How It Was When My Mother Died: Chapter 13, Part I

Three sisters tell their stories …

BARBARA AND HER MOTHER, ESTHER

Barbara speaking …

I remember getting a phone call about midnight from George H.[stepfather]. He had taken my mother to the hospital because she had a terrible headache and had collapsed while they were dancing at the club. I think they called an ambulance. She didn’t respond right away, but she did come around. He was rather vague. He just didn’t know what was happening. He indicated that she was okay but he didn’t know what to do. He asked me if I would go up and see her because he didn’t want to do the wrong thing. He felt very inadequate, I think.

Because he had said she was okay, I waited until the next morning. I recall the date as being August 2. When I went up and found her in her room, I sort of gasped when I saw her. Her face and neck were waxen-looking. She was so filled with fluid, she had a sort of yellow hue about her. She was moon-faced; her eyes were slitty.

She knew me right away. She was scared. She held her head and said, “Barbara, I’ve never had a headache like this.” I immediately went out to the nurses’ station to ask who her doctor was and to see what tests they had done and to see what their plans were. I asked if they had called a neurologist and the answer was no. So I said I wanted a neurologist to see her. Of course they asked me which one. I think I called Marge [friend] because of her experience with V. [son who had suffered a severe head injury] and zeroed in on Dr. J. He was not available so Dr. S. was called and we were told she had to be transferred to St. Vincent’s. They had the most modern equipment there. She was transferred sometime that afternoon or evening, and into Dr. J.’s care. I didn’t get up to see her that evening. I just dealt with exactly what I had to deal with at that moment. I didn’t project at all. I became very automatic.

About 4 a.m. Monday George H. called. He said they had just called him from the hospital and something had happened and he didn’t know what. He was really frightened, and he sounded so little-boyish. I told him I’d get up there, check on things, and let him know what was going on. I went back to bed, having decided I would wait until it got light to go. I think now I was probably trying to put off the inevitable. George [husband] was discouraging me from going, but I just couldn’t lie there anymore. I got up, got dressed, and went.

It was about 5:30 and it was light out. I found her room and I remember bracing myself for what I knew she was going to look like, but I wasn’t ready in spite of that, and I sort of went, “Ooof!” like the wind got knocked out of me when I saw her. The aneurysm had burst and she was in a very deep coma, and I remember feeling very, very alone. I think it was because she wasn’t there and she had been there for quite a number of years now.

I just sat with her for about an hour and a half, and then about 7:15, I felt somebody’s presence behind me, and I turned around and it was Marge. I remember trying to say something and I just cried. She just stood there with her hand on my shoulder. She had access to Mom’s charts, so she went to find out what happened medically because she knew I wanted to know. The aneurysm had blown and the immediate test they would do in this circumstance was a spinal tap to check the fluid. It was blood-filled, pure blood. They didn’t expect her to last but a few hours. She had an airway in; she had IV’s in, and they were giving her medication through the IV. I would assume medications to maintain the fluid and electrolyte balance. And she had a catheter in.

Dr. J. came in early while I was there––about 8 o’clock––and he was like most neurosurgeons that I had met––rather cold and matter of fact. I asked him if he thought she had had an aneurysm burst. He said, “Oh, sure, that’s just what it is.” He told me he didn’t think she had much time left. He was talking hours. I don’t know what I felt other than knowing this was true. Just from my own knowledge. I believe he transferred her to the ICU at that time. And then after she was there having had a barrage of tests, he spoke to me outside the ICU, and he said, “She has no chance of living with this. However, if I do the angiogram, there’s a possibility of locating the aneurysm, removing it, and she has a 50-50 chance. However, just doing this could cause her to have another one and it could be fatal.”

She remained in a coma for approximately six days. When she began to come out, to wake up, she knew me, she could speak, she had movement in all her limbs, but her face was different. She wasn’t there. Mom wasn’t there. It was extremely obvious to me that a portion of her personality had been destroyed. Her behavior was very childlike. It was at this point that Dr. J. spoke of the angiogram, when she had recovered initially.

He had even transferred her back to the floor out of the ICU and she was raising Cain. She was misbehaving. She was still receiving IV fluids because she needed the medication she was getting, and she had a catheter in because she was incontinent. She needed to move her bowels, and she climbed over the bed rail to go to the bathroom and consequently pulled over the IV pole and dislodged the catheter. The crashing bottle alerted the nurses to her antic. She was aware of it and told me about it.

At the same time I had been keeping in touch with all the family members––her brothers and her sisters. George H. would come up to see her every day. He would sit there with her. He was pathetic. He just didn’t know what to do, so he kept working.

Her angiogram was scheduled for a Monday late in August. I had told her sisters and brothers what was going down, so they decided to come up as a group and visit her. The arrived together. I remember when we walked into her room, she said, “Come on in. Yup, I’m still alive.” She was tickled to see everyone. She sat Indian-style on the bed. She was very funny and bouncy. I must have set them up to know she’s not like you remember.

The children had made a tape, and I brought it to her. I also offered the children the choice of coming to see her after she came out of ICU, and they chose not to come. She played the tape over and over again. “See––these are my grandchildren. These are my grandchildren.”

They had a nice visit. It was very strained. She had a wide-eyed look and that type of behavior. Bizarre is really a good word. To me, childlike is what it was. She was cute, but she wasn’t my mother. They visited and went home and I did the usual hostess routine, notifying everybody by phone and watching out for George. And I was in touch with Sue [sister] daily.

She went and had the angiogram, and as Dr. J. had suggested, she did in fact have another one. I remember seeing her having seizure after seizure. I was watching her from outside the ICU and of course felt some responsibility, but I didn’t feel guilt. There was no other recourse. This time there was serious physical damage. She had left-sided paresis and was unable to talk, to communicate. She still knew me when she awoke after being in a coma for three or four days.

It was at this point that I began to look at the eventuality of death. Head on.

I used to go up to see her every day, twice a day, in the afternoon, when we could see her for an hour, and then for an hour in the evening, because of the intensity of her care. I think there was a morning visitation too, but Susan and George H. would go then. I couldn’t because of the children.

I remember she developed swelling in her left leg, and I knew from my training that the possibility of phlebitis, i.e., a blood clot, was very likely. I remember looking at that leg thinking, she’s got some blood clots going on here. It was a foreshadowing. She continued to recover physically from the second episode, enough to be transferred from the unit to the floor.

During that time of recovery, I was working on the acceptance of her not being with me for the rest of my life. I remember going in one evening and telling her how much I loved her and that she had been a wonderful mother to me and to all of us. I told her I just wanted her to know that and she cried. She was mentally aware.

On September 5 one of my friends was having a dinner party just for women, and I opted to go to that that evening. I hadn’t seen my friends for a long time. I knew Susan would be at the hospital. I gave myself permission not to go. It was really ironic. That was only the second time I hadn’t been to the hospital in the evening in all those days. I got a phone call about 7:30 from Susan. She said, “Barbara, I don’t know what’s going on here.” From what she described, “Then there were these people just running around but they came in with this cart,” and I knew immediately that Mom had coded. I told Sue to hang on, that I’d be there as soon as I could,

I was with all my friends. Someone must have volunteered to stay with the kids. I went home. George drove me to the hospital. I was very calm. I was praying very, very hard to the Blessed Mother to please watch over her, as I had many times during her illness. I would pray every night on the way home for her protection so that I wouldn’t feel as though I had left Mom all alone, so I would always have a comfortable vision of the light over my mother’s bed and I always felt very good about it. I could leave the worries there. I knew she would be taken care of. It was out of my hands.

On the way to the hospital that night, I was praying to our Blessed Mother, and I had the vision of the light over Mom’s bed and Mom wasn’t in it––the bed. And I knew she had died. I told George to slow down, not to hurry anymore. It was all over for her. And he said, “I’ll hurry.” He just didn’t understand. I tried to explain to him that I’d been shown she was dead. There was no need to hurry. It was futile.

When I arrived at the hospital, I went to the nurses’ station to ask where her room was, knowing full well that she was already dead and trying to make it easier on them. This was the day Mom was moved from the ICU to the floor, so I didn’t know where her bed was. Sue and George H. were there. Father F. was there. Sue was crying, and I remember saying to her, “It’s okay, Sue. I know,” and George H., such a pathetic little figure, his hat in his hand. I cried. Father F. asked me if I wanted to see Mom. I said no. I didn’t want to see her. She wasn’t there.

Then we just waited for Tom [brother]. I do remember him when he came in. He already had a black shirt and black pants on and he was so sad. He did go in with Father F. to see Mom. I wanted to know what she died from. I did learn it was a bilateral pulmonary embolism. I immediately reflected on the swollen leg. I thought to myself, how gentle. It’s frightening because you’re short of breath, but it’s quick because of the bilateral. I doubt that she experienced pain. Having known it was asphyxia, I didn’t want to see the body discolored, and I just knew she wasn’t there anymore.

I was concerned immediately with where she would be buried. I expressed my concern to Father F. Can we bury her in the Catholic Church? After all, she wasn’t Catholic. He looked at me and said, “Your mother was as Catholic as you and I are. Where do you want her to be buried from?” I said, “Immaculate.” He said, “Okay.” I said I’d call Father C., and I did right then, and he was really happy that I had called him and had no question at all about her being buried from his church.

So we went out to make arrangements to get going on it in the morning. Tommy did it. As far as I know, he went with Susan and George to pick out the casket and make arrangements with the funeral director, and I expect Sue must have chosen the clothing. I remember not having had anything to do with that at all––by choice. I remember being concerned that she be buried from the church and have a nice Mass and all that, and I remember calling and speaking to Jon [brother-in-law] to tell him that Mom had died. I would do fine until I had to say it. I’m guessing that was my job at that point––calling people.

My first vision of my mother after her death in her casket was horrible. She looked grotesque. It wasn’t her. I remember saying to George, “It doesn’t even look like her.” He said, “Yes, it does.” I guess knowing it wasn’t her, I enjoyed the wake, visiting with people I hadn’t seen in a long time.

The funeral was beautiful, as was the Mass. I read from John, but I don’t remember what I read. I remember thinking how nice it was to have her family there to see her off. I felt really good. Really warm and cared for. It was really a nice day.

I felt very sad about her going but felt that my God had been very kind to me to help me through the transition by not taking her that first night. I took that as a personal bonus––an example of his love for me. I grew to accept it and the tears grew less frequent, and I could think of her with a smile instead of crying after a while. I missed her terribly and still do sometimes. But though she’s not with me physically, I know she’s with me in spirit and I love her for that.

I think I experienced Mom in a very good way while she was alive, when she was without all her defenses at times. I remember those times that I saw her like that. When she was with my children I would observe her. She had a childlike quality with them. It was not past her to get down on the floor and be silly with them. As I look back, I became very worried about a second death. I became obsessed with it for awhile.

I remember now that I had a vision after a couple of days of her being in the ICU. I remember waking out of a sound sleep and seeing in my mind’s eye a long pink tube that had no beginning and no end that I could see. And I watched as the slit in this tube closed upon itself and knew at that moment that it was the aneurysm closing in my mother’s head. I accepted that and for some reason knew where that had come from, and as the weeks went by, why.

During this time also I had an evil encounter. I don’t like to take up a lot of space with it, but it was definitely an evil presence. I remember calling on St. Michael with all the strength I could muster and prayed with his help for the dispersal of the force that I felt so strongly. It did go away. I don’t know what he would have wanted with me. It was very physical. I know this sounds really dumb, but there was a sense of fire because there was heat. As I lay in my bed, it was right at shoulder level. I was so frightened my entire body became rigid. I pushed over toward George but I didn’t waken him. I knew what it was; I just knew.

I remember saying, “Oh dear sweet Jesus, help me,” and then suddenly bursting into “Holy Michael the Archangel,” that I had learned as a child. I said it over and over and over again. I lay trembling. When the presence was gone, I prayed thanksgiving to Jesus, particularly for staying with me because I felt as though he had while I prayed to St. Michael to help me. I had the feeling St. Michael was fighting for me while Jesus held my hand. I can name the presence. It was Lucifer. I recall the fear. What in the world did he want with me? I’m glad I’ll ever know.

As for the meaning, I knew this was going to be a very big turning point in my life. I had no idea how big. I know now that my mother’s death was the very beginning of my new life as Barbara, not Barbara-Esther. And there was significance there. I chose to follow the truth, my heart, rather than whatever else it might have been.

Barbara was 32 when her mother died and 47 at the time of this interview.

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