My mom’s devotion to Jesus was awe inspiring. I know she is now with him because he personally told her she would be.
Mom has been my confidant, teacher, biggest cheerleader. She was the most beautiful woman in the world. The best cook and domestic goddess. She had style, class – she was Jackie O, Liz Taylor, Paula Dean and Martha Stewart all rolled into one.
I told her everything. I never went through an adolescent “I hate you” period. It’s not to say I was never annoyed, angered or embarrassed by her. It rarely happened. I thought she was cool even while I was in junior high. Mom kept me grounded but we dreamed big together. She even advocated for my husband. She encouraged me to go on a date with him even though I was reluctant.
An amazing guardian. She had a calming effect on me when I was sick. My reassurance when I was afraid. Strong even though she sometimes doubted herself. When my dad was diagnosed with brain cancer Mom carried the weight of his caregiving.
Our Father, who art in heaven … hallowed be thy name;
The Catholic Church was my parents’ beacon. It steered them and in turn, they steered me and my siblings. Mom’s devotion to Jesus, Mary and Joseph, daily prayer, weekly mass, and our Catholic saints was often a point of curiosity for me. I regularly wondered how she could pray so much and still get so many tasks completed each day.
Throughout my life, she freely talked about heaven. She would say, “I’m not going to be around forever!” without any trepidation in her voice. Most people I know are terrified of dying. Many won’t discuss it because our culture denies death exists. Part of her anticipation of heaven was rooted in her desire to be with my dad who passed away in 1986. She felt the pain of losing a baby brother in the 1930s, a brother who she adored in World War II. Her other siblings in old age, a couple of miscarriages when she was a young mother. She was confident they all waited for her arrival.
Her lifelong preparation and devotion carried her through the inevitable health problems associated with growing older. She did everything in moderation. She loved to laugh and have fun – but to a point. “No need to be a wild animal or make a fool of yourself,” she often told me.
Mom was in excellent health throughout her life. But as she aged she would inevitably contract bronchitis each January. She would exhaust herself making our holidays perfect – from Halloween through New Year’s Eve –the sickness would creep in once the holidays were completed.
In 2011, along with bronchitis, she was diagnosed with walking pneumonia. She dutifully slowed down, followed the doctor’s instructions and quickly recovered.
Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done …
The following year, she was showing signs of her January slow down. But she never developed the telltale bronchitis cough or fever. As she grew paler by the day I suggested she call her doctor. She refused, claiming she was just tired.
A week or so later I strongly encouraged the doctor appointment. I checked on her several times during the day and she assured me she was fine – which I knew was a lie. By the time I returned home in the evening she looked horrible and had a really strange cough – not like bronchitis at all. As her medical power of attorney I made an executive decision – we were heading to the E.R.
Once at our small town hospital, the testing started. Since she was 85-years-old the medical ‘professionals’ jumped to the conclusion that she had pneumonia. An IV was started as they wheeled Mom for a chest X-ray.
I was at an advantage (or was it a disadvantage?) because I was employed at this hospital. I knew most of the people caring for my mom. I knew who the talented, intelligent caregivers were and who the less than par caregivers were. It’s a precarious position few people experience or even understand. Caregivers are people, there are various levels of professionalism, expertise, and intelligence in that field, too.
My tendency to diagnose is very high due to working in the medical field. I am not a doctor, but I play one in my mind.
On Earth as it is in Heaven.
I did my best to wait patiently for the E.R. doctor’s diagnosis. After more than two hours with no news, I headed for the nurses’ station asking to see Dr. G. Twenty-minutes later she sauntered through the privacy curtain. One look at me and the sparring began. We had a bit of a rocky history.
She explained Mom had pneumonia. I questioned the lack of a cough, a fever, swollen lymph nodes, etc. She waved me off continuing with her canned speech. Dr. G mentioned fluid showing at the bottom of her left lung on the X-ray. A definite diagnosis. Period.
As frustration rose in my voice I asked if it could be something else. Mom was horribly pale and lethargic. Dr. G suggested keeping her overnight for additional testing to check for other possibilities.
Mom stayed at the hospital for three days with no definite diagnosis. She was bored and wanted to be home. I took her home. I never lost the nagging feeling that something wasn’t right. She didn’t have pneumonia – I knew it in my soul.
Mom rallied, looked a bit better but didn’t have much energy. From February until April she hung out at home mostly sluggish with an occasional good day. Even though she was 85-years-old, many people had the impression she was in her sixties. She was vibrant, agile, healthy and sparkling. I knew something was terribly wrong when she began to miss weekly mass.
At the end of April, I was alarmed enough to take her back to the E.R. Dr. G was working. Before she could speak I politely requested another physician. Anger flashed in her eyes as she walked out of the patient bay flipping the curtain behind her.
Dr. B showed up a few minutes later and told our family he thought Mom’s X-ray appeared to show pneumonia – again. I explained how mom never recovered from the February episode and if I heard the word pneumonia again I was going to lose my mind. He confirmed the radiologist on staff had reviewed the X-ray. I told him I didn’t believe the radiologist. I felt hysterical struggling to stay calm.
The hospital had recently acquired a critical care pulmonologist. Dr. B suggested asking him to look at the case. Since it was close to midnight Mom was admitted.
Give us this day our daily bread; …
Early the next morning Dr. T met with Mom, me and my siblings. He explained the diagnosis of pneumonia, again. I relayed the entire story of the visit in February, Mom’s symptoms or lack there of and I refused to believe it was pneumonia. Dr. T is a highly skilled physician who recently practiced in a university research hospital a few hours away. He is a rare find in a rural setting.
Dr. T took my fears to heart promising to investigate further. Later in the day, he suggested a GI scope procedure get a better look at mom’s left lung. We agreed it was worth a shot. The procedure was scheduled for the following morning.
In the evening, Dr. T called me. He had been mulling over Mom’s medical records, X-rays, symptoms and care since February. He explained he was going back to the hospital to look at her X-rays again. He intended to discuss her case with the radiologist who diagnosed pneumonia. I was very encouraged.
Arriving at the hospital by 7 a.m., Dr. T was right behind me. He immediately pulled up Mom’s X-ray on the computer screen. He was talking fast. The area diagnosed as mere fluid near the bottom of Mom’s left lung was not fluid at all, but blood. He showed me the film from the February visit. Comparing the two images it was evident the area of fluid had grown.
Dr. T described in non-medical terms how fluid doesn’t look lumpy. Fluid is typically a smooth shadow. The fluid around Mom’s lung looked more like a bunch of grapes. A flush of triumph washed over me. It quickly turned to alarm. He explained the critical nature of what Mom was experiencing.
Dr. T canceled the GI scope. He wanted to transfer Mom immediately to a hospital an hour away with a thoracic specialty team. He recommended a helicopter transport due to the dire nature of what he saw. Mom balked. She’s afraid to fly. On Dr. T’s approval, she was rushed by ambulance to the specialty team.
I thanked Dr. T and said a silent prayer for him and Mom.
I summoned by brother and sister. Mom talked to her sister, my Aunt Barbara on the phone. Each of the grandkids talked to her and my brother’s family met us at the hospital. Once we arrived we were quickly sent to a patient room, Mom was already there. We waited just a few minutes before the thoracic surgeon appeared in the doorway.
Dr. L explained his team would review Mom’s case and be back with within the hour. Mom looked wonderful – her color was the best it had been in months. She was alert – the drowsiness was gone. She said she felt great. We waited for a mere 30-minutes when the team returned. We didn’t know what to expect by way of diagnosis. They told us they were calling in a third thoracic surgeon for another opinion.
At 8 p.m. the surgeon showed up. My sister, brother and I were all tired. A bit delirious from lack of sleep we readied ourselves for the surgery plan.
I stared in disbelief as Dr. L said, “I don’t have the skill to perform the procedure your mother needs.”
What? My ears were ringing as the blood rushed to my head. Questions immediately swirled through my mind. Would she die? Why? How? Why!
She had an aortic tear. He explained most people die – if not immediately but very quickly – once the aorta tears in this fashion. He confirmed this was a slow leak that had definitely been going on for months.
And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us; …
Anger rose in my brother’s voice – his questions were identical to mine. Mostly just … why? Why wasn’t this found? Why didn’t the radiologist see this months ago? Why in the hell …?
Time was critical. Through it all Mom was stoic. She never complained of discomfort. She held her Rosary. She told us she felt ‘pretty good’ not wanting any of us to worry. She hated being the center of attention even if she needed medical intervention.
The next step: send her to University of Wisconsin Medical Center – a two-hour car ride away. The exact place Dr. T had studied these cases. Thank God he had seen this before.
Because it was late April the weather was rainy and humid. Fog developed. By 9 p.m. and the helicopter could not fly due to low visibility. So they put Mom in an ambulance. We barely had time to kiss her goodbye, threw I love yous at her and she was gone. The three of us hesitated for a split second – each of us wondering if she would die on the way to Madison.
The drive was horrible – fog is a curse.
My brother drove as fast as the fog would allow. Along the way, we speculated on the course of events. We reasoned the hour was so late we would likely talk with the doctors and surgery would be the next day.
I prayed, holding back tears during the drive. My sister prayed the Rosary, silently. We joked a bit, but fear and exhaustion made it difficult. The tightness in my throat made it tough to breathe.
The trip was agonizingly long but surprisingly quick. We followed the ambulance into the ER bay. Ran through the doors, our hearts pounding.
We were met by a nurse coordinator. She was young, friendly and upbeat. She told us Mom was taken to the ER and once she was settled we would be able to see her.
We finally were summoned. The sheer impressiveness of the ER blew me away. It was medical care like I had never seen.
Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
We walked in mom’s room and were greeted by six medical personnel stationed at various points around her bed. All dressed for surgery. The head of the team introduced himself and the rest of the team. It was a blur of faces, names and greetings. The bright lights hurt my teary eyes.
Dr. H shook our hands and jumped right into explaining what was happening. Then, gave us our options.
Option 1: Classic open heart surgery. Mom would be cut open, chest cracked – the whole shebang. Mom winced. Dr. H said, “At her age, she’ll never survive it so we’re not going to do it – it’s really a non-option.”
Option 2: an experimental procedure where they insert a stent much like they do in a heart artery, but this stent is much larger. He explained that this procedure had been approved by the FDA just about six weeks prior to Mom’s arrival. The newness of the procedure scared me.
Dr. H assured us that they had full confidence in the surgeon who would be performing the procedure. “He is the man that developed it. He studied in Egypt and was born in Italy. And … you have a 50/50 chance of living through it.”
Option 3: Do nothing.
Mom immediately questioned Option 3. Close to five years before, a cardiologist told her she had a small percentage of blockage in one artery. He indicated if she wanted to do nothing it would be fine, but he would monitor it a few times a year.
I knew by the hopeful look in her eyes that she was choosing Option 3. Mom’s question, “If I do nothing then I can go home and it’ll be fine, right?”
It became very clear Dr. H thought we had been briefed on the severity of Mom’s condition. We must have all looked like a herd of deer in headlights. Dr. H paused. He looked each one of us in the eye. Then he took Mom’s hand and said, “I’m so sorry, but that’s not the case now. If you do nothing you will die within a couple of hours.”
For the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory are Yours …
Hope drained out of me. I couldn’t believe my ears. She was sitting up, laughing and joking. Her skin was radiant. Was she going to be dead by sun up? I couldn’t make sense of it.
Dr. H offered to let us discuss our options. We had three minutes to give him an answer. We chuckled – none of the medical team cracked a smile.
Mom said, “I feel great. I don’t understand why I feel so good. I guess we have to try. 50/50 is better than nothing. I think we need to try.”
As fearful as I was I knew she was right. She was so confident everything would turn out fine. Option 3 was not an option we could fathom. The four of us crowded on her bed like we did when we were little kids. We all held her hands and tried not to sob.
The reality of the situation was hitting each of us as the seconds ticked away.
Mom was almost giddy. And I’ll never forget the glow radiating from her face. She said, “Well … if anything does happen we know that we’ve had a good life.”
That opened the floodgates.
We tried composed ourselves. I didn’t want my last conversation with her to me sobbing into her lap. We talked about all her amazing meals, who was going to take care of her cat – that none of us liked. We giggled about our crazy family trip to Disney World in 1976, holidays, lazy days, the fact that she baked pies like no one on Earth. We laughed remembering a hilarious game of Catch Phrase on Christmas Eve a few years before. She confessed, “I really didn’t know what I was doing with that game.” We roared with laughter. The medical team was laughing too.
I noticed they were all pulling on their sterile gloves and masks. The seconds were getting small.
She admonished us not to fight with our long lost sister and to never fight over money. She said she loved us each very much and we made her very happy because we turned out to be such great adults. She loved each of our beautiful children and was blessed to be part of their lives.
Dr. H apologized, said they needed to hurry. We kissed her through tears. She was smiling and waving at us. She kept telling us to stop crying. There was not an ounce of fear in her eyes or voice. The I love yous were flying. We were laughing and crying at the same time. They turned the corner and she was gone.
I turned to my siblings and said, “You both understand what is going on here, right?”
They looked at me with tears in their eyes. Yes, we all understood this was a teaching hospital. The direst of cases are brought here and the amazingly intelligent physicians practice their new techniques. We were each very aware.
Our nurse coordinator took us to a waiting room removed from the common waiting room. A few minutes later the rockstar surgeon came bounding into the darkened room like a college basketball player. He was very excited and could not wait to tell us his good news.
Dr. D explained that the procedure was very new. He said, “She is the healthiest 85-year-old woman I have ever met. We are going to insert the stent in her groin like a procedure we would do for a 45-year-old man. She will be awake the entire time.”
He all but guaranteed she would come out of the procedure extremely well. But cautioned that he couldn’t be sure until he started the procedure.
He informed us the hard part of the recovery was getting the blood out of the area of her lungs. A wave of anger swept over me. This all could have been avoided if we had the correct diagnosis in February! But then a calmness enveloped me and I knew it didn’t matter anymore. I needed to let go of that anger.
As we settled into the hard waiting room chairs, it was close to 1 am. The nurse coordinator gave us updates periodically. With the procedure and her time in recovery, it would be at least 3 hours before we would be able to see Mom.
We turned the overhead light off. As I lay in the semi-darkness on a too small loveseat, I tried to pray. Each of us fell into our own thoughts and the hum of the fluorescent lights in the hall filled my head.
My sister prayed her Rosary. My brother and I were silently staring at the ceiling. I tried to pray, again. My mind was a jumble of emotion. I was optimistic, after all, the doctor was an expert. But fear took control and the what ifs clouded my mind:
What if he’s wrong?
What if it doesn’t work?
What if it was the last time I’ll ever see her?
How am I going to live without her?
I did the only thing I knew to do at the moment – I pleaded with God. I pleaded with everything I had. I repeated this phrase for a couple of hours “Please God protect her – I’m not ready!”
It was so self-centered but I didn’t, couldn’t pray any other way. All I knew was that she couldn’t be gone yet. I would throw in an Our Father and Hail Mary occasionally. I couldn’t even think of any other prayers.
“Please, please … please. I’m not ready for her to go to you.”
Three hours of waiting and little news. Watching the clock was not helping, but we had nothing else to do. Not being able to sleep we did the typical hospital activities of finding bathrooms, exploring halls on the way to finding vending machine junk food.
A bit after four hours, Dr. D again came bounding into our waiting area. He was thoroughly excited. “Everything went great! She is awake, talking, animated and joking with the medical team.” He said with a chuckle. He allowed us to see her for a few minutes but made us promise to let her rest.
The joy, the tears. Mom still had that amazing glow. They were true to their word – we got to see her for about two minutes.
She asked us if we slept at all and we replied, “No.”
Mom asked, “Why not? I told you I’d be fine! Oh, you kids!”
That received a laugh from her medical team. One intern pronounced, “You are the coolest lady I’ve ever met!”
She scolded us for not sleeping and told us to go get some sleep and quit worrying about her.
We found an area in the waiting room for recovering patients versus the waiting room for dying patients. I almost immediately fell into an exhausted sleep. I’m not sure how long I slept, but when I opened my eyes there was a man in his eighties in the chair next to me, leaning over and staring at me. When he saw me open my eyes he smiled. It took me a moment to I realize where I was and about a half second to feel completely humiliated.
It seems the three of us woke at close to the same moment. We cleaned up a bit and asked to see Mom. She was wide awake, chatting with one of the physicians on her team. Although she was attached to an enormous amount of tubes and monitors she looked fantastic.
She didn’t even look tired. I asked, “How long have you been awake?”
She nonchalantly responded, “A couple of hours, but I told them to let you kids sleep.”
We just sat and stared at her. Asked basic questions and tried not to cry.
Her attending doc stopped by along with the other five on her team. They were all in awe of how great she looked. They made it clear how happy they were she had survived. It was a medical triumph with a new procedure – they saved someone’s life. That’s got to be a heady feeling as a medical resident.
Mom continued her giddiness. We figured it was a combination of the adrenaline and the pain meds.
I asked mom if she was afraid when she got to to the operating room.
She said, “Not at all. All the boys (yes they were boys in her eyes) were great!”
She mentioned, “They were laughing at me because I was flirting with one of them!”
It was shocking to hear. We all laughed because Mom is always the epitome of decorum.
She explained, “One boy asked me if I could scoot over to the table by myself or if I needed help. I said I think I can make it.
“Then I looked to my left and there was the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen standing next to the table. He had amazing, beautiful blue eyes. He held out his hands and said, ‘Take my hand, I’m going to be here with you.”
Mom paused, we were puzzled. She continued, “I looked at him and said, ‘If were I younger I’d love to date you! You are the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen!’
“He and the other docs laughed at me. Then the head doctor came in, told me what was going to happen and we got started. The man with the blue eyes stayed right with me the whole time.”
I asked, “What specifically did he look like?”
She excitedly said, “Oh he was beautiful. He had on a light blue button down collared shirt and khaki pants. He had dark brown hair and a really nice short beard and those gorgeous blue eyes.”
We looked at the physician checking her vitals. He returned a perplexed expression. He shrugged his shoulders. I recalled the team of six who took Mom to surgery. The physician in the room was Asian. I ticked off the other five in my head – one Hispanic, one black man, a man with blond hair and the other doctor was a woman with sandy brown hair. The head physician had a strong resemblance to the musician Kenny G – long dark curly hair. When they took Mom down the hall each of them already had a germ mask pulled up over their face.
Mom continued to talk about the procedure and how calm the man made her feel. She said the beautiful man also prayed with her. She had no fear and no pain. She was confident she was going to get better.
We questioned her further about the man with the beautiful eyes. Her eyes sparkled each time she mentioned him. We discussed the list of the physicians we had met. We considered that this man didn’t have any medical scrubs on or a germ mask.
As she thought about our questions she squeezed my hand and said, “Do you think he was Jesus?”
Through tears, we immediately cried, “Yes!”
Now and Forever. Amen.