My mother died in 1999, but I still miss her as though she just walked out the door.
She was a godly woman and read her Bible daily and often spent several hours a day in prayer toward the end of her life. She and Dad had taught me to read from our family devotions, when they would read a short portion of Scripture and pray. Being the ‘baby of the family,’ I would sit on a lap and Dad or Mom would point to the verses as they read them; thus counting was also part of my ‘education’ along with arithmetic (“How many sons did Jacob have at home after Joseph went to Egypt?”)
She was very determined never to be “a burden” to her children after Dad died of Parkinson’s complications in ’93. Very adamantly, she did not want ANY kind of artificial sustenance if her health ever failed. Her hope was to “go Home” while reading her Bible and praying at her personal devotion desk in her living room. But that was not to be. This was just as “living wills,” surrogates for medical decisions and other health-care provisions for the aged were coming into vogue, and she did not have any of that set up. However, she had made it clear to her four children that if her body would not support her life, it would be time to let Jesus send her angels for escort. “C.A.,” she once asked me, “do you realize Heaven is only one breath away? We will breathe out one breath here on earth, and the next breath will be inhaling Heaven’s fresh air.”
She was 80 years old in April, 1999, and living in an apartment attached to my sister’s and brother-in-law’s home. (Jacque’s and Ric’s story is another one of length and beauty.) She was groggy and disoriented when my sister came into her apartment. Jacque (pronounce Jacky) was concerned for Mother’s clarity and told her she would take her to the hospital if she did not feel well. Mom kind of nodded, and seemed about to go to sleep, so Jacque called an ambulance. In the ambulance the EMTs (Emergency Medical Techs) intubated Mother because her O2 saturation was hovering around 55-60%, barely conscious. From K.C. Jacque called me in Kentucky and told me what was transpiring, so I immediately left work, went home and packed to drive the 10 hours to the hospital.
Arriving in the early afternoon, I saw Mom’s hands tied to the bed rails and two tubes in her, one for O2 providing her with 95% oxygen and one for feeding. The hand restraints were also something Mother abhorred from working in a nursing home many years earlier, and seeing residents restrained against their will.
In a brief meeting with the doctor, I explained Mother’s objections to intubation, but expressed that since the tubes were already in place, it was all right, at least until my brother in Arizona and the sisters and I discussed what to do. The good doctor informed me quite firmly that “We’re going to do what is best for your mother.” As noted, I had already said it was all right for the time being, but when I called my brother with the report he was indignant: “Tell THAT doctor, WE are going to do what is BEST for OUR Mother!” Remember, this was before Zoom, Skype or even cell phones. It was a long-distance phone call on a pay phone in the hallway near Mom’s room. My brother could not come as quickly from his job as I had been able to do, and would arrive in seven days.
Several discussions with doctors revealed that Mother had come in functioning on less than 10% of ONE lung! The left lung was totally filled with fluid and the right was nearly full. The restraints were because she was sedated with a very light sedative that had a five-minute half-life, so if she was distressed or disturbed, she might unintentionally attempt to disintubate herself and cause injury. The doctor was convinced a week or so on O2 and other medications and she would probably be released, once the pneumonia was cured.
Trading off times with my two sisters and brother-in-law to sit with Mother round the clock, the doctors agreed to remove the restraints as long as we agreed to let them know if she would be unattended at any time, so they could replace them for her safety. Three days later, after further discussion with the first doctor about Mother’s objections to any form of “life-support,” he agreed to try to wean her off the O2, if she chose such. I immediately called Jacque and reported that the decision would be up to Mother. She would come by after work in about two hours.
They discontinued the sedative and within 20 minutes, she seemed very lucid. The good doctor explained where she was and asked her a couple of question, e.g. “Do you know what year it is, 1997, ‘98, ’99, or 2000? Which man is president, John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, George Bush or Bill Clinton?” (She rolled her eyes and scowled at that question as she had NOT voted for Clinton!) A couple more questions about who we each were in the room, and he was convinced she was clear-minded.
Then he began to explain that we had told him she did not want any life-support and she immediately pointed to the tubes in her nose and mouth, so quickly that the attending nurse jumped to prevent her from disintubating. But Mother only pointed at the tubes and did not try to touch them. Then she raise a thumb like a baseball umpire and signalled “OUT!”
The doctor explained that they did not know if her pneumoia was cured enough to support her and that she might “pass away” if they removed the oxygen tube. Again she pointed and signalled, “OUT!” He again explained why she was in the hospital, carefully watching her face for understanding. (He really was a good doctor.) Then he became more blunt, “Mrs. Post, you may die if we take the O2 tube out. You may DIE.” This went on a couple more times and each time, she pointed at the tubes and put a thumb up, finally showing some exasperation in her face that the doctor recognized. Her finger gesticulations also became more pronounced each time. She wanted the tubes OUT!
The doctor seemed to really care about Mother, but resigned himself to her choice. The feeding tube was removed, and the attending respiratory tech began to lower the O2 supplement under the doctor’s supervision.
Everything seemed fine as they brought the O2 down to 50% which is about the same as room air. At that point, they waited for several minutes as they had done at each lower stage, and the doctor said, “Okay, she’s breathing on her own.” The tech slowly removed the tube. You could see the relief in her face as she massaged her neck as if to say, “Thank God that thing is out!”
The nurse and I spoke with Mother a little, but she could not verbalize anything because of the recent disintubation, but nodded and signaled with her hands what she wanted. She chose a radio station that had music she liked, rolled her eyes when I spoke about her “favorite son” being in Arizona, then laughing at an inside joke she could not express. So we smiled and ‘chatted’ for about half an hour.
The doctor stood around several minutes more before leaving the tech and a nurse to sit by the bedside, and of course, I was there. The pay phone was just down the hall with a view towards Mother’s door, so I went to call my Arizona brother. As I reported all the events of the last hour, we began to chat when I heard the nurse from Mother’s room call, “Mr. Post, we NEED you!”
A fast goodbye to the phone, and I ran back to the room. The respiratory tech was standing by with new intubation tubes as I noted the alarm going off on the oxygen monitor. Red lines flashed as the tech told me, “We’re going to lose her unless you authorize reintubation.”
Have you ever felt frozen in time? A sense that the whole world was on your shoulders? That life and death were in your hands? But Mother had made VERY CLEAR, she did NOT want artificial life-support, specifically of the O2 tube! With trembling lips I told the tech, “Mother . . .said, . . . ‘No,’”
As her eyes rolled back in her head, she lost consciousness and I began to weep so that I felt my eyes would come out of their sockets. I crumpled to the floor by her bed and touched her hand under the sheets beside her and cried. The room filled with a vague grayness that left me unaware of any of the various people around, though like through a mist I could see several people stepping in and out. I don’t know how long I stayed there crying, but eventually I sat up into the guest chair and waited for Jacque to come.
Mother was still breathing and continued to do so for another day while the staff continued to come and go to make her as comfortable as they could perceive. I had hoped she would stay with us until the weekend when my brother would arrive, but that afternoon, Jacque, LaVonne and I noted the heart monitor slowing down; 40/min, 35/min, 20/min… and soon Mother “breathed out one breath here on earth, and the next breath inhaled Heaven’s fresh air.”
I spoke with the hospital chaplain the next day. He had been a frequent visitor during Mom’s stay, and I told him how difficult it was for me to tell the tech not to intubate. With a wisdom born of many deaths witnessed, he assured me, “C.A., with what you’ve told me about your mom, she’s probably up there telling the Apostle Paul how he messed up his sermon on Mars Hill and should have just preached Jesus and prayed for the sick!” With some ache, I laughed at his astute humor, and as I type this, that same ache groans in my heart. But the ache is tempered with the anticipation that I will see Mother again, and Dad, and meet the Apostles, and Noah, and Abraham and Joseph and King David.
But most of all, like Mother, I will want to see Jesus, who loved us so much He was willing to come and die for us, so that Life would outlast death.
We do “not grieve as others do who have no hope.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13)