The End

On the morning of the day my mom died, Moe, a minister from the hospital’s spiritual center dropped by the ICU where I sat alone with my mom. Moe asked me how I was doing, and I started to cry, emotions I had suppressed for decades taking me by surprise—guilt, regrets, sadness. Then Moe asked, “Are there any gifts from this road you have travelled together?”

There is a gift that my mom gave me. Many tragedies happen in the ICU, but this is our miracle story.

To give you context, I had a complex relationship with my mom. She was not the mother I needed. She couldn’t keep my secrets, trampled all over my boundaries, and acted in outrageous ways that embarrassed me when I was younger, and pissed me off when I got older. To be fair, I wasn’t the daughter she wanted either. Other people found her eccentricities charming, her behavior hilarious, and her generosity unprecedented. But the more she demanded my unconditional love, the farther away I pushed her.

One of my best friends had been nagging me for months to talk to my mother, tell her how I feel and make peace in my relationship—“not for your mother, Sue”, she had said too many times to count, “but for you.” But when your relationship is as complex as mine was, that is easier said than done.

When my mom entered hospital on April 3, I did the basic good daughter stuff. I visited almost every day to help her eat some breakfast, liaised with the nurses to bring her more painkillers, and helped her make calls to her friends. Then I high-tailed it home.

But three weeks into her stay, I arrived one morning in the middle of a code blue. They had found my mother without a pulse. As I made my way through the medical throng I saw them pounding on her chest trying to resuscitate her. A doctor told me they were trying to save her life, but it did not look good.

She was resuscitated, transferred to ICU, and equipped with a huge breathing apparatus, tubes sticking out of her chest and lines of drugs pumped into her veins. The nurses tried to get a response for three days, shouting her name (one nurse called her Katina: Katina, open your eyes) and shone a bright light in her face. Nothing.

In the ICU, I found myself in an odd sanctuary. I had been in a mental and writing vacuum for weeks but now I had this new quiet space, just the gentle whirring of the machines, to write and reflect on my relationship. Here is part of a longer essay I wrote that I read to my mom as she lay unresponsive and motionless. The part that thanked her for being the mother I had, even if it wasn’t always the mother I needed. And for the good in her.

Mom, so many of your qualities have shaped my own values and beliefs. You are unbelievably generous relative to your means. You never made much money but always managed to save. You refused to splurge on yourself so that you could help pay for my two sons, your grandsons, to attend university. I know if I ever needed financial help you would give me your last penny.

You are resilient, and nothing knocks you down for long. You survived the war. You lost family in the Holocaust. You started over from scratch as a refugee in a new country, learned a new language and customs, and pursued a profession in daycare that you loved. You have lost one husband through divorce, another through death and too many friends to old age. You have an uncanny ability to pick yourself up, figure things out, and get on with life.

But your best quality is your love of family. While we are very different kinds of mothers, we probably have more in common than I give you credit for. It doesn’t take much to make either of us happy. A simple family meal with your kids and grandkids around the table always ends with you saying, “This is the best day of my life”. And it is for me too.

Mom, I know you can hear me. And I hope these words give you strength.

On the fourth day after my mom’s cardiac arrest, she was opening her eyes, sticking out her tongue, and clearly trying to talk, something made impossible by the breathing apparatus shoved down her throat. I read her the passages again, and then again on the following days. It was clear that she could see, hear, and comprehend everything. She couldn’t speak much—but she had big, beautiful expressive eyes that were kind and generous and conveyed just how much my words meant to her. She was even happier when I told her, that one of my friends who saw her picture on my blog had insisted that I tell her that she thought my mom was way, way cuter than me. There was always competition between us.

My mother could have let go after her cardiac arrest. She had already endured unspeakable suffering. Instead she came back to life. She knew there was unfinished business on this earth between her and me. She gave me a second chance to find peace in my relationship with her. To thank her for being the best mother she could be, to hold her hand, to kiss her face, and to tell her for the first time ever in a way that I really meant it, “Mom I love you”. That was her gift to me.

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