My mom didn’t make it. She passed. She died. She died randomly, unexpectedly, and in a truly gruesome way. She was 56. I’m in shock. I probably shouldn’t even be writing anything. It will be too raw, without the insight of time. So I don’t know what you will get. Someone told me that in tragedy, you just have to stare at it until it stops staring back. This is me, staring at it. In a few years, I’ll probably come back to this and delete it anyway, too horrified by the shitty writing and emotion on the page. That’s what I do with half my writing anyway.
Septic shock sounds like something you do to a swimming pool. But at first it just sounds like something you can treat with with soup and soda. Because at first, all it sounds like is Mom is feeling a little unwell. That’s what she says when I talk to her last on the phone. I tell her to relax, drink lots of water, take it easy. And then I change the subject. I talk about myself some. She reassures me on some things. We also talk about weekend plans, the dogs, what we had for dinner. Before we hang up, I notice something in her voice — maybe it’s fear — but I disregard it. I love you, Mom, I tell her. I love you, too, she says.
Later, my dad rushes her to the hospital. She’s having tremors and disorientation. At the hospital, she has a fever, crashing blood pressure, and some nasty looking results on the bloodwork. Kidney and liver numbers don’t look great. White blood cells are way up. Still, it sounds like something that can be fixed with some hardcore antibiotics and intravenous fluids.
That’s week one. I visit the hospital everyday, waiting for those antibiotics to start working. I stay for varying times each day. She’s not particularly herself. She says weird, out-of-character stuff. One day, she doesn’t recognize me right away. Morphine is a hell of a drug, we laugh. But then one day, the nurse tells us she’s not on morphine. She’s not on any pain meds. It’s the sepsis.
But everyone tells me not to worry about “the brain thing.” She’ll come back once the fever is down. Once the antibiotics start working. Once the kidney comes back. Once the liver starts working again. Once they figure out if there’s something blocking the gall bladder.
Hospitals get portrayed on TV and in movies as places where people get better. Well, some people die, but there’s always a life lesson or a moral that ties it up neatly. You think of a hospital like somebody’s grandmother, warm and comforting, but having seen the bad parts of life, too.
But it isn’t true. A hospital is a cold, sterile place. It’s somebody’s grandmother who had a stroke three years ago and doesn’t do anything but get propped up in the corner watching old episodes of Lawrence Welk.
The last day I see my mother conscious, she doesn’t know she’s at the hospital. She thinks she’s at a party. Me, my dad, my wife, and my mom’s best friend are in the room. My mom thinks the ceiling tiles are boxes — presents — for the party. She thinks she’s holding a Diet Coke — her favorite — in her hand. She pantomimes drinking it. “This is the most delightful gourmet Diet Coke I’ve ever had,” she tells us all cheerfully. I don’t stay very long that evening. I hug her goodbye awkwardly through all the tubes on her body, and say I love you. She says she loves me, too, calling me by my childhood nickname. That’s the last thing she says to me.
The next day, the lungs stop working on their own. Blood pressure tanks, she stops breathing. This is the first time she almost dies. I think this will be the scariest day.
The next day, they amputate her foot. She’s a high risk patient for surgery, but she pulls through it. I think this will be the scariest day.
The next day, the blood pressure crashes three times. They take her for an MRI to see if she had a stroke. At one point they can’t get the blood pressure back up and they tell us she will pass within the hour. I think this will be the scariest day.
The next day, the eye of the storm passes over us. It’s calm for twenty four hours. The vitals stay stable. We regain our optimism. Soda and soup didn’t work. Antibiotics and fluids didn’t work. Emergency surgery didn’t work. Two weeks in this goddamn fucking ICU didn’t work. But we’re still spouting off what she needs. And we’re down to rest and prayer. That’s all we’ve got. She just needs rest and prayer. She’ll get through this with more rest and more prayer.
But before I leave that night, I look at the face, and I know. It’s no longer her face, but a face. A countenance. A foreign object, bloated and gruesome. I leave, profoundly shaken and sobbing.
The final day begins with a phone call, as it always does. “Get to the hospital right away,” my dad says. I don’t ask my normal questions of how the night went or what’s going on. I just hang up and get dressed mechanically. I’ve been in crisis mode for two weeks. I’ve had emotion, but I haven’t felt it. I’ve had grief, but I haven’t let it consume me. I feel nothing and it scares me.
At this point, I’m down to only prayer. I don’t pray for healing anymore. I don’t pray for a miracle anymore. I just ask for relief. None of my prayers were ever answered this entire time. But it turns out I will get this one. Gee, lucky me.
Over two weeks, I’ve noticed the changes in the nurses’ faces. At first they were warm and friendly to us, talkative and helpful. Slowly, they all changed to workday indifference — waiting for shift change, planning their evenings out. At the end they stopped making eye contact, unable to stare at the still-alive hope in our faces. This morning they just give us sorrow and pity, fighting back their own tears. They hug us. This whole two weeks, I searched for the “that’s when you know it’s bad” moment. I found it. It’s when they hug you.
Everything is bad. Every organ has failed. There is a machine reproducing the job of every last one. The lungs are not working on their own. The kidney is dead. The liver is dead. The pancreas never really did work all that great to begin with. The brain is gone. The EEG says “severe.” I’m sure it says other things, but that’s the only word they give us. Severe. It’s probably best not to ask. And now the heart, too, is failing.
Septic shock has a 60% mortality rate, the doctor explains. We add 10% for every failed organ, he says. I mentally count all the failed organs. It adds up to 120%.
They give us our options, which are: pull all the plugs and tubes out. Or keep her on life support in a vegetative state. Fuck you God. This is the exact shit decision I didn’t want and you won’t even give us this. You won’t take her naturally — you make me and my family who have suffered and struggled and agonized for two weeks to make this decision for you?
We don’t make a decision. We wait. People come to say goodbye. There are over twenty family and friends in the room with mom. She’d hate this, us all standing over her sobbing, while she looks like crap on the bed. She’d kick us all out of the room if she could. She’d tell me to stop crying and not to worry so much. And not to be so angry and have outbursts. And to enjoy life and to smile.
I can’t believe this is happening. We’re all saying our goodbyes over and over. I tell her to picture herself lying on the beach, on a perfect sunny day. She dreaded rainy days. You look out and the ocean looks like it goes on forever. I tell her I won’t give up. I won’t let this break me. I’ll be fine. I’ll keep writing. I’ll be happy. Don’t worry about us Mom, just go.
As it turns out we don’t have to make any decisions. During a routine monitor, a nurse says she has a bad feeling. She frantically asks if we would like to say a prayer. She pulls this impressive sermon of a thing out of nowhere. I really suck at praying compared to this. And moments later, Mom passes naturally and peacefully surrounded by almost two dozen people who loved her. It’s not disturbing or scary like I thought. The process of dying is ugly and horrible, but death itself is not. I thank God for answering this one thing for me, but it’s really not the one I wanted.
Now, the aftermath. I’ve finally been hit with this wave of pure, unfiltered pain. I expected inconsolable grief, but I’ve also got two weeks worth of bile coming back up on top of it. It’s not fair. I’m horrified. I don’t know how anyone ever enjoys life with the knowledge that you can just be healthy one day and suddenly some random strep infection that exists everywhere in the environment just shuts down your entire body. Dying is ugly. It’s undignified. I can’t stop seeing it.
I had to get this part out. I want to write about what an awesome person my mom was, but I had to get this part out first.