Entry – 9 – Tears in Heaven
2:39 was a significant number in our home. It was my mom’s best time when she won the NY City Marathon. As I spent those days as my mom’s care giver, there were choices I needed to make about work. I had several events lined up back to back and was contemplating if I should leave my mom to teach or pull out of the event. Over the years, I had cancelled events due to my mom’s health. Scott and the girls had gone back to Vancouver with the car, and I stayed behind to care for my mom. Almost every morning, I’d walk to Starbucks. On this particular morning as I was contemplating what to do, I noticed the price of gasoline on my way to Starbucks was $2.39 per gallon. Later that day, I happened to look at the clock exactly at 2:39. That evening, as I was washing the dishes in her small bachelor apartment, there was a pain in my heart that I only had a couple more nights with her. How could I leave her to teach a yoga event? I decided then that I would stay with her until the end. The next morning, I walked to Starbucks and the gas was $2.35. I told my mom that I wasn’t leaving and she gave me a beautiful smile.
Those days as her health deteriorated drastically, she would sleep most of the time. She’d have moments of clarity where she’d wear a bright smile and perhaps say a few words and then slip back into sleep. Going back to the order of events, I got the call on Friday that she had fallen between the sofa and the coffee table when the hospice nurse found her on the floor unable to get herself up. By Wednesday, she was completely bed ridden. I would feed her when she was hungry and give her some water or juice through a straw when she was thirsty. That Wednesday as she was lying in bed unable to sit up, walk or even be picked up to the bedside commode because she was in too much pain, I sat beside her and she said “tanoshi” (I’m having fun) with another warm smile. I told her through watery eyes, in Japanese that I was having fun too and how much I enjoyed being with her.
The next morning, she woke up around 7am and said she was hungry. I brought her some yogurt and spoon fed her. On her second mouthful, her right hand started to twitch and it looked like she was scratching her chest. I asked her if she was itchy but she wasn’t responding. Soon her right arm was twitching rhythmically and I was getting nervous. The twitching continued up to her right shoulder as her right eye started blinking and her head shook with this strong rhythm. I had never witnessed anyone having a seizure until that moment. I called hospice and told them what was going on. They said they’d get a nurse there within the next couple of hours. I was freaking out but luckily the seizure only lasted about a minute or two but those were some long ass minutes! After that seizure, my mom was not responsive anymore. I tried to give her some morphine but she wasn’t able to swallow. About another hour later as I was waiting for the hospice nurse to arrive, the twitching started again and continued up to her head for what was another couple of minutes. This time, I was calm and stroked her head and arm as she convulsed. The convulsions were not wild. They were contained and she wasn’t going to hurt herself.
The nurse arrived after the second seizure and put in a port for morphine in her right arm that regulated her dose and another port in her right thigh for the anti-seizure med (2mg of Lorazepam), which needed to be injected every four hours around the clock. She was having a hard time getting the port in her shoulder because of her t-shirt and asked how attached I was to her shirt. I told her I was very attached. I had put my mom in her “Gorman Cup” shirt, which was the marathon named after my mom in her hometown of Japan. So she didn’t cut it. We worked around it. The nurse said she’d come back again tomorrow and by this point, they would be making daily visits. I asked her how much longer she thought my mom had and said it was hard to tell. Everybody was so different. She wouldn’t be surprised if she passed that day or even if she lasted another week.
Friday, the nurse came again and told me a bed had opened up at the hospice house. The hospice house was a beautiful facility nestled in the woods with 12 private rooms and full bathrooms. It looked like a resort without any amenities. A bed had opened up a couple days prior, which I declined. I loved being my mom’s caretaker. By Friday though, my mom had practically been in a comma since her seizures and I wanted her to let go. I thought my mom might’ve been holding on since she kept hearing my voice and the voice of her friends visiting. My mom was not going to come around from all of this. Her fingers had already started to get “dusky” and lose color. She had not uttered a word, moved nor opened her eyes since the seizures. I told the nurse I was ready to take her to the hospice house.
Since Scott had left with the car, I decided to rent one so I could drive to and from the hospice house to my mom’s retirement home. I needed a car that day and the only car left at this family run rental car was a white Ford Ranger pickup. The guy asked me if I could drive a stick. It had been a while, over 10 years since I last drove a stick. This could be fun.
The paramedics came to pick up my mom that evening as I was dressing her. Since my mom was not helping me at all, it was taking me a while to get her pajamas on. I had kept her in a t-shirt the past few days without pants so I could quickly change her and inject her with the anti-seizure meds. I started to get emotional when the two young men came to pick up my mom and transfer her. I wasn’t used to seeing many people under 90 come to my mom’s door. I asked them to help me put some clothes on her and they did. I wanted them to know that this person they were about to transfer was no ordinary 80 year old and I started to tell them about my mom and all her running accomplishments, even showing a picture of her on the cover of Runner’s World magazine. My mom was going to be taken out through the main entrance of the retirement home and her friends would be watching. I wanted her to look cute so we put on some matching fleece blue pajamas and a cap to cover her bald head.
The paramedics drove her in a small white ambulance without the sirens as we were in no hurry. I followed in my Ford pickup. Tears were streaming down my face and I wanted to take in every moment of this experience. The pick up had a cd player and I put in one of the cd’s I recently burned for my mom. The first song was George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord”. I cranked it and followed the slow pace of the ambulance carrying my mom. My hair was crazy wild and my eyes were bloodshot from all the crying. My gaze was fixed on that double door ambulance carrying my mom.
We got to the hospice house smoothly except for a couple stalls shifting from neutral to first on my part. My mom was carted into room number 11. We were greeted by the loving staff and a nurse who suggested my mom be put back on steroids. I had taken her off the steroids and anti depressants at the beginning of the week so she could pass easily and without anything contributing to prolonging her and my suffering. Her oncologist said they weren’t helping her anymore anyway. The nurse wanted to put her back on the steroids to prevent seizures but she hadn’t had a seizure since the Lorazepam. I voiced my concerns about the steroids and he listened. We decided not to give her anything else, just the current meds which were keeping her comfortable. I got my mom ready for bed, turned on some low classical music and kissed her goodnight. The room next door sounded like they were having a party. There were so many family members tending to their 90 something year old matriarch. I didn’t want anyone else with me though. Growing up, it was just the two of us. Why should it be any different now? We celebrated Thanksgiving, not really since neither of us liked turkey but we would go out to a sushi restaurant together.
It was so hard leaving her at the hospice house but I wanted her to know she could leave this world and I would be ok. I walked slowly down the long fluorescent lit corridor to her room back at the retirement home, passing by doors that were decorated with either kid’s drawings to their grandparents, paper cranes or artificial fall foliage. I walked into my mom’s apartment knowing that she would never step into this place again. The hospital bed was in the middle of the room, just like the paramedics left it. I felt so empty, so dark. That night I kept waking up in the middle of the night to care for my mom, only to look up at an empty hospital bed.
The next morning, I called the hospice house and they said my mom was doing fine. Her breathing pattern had not changed and she was peaceful. I looked out the window and it was the start of fall. There was a light drizzle and I noticed a family of deer outside the retirement home. There were 5 deer foraging, gracefully. It was a beautiful sight. I started cleaning up my mom’s place and calling to have the hospital bed picked up. About an hour later, the nurse called and said my mom’s breathing pattern had changed and become more labored. Nothing imminent but asked if I was still planning on heading in that morning. I took my time getting ready and packed a bag for her and me. I was planning on spending the night at the hospice house. In the event she did pass, I had picked out an outfit.
I stopped by Starbucks first to get a venti half-caf americano. I realized then how comforting the ritual of coffee was. It represented that everything was going to be ok. No matter what was happening, if I was still drinking a good americano, all would be manageable.
I got to my mom’s room at 10:40am and kissed her good morning as I unpacked some things. She was not responsive so I carried out a monologue of small talk. I brought some flowers out into her room and arranged some clear, quartz crystals towards the head of her bed. After arranging the room, I pulled up a chair and sat down beside her. I started to stroke the left side of her face and arm. Something told me that this was it and I reached for the phone. Baba needed to hear her granddaughters one more time. I quickly called them and told them baba was not going to talk back but they should both tell her how much they loved her and that they would see her another time. Gabby went first and then Blanca. I had the phone on speaker and held it up to my mom’s ear. At some point her breathing changed again and she took about one breath per what seemed like 15 seconds. After Blanca said goodbye, I hung up the phone and kept stroking her face. The nurse walked in during this point and asked if I was Danielle. I asked her what was going on right now without moving my gaze from my mom. The nurse said warmly, “She is taking her final breaths. She waited for you.”
She took about two more breaths with me and I watched as she left her body. She was so peaceful. The experience was incredibly beautiful. It was just as beautiful as the moment I gave birth to my daughters.
I thanked my mom kissing her face with tears streaming down my cheeks, saying “arigatou, arigatou” over and over. I was grateful that she had given me life but also grateful that she waited and shared her last breath with me. She passed at 11am.
The nurse gave me some time and left me alone with her. When she came back into the room, she asked if I would like to give her a lavender bath. “Would I like to honour my mom and this transition? Yes!!” There was a big pain in my chest as I said how lovely that would be.
Another nurse came in with a bowl of warm water infused with lavender and two crocheted washcloths. She asked if I was going to be ok as many people have difficulty watching their loved ones after they pass. I had bathed, changed, fed and carried my mom. Her lifeless body was not going to faze me.
I started washing her head and face, then the rest of her body. Her blood started to pool down to the back of her body as it wasn’t circulating anymore. I brought a blouse and a sweater but forgot to bring an undershirt. My mom always wore an undershirt so I took my tanktop off and gave it to her. It was one we had shared, like a lot of our clothes. Once her blouse was on, the nurse asked me if I felt she really needed the sweater. It wasn’t easy dressing a lifeless body but I said, “Yes, she needs to be in season.” I was not going to let her go out into fall weather with just a blouse. The nurse understood and said of course! So we got her sweater, pants, socks and cap on. She looked beautiful.
The cremation guy arrived and we chatted for a while as everyone was getting the paperwork ready. He asked if I wanted her carried out with the sheet covering her face or uncovered. These were questions that I had never thought of. “Do you want your mother’s dead body carried off under a sheet or exposed?” I paused and he asked if I needed a minute to think about it. I said, “Ok, perhaps covered.” He covered her with the white sheet you see in movies and then immediately, I said “No, not covered. She looks so beautiful. Why would I cover her up?” He put a quilt over her body up until her chest and asked if it looked alright. My mom was a perfectionist and our beds were always perfectly made. This was not perfect. One side was longer than the other. I mentioned that to him and we spent the next minute getting the quilt just “perfect”.
As he pushed her body out of her room on the stretcher, I walked in front. The hospice nurses had gathered at the front of the door. Our main nurse, Lynn held Tibetan chimes in her hands. Once we stopped, she slowly rang the chimes three times celebrating her life. I held and kissed my mom again through tears and noticed the nurses trying to contain their tears. We were honouring her life and her transition.
I watched my mom’s body drive off into a white Chevy van and gradually made my way back to her retirement home. Fuck, that was hard. I walked into the retirement home and everyone could see what had happened, the staff, her friends. They cried with me. I loved being there when my mom was alive, but being there without her felt empty. In her apartment, were pictures of the girls, Scott and me. I wanted a picture of her. I finally found one and stuck it on the fridge. I started packing up my mom’s things in no hurry. I was wounded and stuck. I read each note that was in English and cursed myself for not continuing Japanese school as a kid so I could read her notes in kanji. There are three ways to write in Japanese, hiragana, katakana and kanji. I could only read hiragana but only baby books are written in solely hiragana. My mom’s writing had a lot of kanji. Those are the beautiful, calligraphic characters taken from the Chinese. I came across one note in English, that said “things that still bother me”. She had been doing some work with the hospice chaplain and her dear friend and now mine, “Laverne”. She had two things on this list and they were both about her dad. The first thing was about how he didn’t value women and didn’t want to nurture any of her dreams. The second one was about her older brother. Her brother had switched subjects in school from an academic subject to an art class and their dad took a knife and sliced his thigh open. My mom had told me about that but I had forgotten that dark memory. Who the fuck slices their kids’ leg?!
My mom’s friends came by to check up on me and help. I had been crying for the past two days pretty much continuously. I told them to have a drink. My mom loved drinking from little 2 ounce glasses so that’s what we had, pinot grigio in two ounce schnapps glasses. We drank and toasted my mom’s life. Her friends all told me that she wasn’t gone and that she would be watching me. “Joannie” said, “We never really lose anyone. We just absorb them.”
That evening I slept alone in my mom’s apartment, purged of furniture with half packed open boxes. Some of my friends who’ve lost their moms have told me previously that they had visions of their moms coming back and letting them know they were ok. As I fell asleep, I was half hoping she would come and see me but at the same time wondering if that would freak me out.
The next morning, Sunday, I woke up thinking perhaps none of the experiences of the day before had happened. I looked outside for the family of deer but they were not there. I called Scott and reality hit that she really was gone. The events of yesterday did occur. It was not just a bad dream.
Scott drove down to help pack. I was “stuck in mud” as Scott described, unable to toss things out, so we didn’t. Scott helped put everything away in boxes as we listened to a women’s choir singing up tempo songs in four part harmony about calling “911 to talk to Jesus” down the hall. I was having the darkest moments of my life while life continued on for everyone else.
My mom had a collection of oyster shells and I wanted to put those back into the ocean. She enjoyed collecting things from nature like shells, stones, crystals and plants. For the past four years, we’d stay at the Chyrsalis Inn and Spa in Fairhaven, just south of Bellingham when we’d go down for chemo. It was a small, boutique hotel overlooking the water with a good, somewhat elegant restaurant.
Scott and I decided to have a late lunch there after we finished moving out of my mom’s place and take the shells back into the water. As soon as we arrived, we decided to check into the hotel for a night as well. I was fatigued and welcomed a good night’s sleep in a comfy bed with my husband. That evening, as we were lying in bed, Scott started kissing me gently. It had been a while and I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to get in the mood. My heart was broken. He was so patient and loving. As he was on top of me, I thought “Is my mom watching me now?” I quickly dismissed that thought. After I came, I cried some more and Scott held me in his arms.
The next morning, we walked onto the water with my mom’s oyster shells and dropped them in the ocean one at a time, each of us taking turns. After we went through all of them, Scott suggested we sit on a rock and silently say a prayer. It was all about letting go.
It has been just over two weeks since she passed and it’s been an emotional journey. Sleep took over the first week as I slept for 10-12 hours each night. I just started to get back onto the mat a couple days ago after weeks. In today’s class the teacher ended with a gratitude meditation and the first person he invited us to bring into our awareness was our mom, “honouring her whether she is here with us or not.”
Thank you mommy. I love you and miss you.
Michiko Gorman August 9, 1935-September 19, 2015