I remember Mom’s last breath. It was more of a heave, a bursting of air, a quick exhalation preceded by days of shallow, open mouthed panting.
We had sent Dad to our house, imploring him to get some decent rest. He had held vigil for the last five days, never leaving the hospital since he instructed all life supports to be removed. Mom’s second massive stroke had ravaged large sections of her brain. Here and here and here, said the doctor, pointing to the x-ray on the screen. Tubes and wires were protruding from her mouth and arms, attached to monitors of flashing numbers and lines. Two days in ICU broke Dad. He lost all hope. Mom would not not want to live in this manner he rationalized. Dad pulled the plugs without consulting with any of us. I was in disbelief, angry at a perceived weakness. It would be years before I arrived at a more compassionate understanding.
Mom’s body was to be left to fend for itself, propped up only by the morphine. A rotation of nurses would stop in on their round, ensure the drip was steady, vacuum out the accumulation of saliva in her throat, raw from the constant cleaning. Mom’s eyes were shut tightly, body motionless, no signs of life beyond the steady gasping. A few days earlier it had quickened, as if in a panic. Dad burst in tears, demanding, near screaming for all of us to stand round the bed, touch Mom’s arms and hold hands because the end was nigh. For an excruciating ten minutes we waited and watched and begged for finality.
Then the breathing regulated, falling back into the now familiar pattern. Dad collapsed into the chair, head in hands, sobbing. He vowed never to leave and would remain ensconced in the room until the bitter end. Exhaustion ceded to our insistence: Mom’s condition has not changed. Here is our key. Sleep in a bed for a few hours. Mom will still be here when you return.
The rhythm of Mom’s breath was steady, relentless, a white noise to which we had become attuned. Then a long silence, and the sudden gasp. We stopped our conversation, looked at each other then simultaneously turned our heads to watch for some sign, a resumption of life.
Nothing. No movement.
I jumped up to find the nurse who sauntered in to confirm the long inevitable. Mercifully, it was over.
No crying, just relief. We recited out loud the Lord’s Prayer and Hail Mary.
Dad walked into the room minutes later. Mom’s pain was over but his would morph into a new, prolonged phase.