.

The airlines "compassion fares" -- aka, bereavement -- were shocking. One airline offered me a compassion fare of $600 one way or a regular one-way fare of $950. Yikes! Several phone calls later, however, United/Continental said they would squeeze me onto a 5:30 a.m. Monday flight for just under $400 one way.

Less than 24 hours after Dad's call, my two bothers and I were sitting with him at Panera Bread in Skokie, Ill., reminiscing but also talking about Mom's situation in practical terms. Dad, accepting the reality that his loving partner of nearly 70 years might never return home, vented his feelings and wanted to put affairs in order.

Then we drove to the hospital, just minutes away. A nurse told us Mom was in radiology having a catheter installed to collect fluids from her lungs.

When I walked into the radiology prep room, I almost gasped. Emotionally, I could not accept that this gaunt, frail woman on the gurney was my mother. It was almost as if mom had already left, and this shell of a woman was all that remained.

Her beautiful face was a pale sea of creases. Her blond hair, usually perfectly coiffed, had been combed hastily by a nurse before sending her to radiology. Tiny white highlights peeked through the blonde. Mom's hands and arms were puffy and purple from the constant regimen of blood draws and intravenous fluids.

When I finally took a breath, Mom had managed a weak smile and was able to greet us in a slightly hoarse voice. I was grateful that she recognized us.

I glanced at my dad momentarily, and his eyes seemed to be glazed over and his face almost blank. Clearly, he was adrift in a sea of uncertainty over Mom's long-term prognosis.

"It wasn't supposed to end like this," I thought. "And it's not fair. Mom has always been a tower of strength -- a mover and shaker and a giver to others beyond words. She had always helped others who were losing loved ones."

I reverted temporarily to that little boy who loved to hear his mother sing and so enjoyed watching her dance with Dad. I always expected Mom would share one last dance with Dad and twirl into the sunset. But that ending would not be in the cards.

Instead, I kept looking into the eyes of a woman who could no longer do for herself and was being poked and prodded and spoon fed. My brothers and I agreed that Mom's quality of life was quietly ebbing, and she was preparing for a journey. Accepting that inevitability helped me detach enough to accept that the end would be a blessing.

Over the two days I was in Chicago, we were given wonderful support. Robin, a hospital social worker, answered our questions, helped facilitate mom's transition to a skilled-nursing facility and helped my dad to better understand that mom wasn't going home again.

Mom's doctor gave us results of an oncology screening of her lungs and confirmed that she had lung cancer. The doctor helped us tremendously, suggesting that she could not withstand chemotherapy and that the best thing at the skilled-nursing facility would be palliative care and a move toward hospice. The end could be in a few months or sooner.

When I kissed Mom goodbye as I left for the airport, I felt I was saying goodbye for the last time. And when Mom looked in my eyes and smiled weakly, I believe she knew it too.

Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his "In the Suburbs" appears each Friday. He can be reached at: steven.gaynes@yahoo.com.