Posted by: Kathy | October 14, 2011

All I Heard Was Silence

I’m sorry I haven’t blogged in a while. Life has a way of throwing curve balls, which doesn’t give me much time for personal writing. In August I took a chance and entered a writing contest for the first time. The winners were recently announced and unfortunately I wasn’t one of them. But that’s ok because I plan to use what I wrote for the contest for my book. I’d like to share the story I wrote for the contest:

All I Heard Was Silence

I ran up the stairs, just as I had hundreds of times before. Instead of heading slightly left into my childhood bedroom, I turned right and walked quickly down the short hall to my parents’ bedroom. My dad was sitting on the bed, talking quietly on the phone, and I knew I was too late.

My gaze shifted slowly to the overstuffed flowered chair in the corner of the bedroom. My mom was slumped slightly against the right arm rest, her eyes closed. But I knew she wasn’t sleeping because for the first time in many weeks my mom’s face held a look of complete peace. The blanket had slipped off her shoulders, revealing pale white skin and bony peaks and crevices. Pancreatic cancer had ravaged my mom’s body. Her skin sagged loosely in some areas, while in others it was translucent and stretched tightly over the bone beneath. The gaunt face, with sunken eyes and sharply carved cheek bones, gave this once healthy and vibrant woman a skeletal appearance.

I walked further into the room as my dad ended his conversation. He looked up at me and with tears in his eyes said “she’s gone.”

“I know.”

“I know you wanted to be with her when she died. I’m sorry. But at least she’s finally at peace.”

True. I had said several times that I wanted to be with my mom when she took her last breath. But, quite honestly, even though I wanted to be a strong support for my mom, I was actually terrified of her dying right before my eyes. In a way though, that’s what happened. My mom had died slowly and painfully by degrees, and I witnessed it daily, as the cancer grew and spread inside her, stealing bits of her life.

“It’s alright. I told Mom that I loved her when you held the phone to her ear, and I let her know that it was okay for her to let go before I got here if it was just too painful for her to live anymore.”

Those last words stuck in my throat, and my eyes filled with tears. My mother was the most vibrant and alive person I had ever known. It was hard to believe that she was gone. I would never again hear her voice or see her smile as she played with the kids. I felt the weight of true sadness and loss engulf me as I walked over to my dad and hugged him. But deep beneath that sadness was also a feeling of relief. My mom was no longer suffering. My dad was right when he said that she was finally at peace. No matter how hard she tried to hide it, I knew my mom was in a great deal of pain, physically and emotionally. Her battle against an illness that too few people win was over, and she was free.

I sat in the window seat as my dad made more phone calls because it was the farthest place in the room from the overstuffed flowered chair. I truly believed that my mom was in a better place, free of cancer, free of pain, and all that was left was the shell that had once held my mom’s personality, spirit, and love. But I couldn’t look at the body in that chair, and I didn’t like being in the same room as a dead body, even if it was my mom’s.

Anything to do with death frightened me, even as a young child. As a doctor, I don’t think it bothered my dad. I had mentioned calling the funeral home, but so far that call hadn’t been made. A nurse from the hospice center that had helped care for my mom during her final weeks of life had come to officially pronounce my mom dead and record her time of death. She didn’t stay long, since it was a Sunday and she was the only one on call. She offered her condolences as she gathered up her stuff, something I’m sure she did quite often given her line of work.

As my dad walked the hospice nurse to the front door, I wandered into my childhood bedroom and laid down on my bed. Not much had changed since I had officially moved out 15 years ago. My stuffed animals were arranged on the shelf that had been placed on two walls of the room about a foot from the ceiling. Everything was covered with a light layer of dust, slightly neglected but still meaningful. I’m sure my mom had come in to dust and clean every once in a while. Matt, my son, had slept in this same bed during the numerous Friday nights he’d spent with my parents. I had quickly called home when I first got here to let my husband, Tony, know that my mom had died. I called again right before the nurse arrived to see how Matt was doing since he had been so close to his grandmom. Tony told me that Matt was just sitting in our front room, staring into space. He was crying when Tony walked into the room to tell him his grandmother had died, but he didn’t want to talk to or be with anyone. Although he knew this day was coming, nothing could have prepared a nine year old for death, especially when the person who died was someone he’d shared many special times with and loved more than he could understand. I would comfort him when I got home and also talk to my daughter, who was only two years old. But I needed a little time to get myself together before talking to my kids about their grandmother’s death.

I felt lost. My mom was no longer here. I had watched her die slowly and painfully and become someone I hardly knew at times during the past few weeks. Now that she was gone, life as I had known it was also gone. All I wanted to do was curl up into a ball and not think or feel anything, but that was not a possibility. I pulled out my cell phone and called my boss at home. I got her voicemail and left a quick message. I knew she’d call me back later. After I hung up, I saw that I had several emails, all in response to an email I sent the night before. The timing of my mom’s death was not random. She had been waiting for her grandson to achieve the biggest accomplishment of his life to date before letting go and freeing herself from the agony of pancreatic cancer.

The day before, Matt had tested for his probationary black belt in TaeKwonDo. I had never seen him work so hard for something. I think he knew he had one chance to get this belt before his grandmother died. My mom had been one of Matt’s biggest supporters, never missing a testing or rank ceremony since he began TaeKwonDo. This testing was the first one she didn’t attend. She was just too sick to go. But she had wished Matt the best and told him that he could do it when she spoke with him the night before the testing.

We went straight to my parents’ house from testing. My dad had called the nurse several times during testing to check on my mom. Right before we left, he told me that she had not eaten, drank, or spoken all day, and I knew my mom was close to death. But when Matt told her that he had passed and gotten his black belt, my mom said “that’s wonderful” over and over again. She knew, and it’s all that mattered. He placed the second black belt his instructor had given him into my mom’s hands and told her the belt was for her. I was so proud of my son, but felt bad that the happiness of achieving his black belt was tied with the sadness of losing his grandmother. Matt knew my mom had “waited” for him, as less than 18 hours had passed between my mom learning about her grandson’s achievement and her death.

I only answered one of the emails, the one from Jay, the CEO of my company. I thanked him for his congratulations regarding Matt’s accomplishment and then told him about my mom. I received a response back from him a few hours later. He said he was sorry for my loss, which I knew was heartfelt. Jay had been supportive and understanding since finding out my mom had pancreatic cancer, often sending a quick email just to see how I was doing since I worked mainly from home. It was like he knew what I was going through, and I appreciated his support. All of my colleagues knew my mom had been battling pancreatic cancer for almost a year. Although only a handful of people knew just how sick my mom had been during the past few weeks. Soon everyone would know that my mom was gone.

My dad had come back upstairs and was making more calls. I decided to stay where I was for now. He had poked his head into my room to ask how I was doing and, much to my relief, said that he’d be calling the funeral director. I looked at the time on my phone. It was 12:18 pm. My mom had been gone for about an hour and a half. Nothing seemed real. I had left this house less than four hours ago, after spending the night with my mom. It was a night I’ll never forget, the events of which kept popping into my mind. So I just closed my eyes and let the memories come.

The bedroom was very dark; much darker than my bedroom at home. A small nightlight off to one side of the room glowed dimly, and a projection clock slowly ticked off the minutes on the ceiling above me. Even though I had been in this bedroom hundreds of times over the past 30-some years, I had never slept here. This was my parents’ bedroom, and I was here at my dad’s request. He was asleep in my childhood bedroom down the hall, although that didn’t provide me with any comfort. Nothing did at this point.

I was cold, probably more because of the circumstances than the temperature of the room or the number of blankets that covered me. But it hardly mattered because I knew that I would get little sleep during the night. I was afraid to fall asleep. A few feet from me, my mom sat in a stuffed chair covered by blankets. She was in too much pain to lay flat in her bed. My mom knew I was there, at least I thought she did. She had acknowledged me when I came back to spend the night with her, and seemed happy that I was there. The past few nights had been difficult for my dad, particularly the night before. He told me that in the middle of the night, my mom got up and started taking clothes out of her drawers to pack. She insisted that they had to go to Philadelphia right away. My dad couldn’t reason with her or talk her out of it, and had to physically stop her from leaving. I know this had hurt my dad terribly, as he was crying when he told me what had happened. My dad needed a night of real sleep knowing that someone was with his wife.

Even though I wanted to help my dad, I was scared and felt completely helpless. Before I climbed into my parents’ bed, I knelt before my mom, tucked the blankets around her, and let her know that I would be with her all night. I told her that all she had to do was say my name and I would help her. Less than an hour had passed since then. Was my mom sleeping? Was she warm enough? How much pain was she in? If she was awake, what was she thinking about? All of these thoughts raced through my mind as I watched the minutes tick away slowly on the projection clock above me. Mostly, I was scared that my mom would need something and I wouldn’t know how to help her. Honestly, I was terrified that she would die during the night and I wouldn’t be able to handle it. My dad told me that I could come get him anytime I wanted to, but that wouldn’t change the situation. It wouldn’t take away my racing thoughts or calm my fears. It wouldn’t stop my mom from dying. I was an adult, this was my mom, and I needed to help in any way that was asked of me. So I lay awake listening to my mom’s breathing and the click of the morphine pump, which, at this point, hardly provided any pain relief.

The night passed by very slowly. I felt restless, on edge, ready to jump out of my skin or the bed, whichever came first. It was only 11:45 pm. TV, my one source of comfort, was off limits because the light and noise would probably disturb my mom. I sent a text to my husband, keeping the phone beneath the blankets to hide the light from the screen. He was probably waiting to hear from me. I needed him to take away my fear, but that was an impossibility. After texting for a few minutes we said goodnight. The clicking of the keys seemed abnormally loud in the stillness of the night. I needed a distraction, my MP3 player and headphones, something I could do quietly in the darkness since sleep was not an option. But when my dad called, my only thought was getting to their house as quickly as possible. I brought nothing with me except my fears.

The numbers 12:28 illuminated a small part of the ceiling. I silently slid out of the bed and re-covered my mom. Her arms and hands kept shifting, twitching, or jumping, as if they were controlled by puppet strings. This had happened at times during the day, but these movements seemed to have worsened. With each movement the blankets would shift until they eventually slid off. After all that my mom had been through, it seemed beyond cruel that she should be cold on this frosty November night. This was the only thing I could control, so I kept getting up to reposition the blankets. I also pushed the button on the medicine pump for an extra dose of morphine, thinking that she may be in a lot of pain. At one point while I was re-adjusting the blankets, I knelt before my mom and tried to figure out if she was asleep. I wanted to make sure she was as comfortable as she could be or see if she needed anything. I quietly said her name and then stared at her through the darkness, hoping for some sort of response. I wanted to talk to my mom. I needed to talk to her. I knew she was dying and I wanted to make sure my mom knew how much I loved her. But she didn’t say anything, or even move, just a few twitches of her hand. So I went back to my parents’ bed and hoped the rest of the night would pass by quickly.

My tears silently fell onto the pillow. When I had first seen my mom earlier tonight, I was shocked at how much she had deteriorated since I last saw her only a day ago. Her chin was nearly touching her chest because she didn’t have the strength to lift her head anymore. My mom had become a mere shell of her former self. I laid there for a while listening to my mom breathing. The clock on the ceiling showed that it was 1:35.

I closed my eyes and prayed, something I did almost every night. I asked God to comfort my mom and surround her with angels. Before now, all my prayers had asked for one thing, to heal my mom, something only a miracle could do. But at this point, there would be no miracle. My mom was going to die. I believe my mom realized this too, but I had no idea how she really felt about it, except that she didn’t want to leave my kids. I drifted off to sleep as I was praying, and then awoke with a start, surprised that I had fallen asleep. The projection on the ceiling showed that it was a little after 4:30 am. I quickly listened for my mom’s breathing, relieved that she was still alive. I got up and checked her blankets, and then went back to bed.  

My dad’s voice pulled me out of my thoughts. The funeral director was here. I walked down the hall to meet him. He and my dad discussed what would happen next as I looked for the suit my dad wanted my mom to be buried in. Once all of my mom’s final clothes and jewelry had been carefully chosen, the funeral director suggested that my dad and I go downstairs so they could remove my mom’s body.

As my dad and I sat at the kitchen table, I waited to hear the bouncing of a gurney up and down the stairs. I listened for some kind of sound to signal that my mom was being taken from her home. But all I heard was silence.

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Responses

  1. Dear Wendie: Tears come to my eyes as I read what you wrote. I can relate to so much, there are many similarities. I think my mom had accepted her death before she died. When she went into the hospital for the last time, she asked me to make sure to keep her memory alive for the kids and I have. My daughter was only 2. Her greatest regret in dying was leaving her grandkids. Thank you for sharing your final days/weeks with your mom. I’m sure it wasn’t easy. As I think about my mom’s final weeks 3 years later, I am overcome with sadness. I guess we will always relive it in some way and I hope that it becomes less painful as time passes.

    Take care, Kathy

  2. Kathy, you are a beautiful writer, and I look forward to when you write your book.
    The experiences you describe are so similar to mine.

    It has been a little over two months since my mom died, and I keep replaying so many events in my mind. I feel intense sadness when I think of those events, and when I see pictures of when my mom was healthy, I feel absolute panic and shock that she is gone.

    My mom passed away two and a half weeks after that last Dr. appt. I knew as I walked through those hospital doors that this would probably be the last time. I was right.

    The next few days were pure torture for my family. My mom knew she was dying, and was not ready to let go. My mom, who went from sleeping 20 hours a day, could barely sleep. She was so confused, and scared. I have an image in my mind of my mom sitting on the floor of her bedroom beside her bed. She had fallen out of it in an attempt to get up, but her legs would not work anymore. When I walked up to her bedroom and saw her like that, shaking and with everyone in the room trying to encourage her to let them help her up, I just could not bear it. She looked like a tiny injured bird.

    I ran down the stairs, out of her room to call palliative care who was supposed to have already started. I begged for them to come right this minute. I could barely get my words out I was sobbing so hard. They came and so did the pastor, who had been my mom’s spiritual mentor for the whole year she was sick. Some how they managed to get her into the bathroom, and then she wanted them to help her to the bedroom across the hall where she sat on the oldest piece of furniture in the house, the lazy-boy chair.

    When I came the next day, my mom was still in that chair, but something had changed. When I walked in, she was crying softly and told me that she wanted to go, and was that okay. She wanted the IV to be disconnected and she was ready to go. My mom finally had peace and she was finished with the cancer that ravaged her body and mind for over a year.

    She stayed on that chair for four days. We all took turns sleeping in there, on the loveseat. The night I slept in there, I reminded my mom that I hadn’t slept in here for over 20 years and I was honoured to be in here with her. I figured that my mom would die on that chair in my childhood bedroom.

    So many memories were made in that bedroom. Promises were made, tears were shed, my brother read her the book, ‘I Love You Forever’ by Robert Munch. One of the most heartbreaking moments was when my 8 year old son was brought up to say good-bye to his grandmother. She told him that she would miss him, and to please never forget her. I stood outside the bedroom door with my heart breaking.

    After 4 days, my mom decided that she wanted to go back to her own bedroom. She slept for an entire day on her bed. We all spoke to her and sometimes she would answer in a whisper At one point, the palliative care nurse had thought that she might have slipped into a coma. I cried so hard, and sat down at the end of the street on a bench begging God to release her, and yet I wanted to talk to my mom just one more time.

    That evening, my mother woke up and it was like a miracle. Everyone was around her bed, and she stared and stared, memorizing each person’s face. She even ate a popcycle. Her last words to me were that she loved me.

    The next morning, my phone rang at 5:30 am. ‘Oh God, Oh God, Oh God”…I muttered as I reached for the phone. It was a beautiful summer morning. My mom had died. It was okay that I was not there. She more or less died in her sleep, and my sister was pretty sure when she gave her the pain medication at 3am that her mind had already left her body.

    My sweet, loving mom, who devoted her entire life to her family, was gone. My dad said that God performed a miracle on August 17th at 5:30 am. God released my mom from her pain. The image of my mom, lying in her bed, with her spirit somewhere else, will remain with me for the rest of my life.

    I grabbed my mom’s hands a few days before she died, and I looked her in the eyes – “I never, ever want you to think you weren’t brave through this You were brave, so brave. If I ever get cancer, I will think of your strength, and I will get mine from you.”

    I love you, Mom, and I will miss you for the rest of my life.

  3. Beautifully written. Your comment about being able to keep your mom warm by covering her up with blankets being the only thing you could control is especially touching and poignant. I’ve heard that a person who is nearing death will sometimes comment on or try to prepare for a trip. I wonder if that’s what your mom was doing when she packed to go to Philadelphia. Regardless, I am sure she knew you were there that night and that she was deeply loved.

    • Thanks, Stephanie. If I had to choose one word for that night, and the last weeks of my mom’s life, it would be helpless. I felt completely helpless most of the time and had no idea what to do. A few weeks ago, my dad gave me a copy of the eulogy my mom wrote for her mom. My mom wrote about a dream my grandmother had before she died in which she was packing to go somewhere and couldn’t find my grandfather (he died five and a half years before she did). In this dream, my grandmother figured that he had gone on before her and would be there when she arrived. I was surprised when I read this and how similar it was to my mom’s final days. Maybe both my mom and grandmother were trying to prepare in some way for what was coming next.

      Take care,

      Kathy

  4. Hey Kathy,
    I was awaiting your next piece, was worried. I think you put to words what so many people can’t… the personal aftermath of loss and how it can shatter you but also rebuild you… you know I relate to your experience of this terrible and tragic loss, right to the point of even feeling relief that the suffering was over. Watching my mom suffer for the one week in the ER with her severe stroke and knowing they tried to put a feeding tube down her throat and at night they had to take it out, I felt so sick at how much they were torturing her not really saving my mom….I did not want her to suffer like this…I’m as you know far from feeling rebuilt. I can’t make sense of anything or life. keep on writing and know your words are helping a lot of people, like me. warmly, wendy

    • Hi Wendy: About 3 years before my mom died, I watched her struggle with decisions regarding the end of her mom’s life. My grandmother had suffered a major stroke and then somehow survived for 9 months. But it wasn’t living, she was merely existing. At the time, I didn’t know how my mom did it and prayed that I would have my mother’s strength if I ever went through the same thing with her. I never expected that time to come less than 3 years later. I wasn’t prepared, but did the best I could. You’re right, you don’t just walk away after it’s over. Their suffering and pain scars you, stays with you, and then your own pain pops up when you least expect it. You rebuild yourself slowly, piece by piece. Life will make sense again.

      Take care, Kathy

  5. Wonderful writing. I could not keep a dry eye and I think I was crying for the both of us at once since much of what you wrote about those hours was painfully familiar. Thank you once again for inspiring me to start trying to write and reconcile some of my own memories and thoughts.

    • Writing has been my way of healing and dealing with all that I’ve felt since my mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. When I first started writing, I never dreamed that I would have a blog like this or people commenting on what I write. If you want to write about what you’re feeling, start with that, just a word or a few words. Many times one of my posts starts with a single thought or feeling. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

      Take care, Kathy

  6. Kathy,
    I read your latest blog and was glued to your words. You are a wonderful writer. I could visualize your parents home and the way you felt during the final hours of your mother’s life. It reminded me of what our family went through during my brother-in-law’s fight with pancreatic cancer. I felt your pain and fear. Please continue to write and persue writing your book. I think it will help others to know what a terrible disease this is.
    Lisa

    • Thank you, Lisa, for your kind words. Even though it’s been 3 years, as time “ticks down” to what were the final days of my mom’s life, I continue to relive parts of it. I want to use these feelings in a positive way and work on my book with feeling and passion, writing about this time and what I experienced. I hope in some way, if my book is actually published, that it does help others.

      Take care, Kathy


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