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We Had No Chance to Say Goodbye

The hard truth about the loss of my mother

By Dana CrandellPublished 11 months ago Updated 11 months ago 9 min read
19
We Had No Chance to Say Goodbye
Photo by Mayur Gala on Unsplash

*** Prologue and preliminary warning: I considered for some time whether I should post this just before Mother's Day. It is a tribute to my mother, but it will be a difficult read. If you proceed, please understand that I hope it might help you appreciate yours more. If you are a mother, I hope that you will realize this story is in honor of you, too.

*** Content Warning: This is a story about illness, death and the loss of a loved one. It contains vivid descriptions that may be uncomfortable for sensitive readers.

I couldn't cry. I knew I should, but the tears just wouldn't come. The sight of the frail body lying on that cold, stark metal table in that cold, stark room only raised the pitch of the anger that already seethed under the layers of protective clothing Pam and I had been forced to don. As if the insult of the situation wasn't sufficient, we were now barred from even a final touch.

We should have had the chance to say goodbye.

The double masks couldn't hide the god-awful smell of the disinfectant. The double gloves stretched over the sleeves of the gown were the only thing we could feel. That and the heat of the air trapped under this ridiculous getup. Hell, it would have been comical, in a Charlie Brown Christmas kind of way, if only it was Christmastime, and a cartoon, and anything but the wretched irony of the truth.

I could have put up with all of the “PPE.” But it shouldn't have been like this.

Never mind the fact that I'd been against the care facility to begin with. I'd argued that her health would go downhill, but what did I know? I'm the youngest and of course, the oldest knew best. In the long run, I'd accepted the fact that she'd have her own, private room (didn't happen) and full-time (part-time at best) medical care on site. Not that it mattered; I was simply outvoted.

Never mind that Pam and I had been the ones who'd actually visited regularly. I'd accepted that, too. We were the closest. Only five minutes away. I was the last to have any actual say about the quality of care if there was a problem. The oldest brother was the executor of her will. The next brother had control of her bank account. Her Social Security checks were quietly signed over, so it was all conveniently paid for.

None of that mattered.

We'd brought her the pork rinds she always asked for. Brought books from her room – the now long-abandoned, too-small space allotted in the second brother's house. Tried to help build a rapport between her and her roommate that neither was interested in. Heard the excitement in her voice when she talked about the day she'd finally get to go home. Swallowed the truth we knew and smiled.

The papers signed had never allowed for going home. It was too hard to care for her there.

The decline had started at home. We watched it while we visited, clearing a space to sit and talk about anything and everything. We'd given her a book for Christmas with prompts for her to write down her stories about the family. She had always loved to write, just as she'd taught us to love it. That spark was gone. Other pieces of her disappeared. Odd pieces. We brought in her carton of Pall Mall Menthol 100's one day, only to have her insist that she didn't smoke. We called it a “blessing in disguise” because it was easier to accept.

In her frustration and embarrassment, she'd lash out at the home care providers that were hired. Eventually, there were no more employees willing to come. That eventuality led, naturally, to the care facility.

All water under the bridge.

The family worked out a visiting schedule and had agreed to skirt around the subject of home. Phone calls were unrestricted and we called often. Things settled into a comfortable routine and we all convinced ourselves we were doing the right thing. Then came the pandemic.

First came the rapid tests at the door on visiting day. Gifts for Mom had to be left with the front office staff, so they could be sterilized. It was all very sensible and kept the virus away from everyone's loved ones. Until one of the staff members tested positive.

The lockdown came in stages. Visits at the windows of the rooms didn't work. I'm sure the groups of people surrounding the building wings and yelling at the glass were comical to passersby. There was no humor in it for those doing the yelling. Next came the scheduled window visits.

A system of microphones and speakers was installed at a picture window in the front office. We had prearranged meeting days and times to show up outside that window and wait for them to bring Mom in a wheelchair to talk to her kids. It was during those visits that her smile slowly faded and the confusion set in. It was evident in her eyes the day we asked if there was anything she needed and she responded to the nice strangers that she would like to have her kids come and visit her.

Not long after, the window visits were halted indefinitely. The facility was down to a skeleton staff due to COVID-19 and it wasn't manageable. We were assured that everything was being done to keep the virus away. We could call her room anytime. After a while, no one answered. We bought her a cell phone. She couldn't figure out how to use it.

When the message came (relayed via the contact brother) that Mom had been taken to the hospital by ambulance, it wasn't due to the virus. She had been having severe stomach problems and the staff hadn't been able to get her to eat. On the “bright side,” we could visit her there, 1 person at a time, subject to a COVID test at the hospital entrance and mandatory PPE (gown, masks and gloves).

The restrictions were lifted when the diagnosis showed aggressive, advanced stomach cancer. She was moved to a different floor, and for the first time in God only knows how long, Mom had actual visits with her kids. It was in that room where I was finally able to hold her hand and talk to her without a wall of glass separating us.

It was also in that room where I last did just that, while a suction tube brought up slugs of what looked coffee grounds from her stomach. I knew from my past training what it meant. The doctor confirmed it with the announcement that they would be stabilizing her and transferring her back to the facility, in the hospice wing. There was nothing else they could do for her.

Meanwhile, residents at the facility had tested positive in Mom's old wing and the entire facility had been locked down. We were completely cut off from her again.

The call had come from my brother about 3AM. The facility had told him they didn't expect her to make it through the night. They were very sorry, but there were no provisions in place for any visitation, although the staff “was working on it.” The next call had been to tell us that she had passed. If we wanted to “view her” they had arranged for us to enter through a room where we could “suit up” and go in two at a time, then exit through a staff hallway that had been cordoned off from the rest of the facility. Of course, we'd have to wait until 8AM.

Can you feel it? I was fuming.

Now, here we were, the first to arrive, cover every inch of ourselves in protective gear and stand there, helplessly looking at what used to be Mom, unceremoniously displayed in a room wrapped with plastic. Mere hours before, we could have taken the same precautions and let her know we were there, when there might have been a chance for her to hear.

Did she die thinking her kids had abandoned her? The damned virus couldn't take her, but these people had allowed it to deny her the comfort of even a gloved hand attached to the ones who she'd devoted her entire adult life to.

I don't know how much longer I could have held my anger in. Pam knew I was on the edge and made sure I knew she was there. She may have kept me out of jail that day.

I could hear my brothers and their spouses arriving at the entrance to the “prep room.” The taste of bile rising signaled that it was time to go. With Pam's hand on my arm, I laid my gloved hand gently on the cold forehead of my mother's body and said goodbye.

Without a second thought, I strode back into the little room, ignoring protocol and the well-marked, plastic-lined exit hallway. Ripping off the gown, mask and gloves with my poor wife helplessly following suit, I wadded them and carried them past my wide-eyed family, stuffing the bundle into the designated trash can at the designated exit.

The tears came, eventually.

Years have passed and I can think rationally about the whole situation today. I am still angry. At who, or what, I can't say. I no longer feel the need to hold someone accountable, although I couldn't begin to tell you when it went away. The sense of loss never has gone and I see no reason to expect it to.

If I hold any hope for something good to come from this, it's that my story will encourage someone to make sure a loved one knows, because we truly don't know when the opportunity will be gone.

***

Epilogue: In accordance with her Last Will and Testament, my mother's body was donated to a university for medical study. She believed that any knowledge gained was a worthwhile cause. That's the person she was. Her final remains were cremated and interred in a common site with others who had done the same. I have never visited the site. She's not there. The last opportunity we had to lay eyes on her was the day I've written about here.

I believe she knows we were there. I have to.

siblingsparentsgriefchildren
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About the Creator

Dana Crandell

Dad, Stedpad, Grandpa, Husband, lover of Nature and dogs.

Poet, Writer, Editor, Photographer, Artist and Tech/Internet nerd. Content writer by trade. Vocal Creator by choice.

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Comments (16)

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  • Aphotic11 months ago

    This is both heartbreaking and infuriating. I’m sorry for all that you and your mother had to endure. She definitely knows you were there.

  • L.C. Schäfer11 months ago

    I'm so sorry. For your loss, but also that I wasn't able to finish this. I have bookmarked it to try later. The treatment of your mother and your family was inhumane. It makes me angry. I am so so sorry you all had to go through this. I promise I will come back to this later and try again, as you and your mum both deserve for this to be read.

  • PK Colleran11 months ago

    Very well-told and incredibly moving. I believe this, too: "I believe she knows we were there. I have to." Thanks for telling this story.

  • Jay Kantor11 months ago

    'Old Dog' ~ I agree with Naomi ~ We all have to be 'Gentle' with ourselves with recollections on 'Special' Days. Jay Kantor, Chatsworth, California 'Senior' Vocal Author - Vocal Author Community -

  • THANK YOU, EVERYONE for your wonderful comments. I wasn't to take a minute to say that I know I'm far from the only one feeling a loss today. I finished this article to work through some of my anger and pain, and it's made today easier, along with your support.

  • Naomi Gold11 months ago

    I won’t pretend to understand what it’s like to have or lose a nurturing mother. But this day is hard for me for different reasons, and I appreciate you sharing your story. I hope you’re being gentle with yourself today.

  • Grz Colm11 months ago

    Not an easy time at all. You impactfully capture time and place. I would not wish that on anyone to die without family by their side. I’m so sorry you had to experience this dreadful situation with your mother. I really hope that this may have been cathartic (in some way) for you to write. Thanks very much for sharing this piece with us.😌

  • ARC11 months ago

    Dana, this.. I’m feeling a lot of things. You conveyed the scene vividly, to the point where some of the head-shaking ignorances of that time period I experienced were brought back up in me as well. That’s some effective writing. I’m heartbroken for you - not only with the way your mother passed, but with the way your voice was disregarded through the process. Thank you for sharing this with us, and thank you for writing this. It’s important.

  • C. H. Richard11 months ago

    I'm so sorry for all that you and your family went through caring for your mother and at the time of her passing. Thank you for sharing a heartfelt piece about the experience. I agree with Heather and hope writing it out will bring some solace.❤️

  • Dana Stewart11 months ago

    I am so very sorry, Dana. Heather said it best, losing a parent is its own pain, more complicated when coupled with the anguish of the pandemic protocols. Friends experienced this same horrible thing. I can relate to the helplessness you felt. Thank you for writing this. I will say I do believe the love remains, and your Mom felt that love, even if you weren’t physically with her, your love was. Hugs.

  • Donna Renee11 months ago

    Dana, I am so sorry for what you (and your whole family) went through. No one should have had to say goodbye like this, it sounds like an absolute nightmare.

  • Judey Kalchik 11 months ago

    What a horrible experience. Mothers Day is one of those ’anniversary days’ that are hard to work through. Your live shone through in this memory.

  • Roy Stevens11 months ago

    Dana... I'm so sorry this happened to you, especially in the way it happened. Platitudes are pointless and you already have that spark of hope that I could wish for you. The only other thing I can think of to wish for you now is peace and the time to remember your mom in all the good ways that you knew, and know, her!

  • We always think there will be more time, even when the time is so close at hand. Whenever I hear someone remark, "But they were so young," I find myself thinking, "Everyone dies too young for those who are grieving." But to lose someone during a pandemic with all the protocols in place & everyone trying to do their best while everyone is hurting--it's like losing someone suddenly, but in slow motion. They're still there, but we can't reach them. All we can do is cry out as we watch them slowly drift away. For you, your mother's cancer brought on a lingering suffering & death, compounded by a lingering isolation from those for whom she cared the most. If I were Catholic, I would say, "She's done her penance, passed through more Purgatory than ever should have been allowed, & by now God has surely granted her the grace, not only to find peace but the permission to touch your hearts, holding each one of you there, just as you hold her." Heck, I might just go ahead & say it anyway. Blessings, grace & peace be yours, dear friend. You are in my prayers. And may you find the warmth, comfort & full assurance of your mother's presence with you, not just for tomorrow, but always.

  • Pauline Fountain11 months ago

    Thank you Dana for sharing this heartfelt and honest account on the experiences of your Mum. The tragic reality needs to be heard. Also for sibling clashes and conflicts and the isolation you felt. In my own way I understand. I lost my Mum in 2010. I was deeply moved and wish for you and your Mum it had been different. And for the chance for you to say your farewells. Pauline 🌸

  • Heather Hubler11 months ago

    Ahh, my heart breaks for you and your mom. That is a pain like no other made worse by the tragic circumstances. I'm glad you were able to write about it, and share. It is so important to tell those we love that we do, and often. Hugs to you :)

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