Two years ago I watched my mother-in-law die. It sounds like the beginning of a revenge fantasy joke. She checked into a hospital in Austin Texas; a week and a day later she was gone.
She was 77. She had ovarian cancer, undiagnosed till the end despite obvious symptoms that something was amiss, including a blood clot, bloating, and no appetite.
My wife Therese and I had flown to the States, informed of an upcoming operation, pessimistic of her chances despite an upbeat assessment that she’d be up and walking around in 4 to 5 days.
When we arrived at the hospital she already looked dead.
The first thing she said was “You came.” Then, to me, “You’re wearing glasses. You look old.” We all held hands then they wheeled her away.
When she came out of surgery she was in a great deal of pain, so they gave her morphine with a morphine chaser. The surgeon had found cancer, far too much. The prognosis went off a cliff.
She was able to talk for two days. She asked me to make it stop hurting. She asked for my forgiveness. (We had been estranged even as we became inlaws a long time ago.) She didn’t ask my wife for the same, though she had practically forsaken Therese for decades.
Her last words to Therese were “Am I getting better or am I getting worse?”
She told her husband, “You said we would go together.” She sounded hurt. He said she would be waiting for him. It felt awkward to be witnessing these intensely private moments between a couple who had been married for 53 years. Theirs wasn’t a marriage made in heaven, but that didn’t really matter at a time like this.
We gave her a sponge dipped in tea. She was Sri Lankan, where tea is in the blood.
At one point a doctor came in and asked “If your heart stops, do you want to be resuscitated?” She ignored the doctor.
On the second day the priest came. Then the morphine, given in ever larger doses as a soft parachute into death, took her to a place beyond talking. This did not, however, end her murmured distress. She did not seem to go gently into that good night.
The dying room was kept dark. Her husband, Therese and I, and my sister-in-law and her ex kept watch. Other relatives came and went.
When we were told she might die at any minute, we watched her as closely as you will watch someone about to leave forever. The minutes ticked away and turned into hours. At one point – it strikes me as odd how we all reached this point together – when it was clear she had a little more time left, we all abruptly dove into our laptops or phones or whatever connections we had brought with us to the outside world. This was life going on, I guess.
We had to leave for the UK a few days into her troubled sleep. Therese’s last hours with her mother were a nightmare. She had been moved into a small, cramped room, like a ticked box being put into storage. My wife’s sister, never easy to get along with, had switched into gargoyle mode, jealously guarding the deathbed from what she saw as intrusions into her own private grief. Even her father was not immune, and was pushed away. Having decided to give only the most immediate family some space, I didn’t bear witness to any of this, but waited in a kind of stasis in our oasis of a cool hotel room.
Three mornings after we got home Therese learned that her mother had died the previous midnight. She cried, and I held her. Four inlaws between us, and she was the first to draw the short straw.
She still thinks about her every day, she says. Ira could have treated her much better, so many of the thoughts would not go into any book of remembrance you’d want to keep. Still, you can’t not think of the woman who brought you into the world then spent half your life angry at you for not staying in the mould she’d prepared. You can be sad, and wish it had ended differently, that so much had been different. You can listen to your father on the phone, who has spent the last two years wanting to die, and try to cope with that. You keep living the life you’ve made for yourself, far away from where you were born and who you were born from. Perhaps you wonder about the next short straw to be drawn.