I see you. You in your white coat and your eagle eyes averted. I see the clipboard in your hands, and I’m reminded that you obviously have more on your plate today than "just" my dying mother.
But today? In this instant? I need you to
My mom was found down, laying in a pool of blood, in her Wenatchee condo on the morning of Friday, May 31st, 2013. She was unresponsive to the EMTs who arrived shortly after her friend frantically called 911. The medical personnel propped my mom's brown eyes open, shined their luminous lights into them, and...nothing. They gave her two doses of Narcan – the supposed antidote to an opiate overdose – and…nothing. Her body was cold to the touch, pneumonia and hypothermia already coursing through her veins. The kitchen faucet was running, dirty dishes were still in the sink, and a yellow plastic glove clung to my mother’s right hand.
My mom had been high.
Again, and of course.
Along with an empty box of Fiddle Faddle - always a favorite of my sweet-toothed mother’s - there were multiple empty prescription bottles in my mom’s bathroom garbage.
Oxycodone. Hydrocodone. Clonazepam. Robaxin. Temazepam.
Let’s say that one again. Temazapam. 1 a day was prescribed. 10 were gone. She’d filled them 1 day prior. You do the math.
She’d graduated at the top of her class, skipping two grades. She’d graduated from college early, at age 20, teaching revved up teenagers who were more interested in her stems than Steinbeck. She joked that she couldn’t buy a drink legally, but she could sure run a classroom. She knocked people’s socks off. She had jazz hands and tap-dancing feet. She sang vibratos and played the piano. She took spiders outside and released them. She once saved a bird who’d ran into our little Mazda’s rear window, cradling it against her heart until it began its shallow, steady breathing again.
My dear, beautiful, talented, addicted mother.
She’d graduated from ten treatment centers, at my last count. She’d spent a few nights in the local jail of a couple different towns. She’d been on house arrest for a 7-count prescription forgery charge in the 90’s. She knew prison walls, too, having recently served 3+ years in the Purdy “Clink” - as my sister and I half-jokingly call it - for vehicular homicide.
God, that’s hard to write. It was harder to experience. I’d been on my honeymoon. I’d known that my mom had been high as a fucking kite at my wedding. I saw her head bobbing during that last dance, heard about her beautiful face hovering an inch above her mint cupcake. I didn’t know how to reach her. I was disappointed and sad. I returned back home to Seattle after 10 days away. I hadn’t heard from my her. Figured, hoped, prayed that she was reflecting, configuring a way to make it right to me and my then wife.
I was wrong.
In my mom’s words, a contact had come out of her eye, and she was digging along her passenger floorboard for it. This, while speeding down the highway, veering off the highway, missing a tractor situated just off the highway, and smacking BAM into a man, a father, a son, working his family’s land, having just waved at his parents, having just wed the woman of his dreams, having just had his first child.
BAM. His life ended just off the highway.
The highway was shut down for hours. There were no skid marks.
My dear mother, never hurt a spider mother, took pills by the handful mother, had killed a man.
How could these facts not be intertwined?
P I L L S.
She sought them out wherever she went. Friend’s houses. Garage sales. Client’s homes when she was a real estate agent. Her husband was a helicopter pilot to medics, and she stole the key to his unit’s emergency medicine fridge and just plain raided it. Twice. (That we know of.) She filled my prescription without my knowledge or permission twenty years after being caught red-handed forging her doctor’s signature on a prescription pad she’d boldly stolen one carefully planned afternoon. She practiced his signature for days until she got it just right. She started a calendar, noting each pharmacy she filled at, and when. It was a game, a thrill. Until it wasn’t.
It was a fucking horrific disease.
My mom’s sponsor texted me that fateful Friday: “Molly, your mom is being admitted to the hospital. We think she’s been drinking again, and the EMTs are giving her oxygen. I’m so sorry. Damn disease.”
I was annoyed. I was at a coffee shop, and had heard my phone buzz. I glanced at the text, rolled my eyes, and put the phone down hard. Face fucking down.
I took in the simple fact almost without blinking: my mom had relapsed. Again.
I had plans, mom. Don’t you understand that? I was a mother and working full-time and trying to do right by my kids and colleagues. I worked my ass of in Al-Anon – detachment with love, I didn’t cause it, I can’t control it, blah blah blah. I tried so hard to distance myself from your addiction, your love, your infatuation, your harrowing NEED of pills. To remove the fierceness in my heart that depended on you to heal me. The part that foolishly thought that I, your Little Molly, your peanut, your Precious One, your baby, was bigger than your addiction.
I don’t know how to wrap this up, how to summarize those last few days with my mother, but I’ll give it a shot.
Darkness. And light. So much love. So much fear.
So hungry for her love. So empty and unable to eat.
She went straight to the ICU and was literally on life support, a million tubes, compressions, noises whirring around the room and inside of her. My sister flew in from New Jersey and we, together with my aunt, cousin, and grandma, made the hardest decision of our lives – and we’d made some tough ones, believe me – to take our dear Cindy off of life support.
(Well, that’s not true, exactly. I made the decision. I took my mom off of life support. I pulled the plug.) (God help you if you ever use that expression in my presence again, e.g., “So y’all think you’re gonna pull the plug on your sweet momma?”)
But before then, in the whirlwind that is the loss of losing someone you love to an overdose when all they’ve been doing their entire life is using and denying and being treated and sobering up and stealing and facing penance, my sister and I begged for a moment. Could we meet with her main provider? The woman whose name was all over her prescriptions bottles? We were lost, trying to grab onto anything of substance and truth. Living on hospital coffee and spearmint gum.
After some prodding, we were offered a “family meeting” with the “care team.” Our mom would soon be on “comfort care,” we were told, and oh, did any of us want cookies or coffee delivered to her room? WT(actual)F.
Those terms AND THE PROCESS THAT HAD BEEN IGNITED WITH THE REMOVAL OF HER LIFE SUPPORT meant nothing to us.
At that first meeting – the first of two – the chaplain Scott, dear Chaplain Scott, said, “what I see is two young girls who have never had their needs met. Two precious girls with a mom who is very ill.” My sister was 40 and I was 37. Two young girls. Two girls who were losing their dear momma.
Who were losing what they’d never quite had.
So here, at this meeting, we asked the hospital staff
to slow it down.
to speak our language.
to look at us in the eye, and tell us the truth.
We asked them to convey to the nurses and others whose job it was to care for our mother to stop saying things like, “when your mom gets out” or even “your mom had an alcohol problem” – that one from you, Dr. Simons. Yes, she did. She was undoubtedly an alcoholic (and dare I interject, Cinders had more than just a “problem” with alcohol). But she was primarily a pain pill addict. And you prescribed the shit out of her meds.
You overrode notes in her charts that read, “patient has history of substance abuse” and “do not prescribe opiates to this patient” and
YOU REFILLED EARLY.
YOU REFILLED OFTEN.
YOU REFILLED RE-FUCKING-PEATEDLY.
So, please. Providers of the World, when two young women are in your care – because the family is, too, whether officially so or not – use gentle words, but use honest words. Say it out loud. If your patient is at the end of the hall, at the end of her life, her endotracheal tube pulled out – that tube that resembled a snake the size of Nantucket – and her kidneys, lungs, heart, and brain are literally failing, just don’t. Don’t tell yourself that you’re being kind by speaking in euphemisms and fluffing up your language with double speak.
You may see this every day. And we have, too. With this particular patient. With our particular family member. For years. For days. For minutes. Every second of this fucking twilight zone is somehow comfortable and reminiscent of what’s always been.
Sitting. Waiting. Weeping.
After my mom died, and I was cleaning out her condo, I found this handwritten note on an airplane barf bag. It’d been tucked neatly into my mom’s bedside drawer, and some of the words had been sloppy, hard to read, and what I knew to be reminiscent of a high mother’s musings.
Why would a talented, intelligent, compassionate girl who skipped grades, graduated early from college so she could begin her life-long dream of being a teacher only to trade it all away for years of being lost, sick, depressed, desperate; all of those things you become when you find one day your career is now addiction, not teaching, addicting, not continually educating and reeducating myself as I once loved doing to spending all my waking hours securing the drug, surrendering to the drug and one day you wake up and your dream is gone. The classroom is gone. The students, the marriage, the beautiful home. I traded it all instead for an erosion of soul so deep that I am still not sure, as I write this, that I can be passionately whole again.
Oh momma, you were so sick.
Oh dear providers, do you know this? Do you know how it is, in fact, a gigantic relief for you to nod your head when we ask if she is “going” or when you offer us a way to help, like giving us moist q tips to anoint our sweet mother’s dry, cracked lips with? Those death rattles can be a bitch. Same with the bloat and the BMs and the barrage of medical terms and medications and white coats and sterile smell and white lights and stale hospital taste.
And that’s OKAY.
She died. What a fucking travesty. What a goddamn relief.
It is in your hands, dear healthcare providers, to reach over that illusion of a privacy curtain, and push your dying patient across the divide, and pull us in with your vast knowledge and expansive experience.
Stop the cycle of sitting and waiting and weeping.
Thank you, Momma.
Thank you, Wenatchee Valley Hospital.
Thank you, Addiction.
Thank you, Little Molly.
Thank you, Dear Readers.