Updated: Aug 23, 2022
I was fifteen years old the first time that I thought that my mother was at death's door. It was the summer of 1971. Mom had just come home from the hospital after major surgery - a hysterectomy. Aunt Wanda and Uncle Bill spent the afternoon with us making sure that Kathy, barely a teenager, and I understood the importance of the post-op care my mother would need. "Make sure she gets plenty of rest. She won't be able to lift anything heavier than..." Was it a pencil? A feather? A bag of flour? A cup of coffee? I forget.
I remember the hollow, helpless feeling that consumed me when Bill and Wanda said goodnight and headed back to their house. I had seen Mom's bandaging and heard how she had been cut from "here to here." The mere mention of "major surgery" back in the seventies was a 3-alarm warning signaling life-threatening circumstances that were to be avoided at all costs.
At dinner time, Kathy and I set the little floral metal lap tray with fold-down legs with a pretty napkin, silverware, a plate of some sort of chicken-y-noodle-y casserole and green salad lovingly prepared by a church member, and a tall glass of instant tea. We then sat on the foot of Mom's twin bed watching her every move looking for tiny signs of post-operative distress while she picked at her food. A sleepy haze had settled over her. She mechanically moved her fork to and from the plate blinking absently. "This is so good, but I can't eat this much," she said softly. I lifted the tray from her lap careful to not let it graze her sore belly. She slowly repositioned herself in the bed and slipped back to sleep.
It wasn't until the middle of the night that we feared that she was dying. Kathy and I shared a double bed in the largest bedroom of the tiny frame house on South 25th St. That night was the first time in our lives that we were the last to go to sleep. Our night owl mother was deep into her dreams when we finally checked the doors and turned off all of the lights. We tucked ourselves in and drifted off to sleep. Then, it happened.
Out of the darkness of the night warbled a ghostly coyote-like howl. "Ooooooooooooooooo!" Silence followed. Kathy and I jolted awake and reached for each other terrified. "What was that?!" I hissed. "It sounded like a ghost, " she whispered. We lay there wide-eyed and fearful that some sort of ethereal being was about to float into our room and stand next to our bed. Then, again the wail rose. "Ooooooooooooooooooo!" Kathy and I dove to safety under our covers. Silence. A moment passed. It occurred to me then that the voice had a familiar soprano tone that reminding me of our mother. "I think that's MOM!" I softly cried. "IT IS MOM!!!" Kathy gasped.
We continued to cling to each other within the confines of our blanket fort. "What do you think happened?!" Kathy asked with a trembling voice. "I don't know! Maybe she fell out of bed and split her belly open! Go check on her!!!" I replied with a bit of authority in my voice. "I'm not going in there! You go! You're the oldest!" "I'm not going!!! You go!!!"
We bantered back and forth for a moment. Neither of us could manage the short walk across the hall to check on our mother's bleeding body. In that hall hung our wall phone - our only phone. We briefly discussed calling an ambulance. "What would we tell them?" "Umm. She's howling?!" Again. "Oooooooooooooooooooo!" It was then that we decided to switch to Plan B, the shout out. "Mooooooooom?!" I called in the darkness. Silence. Then, a bit louder, "Mooooooooom?!"
We heard her covers rustle a bit. "Moooooooooooom?!" Then, ever so softly, "What is it, Carolyn?" "Mom, are you OK?!" "Yes. Why?"
I reached over and turned on our bedside lamp. "You were making ghost sounds...we were scared!" We skittered into her bedroom and switched on the overhead light. She was still tucked in bed. The floor was clear of blood and guts.
Turns out she was having a nightmare about being chased by someone. Seemed to me that she should have been yelling, "Help me!" or "Hide me!" The ghostly howl made absolutely no sense within the context of her dream. The three of us sat on her little twin bed laughing until her sore belly almost popped open for real. Kathy and I performed her death howl over and over so that Mom could "feel" our pain. We were relieved that our mother didn't die that night. And, we had a grand story to tell at the Thanksgiving table for years and years and years. "Oooooooooooooooo!"
I will simply enumerate the other times that I thought my mother was about to die.
2. Her first bout of breast cancer in 1995.
3. The time that she fell asleep at the wheel and drove off the road on her way from Waco to Lubbock. (I didn't think about how we almost lost her until I relived the scenario in my head over and over.)
4. In 2008, when she underwent surgery for a broken hip. She was 82.
5. In 2010, when she (84) had brain surgery to "rinse off" the dried blood on her brain from all of her falls.
6. In 2015, when she "broke the hell out of her [other] hip." Those were her doctor's words. An orthopedic surgeon warned us that once an 89 year old breaks a hip, he/she only lives about six months.
7. In 2016, when she had her second bout of breast cancer. (After the mastectomy, she couldn't understand why "reconstruction" was not a good idea for a 90 year old.)
8. The bout of pneumonia that sent her to the hospital for a week in 2017.
9. Two years ago when she was first taken into care by Hospice. She had lost 18 pounds over a couple of months and was failing to "thrive."
10. About a week ago. She showed many of the "signs" listed on the Hospice "End-of-Life Signs, Symptoms" list.
Each time, except for the ghostly howling incident, I cried the ugly cry in anticipation of losing my mother. Losing the Meems. She is now on her eleventh life. If Kathy was still here, we would go back and forth thinking of what it would take to send Mom flying off to Heaven. She has proved to be impervious to all that life has thrown at her thus far.
I can hear Kathy's voice teasing that Mom would probably survive a nuclear apocalypse. Mom and all the roaches in the world. We would roll with laughter because Mom HATES roaches. HATES. "If that really happened, she'd commit harikari, Kathy would say with tears of laughter streaming down her cheeks. Then, we would laugh about the time that a roach caused Mom to break a couple of ribs.
Meems is still here. She can still eat and sleep at the same time. Her "vitals" are good. I'm just going to sit back and pray that I, too, will survive the nuclear apocalypse so that I can see Mom amidst all of those roaches howling her warbly howl. Oooooooooooooooooo!
*remind me to tell you the story of The Roach and the Ribs some time