She was in end-stage lung cancer and tumor fever had her back in the hospital for the umpteenth time in two years. Tumor fever is when the body says, “That’s it! I’m going to take on this insolent cancer myself,” and turns up the heat to fry the intruder while scorching the landscape along the way. They’ll treat the fever, the doctors said. Palliative measures.
When I had called Mom that morning, she picked up the phone and told me she had just taken a shower and was about to get back into bed. She sounded like she had just run from the shower to the phone to the shower to the phone about a hundred times before she picked up. She was out of breath. I told her my wife, my then four-month-old son, Zachary, and I would be there in about an hour.
Mom was in the same hospital where my dad had died of bladder cancer only seventeen months earlier, two doors down to be exact. She knew what tumor fever was. She knew what it meant. She had seen it as I had seen it before.
When we arrived at the hospital, Mom was in bed. Her breathing looked like a fish out of water. She had an oxygen tube that looped around the top of one ear, to her nostrils, and disappeared around the top of her other ear, but it didn’t seem to be doing much good.
“I -- breath -- breath -- breath – can’t -- breath -- breath -- seem -- breath -- breath -- breath -- to -- breath -- breath -- breath -- catch -- breath -- breath -- breath -- my -- breath -- breath -- breath -- breath.”
That’s alright, I told her in a forced nonplussed tone, we’d do all the talking. My wife and I made as much banal banter as we could to fill the quiet spaces to prevent too much thought while Zachary played in the walker we had brought with us.
“This is – breath – breath – breath – my grand – breath – breath – son,” Mom said proudly to the woman in the bed next to hers. My mom asked my wife to bring the baby closer to her. Then, although Mom struggled for breath, she began to sing.
“The itsy -- breath -- breath -- breath -- bitsy spider -- breath -- breath -- breath -- climbed up the -- breath -- breath -- water -- breath -- spout -- breath – breath – breath…”
She held her hand up high, raising up with it the tube that ran from the bruised bend in her arm up to the plastic sack half-filled with clear liquid. Zachary’s eyes were glued to her hand.
“Down came the -- breath -- breath -- rain and -- breath -- breath -- wash the spi -- breath -- breath -- der out…”
It was as breathless as it was breathtaking. The effort this newly crowned grandmother put into a simple song for her child’s first child was paramount to pyramids. Every note so delicate, so deliberate.
Soon after the song ended, a nurse appeared. My mother explained her breathing difficulty, and the nurse, smiling, asked if she was ready for the morphine shot now. It seemed she had held off the palliative measure so she could be awake and alert for our visit, putting her struggles aside. Yet another heroic act.
Mom said yes she was ready for the shot now. The nurse smiled at her and then left the room. Mom motioned that she wanted Zachary up on the bed. My wife propped him up between her feet. The nurse came in with the needle. She walked around to Mom’s IV and proceeded to inject the medicine in an opening high up on the tube.
“What will that do,” I asked the nurse.
“It will relax her so she doesn’t have to work so hard to breathe,” the nurse said. She finished then left the room.
I smiled at my mom; she smiled back and closed her eyes. Later that afternoon, as my son lay happily by her feet, my mother died. She was 56 years old.
That was my mom…being a mom…even to her last breath.
Happy Mother’s Day.