A True Story of Life and Death
During my last month of pregnancy, December 4 to be exact, my mother was hospitalized for what would be the final month of her life. We had been battling her cancer for a year and three months and were in it together, at every turn. From our weekly chemo appointments together, to our hobby of managing and sorting her myriad of drugs, to planning menus and meals that would make her happy and comfortable and bring her miraculous health. We were in it together. It was OUR cancer. Just as it was OUR pregnancy.
The taking and giving of a life at once. I don’t know if that’s how she saw it, consciously anyway, but I certainly didn’t. It never occurred to me that my mother was not going to be there to help me care for little Baby Boo. (She was nameless until the end.) I would always be there to hold my mother’s hand, talk sports and politics and bring her a sandwich and custard during her chemo treatments. She would be there after the baby was born to help me get some sleep, teach me the ways of parenting as she did so effectively herself, and talk sports and politics while I breastfed the baby.
What was happening in December 2005 was a miracle. A sad and horrible, wonderful and heart wrenching, unbelievable and miraculous event. Baby Boo was going to come into our lives early, while my mother was going to wait and then hang on until she held her. It happened the way it was supposed to happen. My mother held her first grandchild, and Baby Boo had her little body wrapped in the most beautiful hands I had ever known. My mother made the decision that my time should be spent, my mind focused, my energy directed toward my new little daughter – no longer toward my mother, her illness, her burden, which she always felt she was. She never was.
My aunt came to stay with us December 10–she had seen her sister only once in the last 15 years–and she filled in for me in caring for my mom, and filled in for my mom in caring for me. She is a saint. She slept in the hospital room with mom so that I could go home, with all my belly glory, to sleep, and she made sure I went to my doctor’s appointments on time and rested in between. When my doctor noticed that little Baby Boo wasn’t growing as expected–I had a small belly for being 9 months pregnant–she ordered another ultra sound and it was my Aunt Leigh who went with me. (I believe this is one of my aunt’s favorite memories, as she didn't have an opportunity to share that experience with a daughter.)
The baby measured small and the doctor put me on the watch list. In my 36th week I was visiting the doctor twice a week for fetal monitoring. I was told to take it easy, via “partial bed rest,” which to me meant walk slower and bend over less. My mother needed me. My aunt needed me. I did what I could do but my aunt made me sit down a lot. I sat right next to my mom.
I was able, astoundingly, to maintain a calm mind and relaxed body for the most part. To laugh with my aunt and mother, to manage my mother’s drugs and comfort, to do crossword puzzles and read the paper to my mom, to keep the TV tuned to the NFL and CNN and away from Fox News, which is where my aunt spent her misguided time. I stayed calm for my mother, and that in turn had a very positive impact on little Baby Boo. I kept my stress level low, well managed and controlled. It hadn’t occurred to me that my mother was actually dying, or that Baby Boo was working her way out to meet her. But that’s exactly what was happening.
My mother went home from the hospital on December 14. She wouldn’t walk again, and needed hospice care and around-the-clock support that my aunt and I couldn’t muster in our inexperience and physically ailing states– me with a little life taking up energy and range of motion, my aunt with chronically injured knees and back. My brother came to help us all and spend important time with our mom for a few days. I spent one week interviewing candidates for live-in care, and continued my bi-weekly fetal monitoring. My brother went home, I hired a caregiver and my husband and I went together to what would be my last fetal monitoring session. It was December 23.
On the Eve of Christmas Eve, Eric and I went to the doctor’s office for fetal monitoring. We sat in our respective chairs, mine a super cozy laz-y boy recliner with straps attached to my abdomen and a clicker in my hand for tracking kicks.Readingsports illustrated (me) and parenting magazines (him), and enjoying a peaceful moment as parents to be. Suddenly, the series of beeps and clicks stopped. Silence. Then one beep. Eric and I looked up, “Maybe you should go get the doctor.” He leapt out of his chair, and he and the doctor came into the room in what seemed like a half a second. As she pulled the long paper stream out to check the beeps and clicks and patterns, Eric and I stared at her with longing for information and good news. “Let’s go have a baby,” she said. “Right now.” The beeps and clicks started up again and so we talked for a few minutes about what was happening and if she was SURE we needed to go the hospital right now. She was sure. We were going to have a baby. I never packed that darn hospital bag.
The labor was extremely easy and, because they induced labor, they were able to give me my epidural whenever I wanted it. “My Epidural” is always how I considered it. It would be mine when I needed it most. And it was. I felt about an hour’s worth of labor pains–only to experience “this pain” that women have been talking about for centuries. It couldn’t possibly be as painful as I’d heard for so many years, after all, my own mother went al natural! It was. And I don't know how or why she did! Overall the labor was extremely smooth, relatively pain free and I pushed for less than 20 minutes. Baby Boo was born at 2:22 a.m. Friday, December 24.
Later that morning I made the most important phone call of my life. I called and spoke with my mother. I told her she was a grandmother of a beautiful, perfect little baby girl named Sydney Rain. That she was healthy, had a very easy delivery, nursed easily from me and that we were all doing so well and were overwhelmed and excited. She was having a hard time speaking but I understood her questions about Baby Sydney’s weight and size, how I did and how I felt, when I was coming to see her, when she would meet her granddaughter. It was the last conversation with my mother I would ever have.
Eric, Sydney and I left the hospital Christmas Day, after spending a glorious Christmas Eve with our new family. Little Sydney was thriving, eating and sleeping well, off to a great start as a Seahawks fan, with the game on TV in the room. (She would attend two playoff games at Seahawks Stadium before her one month birthday.) We left the hospital at 3:00 p.m. and went straight to my mother’s apartment—10 minutes away. I announced as I walked in the door that I was “bringing you a baby for Christmas.” I was so excited to see myMomand show her littleSydneythat I was all smiles and happiness and butterflies. Until I saw myMom, lying there on the hospital bed in the living room of her apartment. Where she’d been since December 14, where I left her in a stable condition only two days before.
It was the first time since my mom went into the hospital earlier that month that I knew she was dying. Call it denial. Call it naiveté. Call it redirected enthusiasm toward having a baby. Call it whatever you want. I sobbed uncontrollably while Eric and my Aunt Leigh ogled over the baby. I held my mother’s hand, cried into her body and told her how much I loved her–over and over again. It was all I could think of to say. It was the only thing that mattered to me, and the most important thing for her to know. Eric brought littleSydneyover and we spent the next several minutes holding her on my mother’s chest, moving her around in her arms. My mom opened her eyes, gaveSydneyher best smile, and held her, looked at her for as long as she could manage. She saw her granddaughter, smiled at her, welcomed her to the world, and loved her.
Eric snapped pictures from several angles– which I never knew until I saw them later– while I heldSydneyin place and told myMomhow perfect and wonderful and healthy she was. My mother eventually closed her eyes and dozed off. It was the most beautiful moment, yet the saddest moment of my life.
We stayed with my Aunt Leigh snapping photos of the proud auntie, watching football and telling stories about the labor until early evening. We went home, got a fairly full night’s sleep and came back the next day to spend one more day as a family, with my brother and his wife, my aunt and husband, our new little baby and my mom. My mother slept peacefully the entire day, and we left at 6:00 p.m., after saying what we expected to be our last goodbye. My mother passed away at 8:00 that night. We went back a final time to say goodbye again to my mother, and to be together and comfort one another as a family.
My mother let me go. From the beginning she never wanted me to spend as much time caring for her as I did. She never wanted to be a burden. And she would never take any of my time away from my new daughter. She said that to me the only way I would ever expect her to, with her actions. She held and loved her granddaughter. It was her last aware moment. It was a miracle.