Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Forty-three minutes after nine

Tuesday, September 21st.

I know something is going to happen.

It's one of those mornings when I am way too cautious. It starts before I even get out of bed: I better not stretch too hard, or I'll snap my Achille's tendon, I think. I find myself checking, over and over again, obsessive-compulsively, for bus stop-bound students crossing my driveway as I pull out. I stop at stop signs; actually STOP, as opposed to the slow-roll -as-I-check-for-police-cruiser thing that I normally do.

I'm in my office. I'm starting to calm down. I look in the lower right-hand corner of my monitor. 9:43 AM, it says. It's a random time on a random day. This is just a day, like a million other days. Everything is going to be fine.

My phone rings. It's my brother Chris.

My blood runs cold. Chris never calls me during the day. Mom is dead, I think.


"Steve. Chris."

"What's up man?"

"It's mom."

I can't believe it. She's gone. What....what do I do? Where do I go? Who do I need to talk to?

"What happened?"

"She had a massive stroke," he says.

"Is she......."

"She's alive," he says, "but just barely. You better get down here now. And call Greg too, ok?"


10:40. Greg, Chris, dad and I are standing around mom's bed.

Mom is a sight. The right side of her face is sagging, Rocky Balboa-like. A thick, grey tube is down her throat, forcing air into her lungs. SSSSSSH-haaaaa, the machine goes, every few seconds. Her body lurches violently with each artificial breath, as if she is trying to go to sleep but the machine won't let her. A wavy line crawls across a monitor screen behind her bed. The digital numbers change, from 43, to 62, to 81, to 53.

"She's got massive brain damage," dad says. "They don't expect her to ever wake up again."

"What......what happened?" Chris says.

"Could've been anything," dad says. "Your mom smoked for many years; it could have been related to that."

"Did it have to do with her drinking," said Greg.

"Her body was under a lot of stress," dad says. "There could be a connection. I mean, it does seem pretty coincidental, doesn't it?"

He is right. I mean, what are the chances that she has end-stage liver disease, and then out of nowhere she has a major stroke?

"Boys, I think we need to tell them to turn the machines off."

"NO!" says Greg. "What if she wakes up! Maybe she'll make a....recovery or something."

"She won't, Greg," dad says.

"YOU DON'T KNOW THAT!" Greg shouts. "You're just giving up, you're just letting her DIE!"

"Come here, man," I say. I hug him. "Hey. We all love her just like you. Do you think mom would want to live this way?" I ask, holding him tightly. "LOOK at her, man."

"But....maybe she'll......" he sniffs.

"Greg, it's time to let her go."

"You just hate her. You WANT her to die," Greg says, pulling away from me and bolting from the room. Dad goes after him.

SSSSSSSH-haaaaa, goes the machine.

Even in a coma, mom manages to give me shit.

Chris puts his arm around me. "He doesn't mean that, Twinkie," he says.

"I know. That's how it works!" I say. "You're the smart one, I'm the successful one, he's the emotional one."

He laughs. "And mom drinks enough for all of us."

"And THEN some."

A nurse walks in. "Hi, guys," she says. "You doing ok?"

We nod.

"I'm so sorry," she says. "Has your dad made up his mind about what to do?"

"Not yet," I say.

She updates mom's chart and leaves.

Dad and Greg walk back in. Greg pats my back. "I'm sorry, Steve. You know I didn't mean that, right?"

"Yeah," I say.

"Greg agrees we need to shut the machines off now," dad says.

"But I wanna say goodbye first," Greg says.

"We all do," says dad. "Let's wait until the wives get here and then say goodbye individually before we......let her go."

My brothers' wives arrive about a half hour later. We all exchange hugs. I really wish Lila were here for me. But everyone at work would find us out for sure if she left now.

Everyone except Greg and his wife leaves the room. We pace nervously across the white tiles as we hear Greg sob and wail.

They emerge from the room, dabbing their eyes with tissue.

My turn.

I walk into the room and stare at mom for a long moment, listening to her breathing machine.


Her chest rises and falls heavily, like a sprinter's after a race. I brush a wisp of brown hair out of her eyes. She looks.....pale.

What the hell do I say?

"Mom, it's me, Steve."


"I just wanted to say goodbye. I guess this is it, mom."

Her arm slips off the bed. I place it across her stomach. There's a little scab on the back of her hand; she had a band-aid on it the other day. And that scab tells me that this is really mom, that this whole thing is real, and not some cruel, elaborate joke. Mom is really dying.

"I want you to know I'm not mad at you," I say. "You gave me life, and I will always thank you for that. I know we've had our fights, but.....but I think you know I love you, mom."

My voice is breaking. I can't hold back anymore. I start to sob. My throat is tight and achy. I guess this is what they mean by "all choked up".

"Dad and Chris still need to say goodbye, so I better run," I say. I look at her for a long moment. "Wherever you go, I hope you are happy and at peace, mom."

I kiss her forehead. And as I leave, I realize I'm never going to hear her voice or see her eyes or feel her arms around me again. For the rest of my life, I won't have a mother.

Chris, his wife, and dad say their goodbyes. When they are done, dad taps the nurse's shoulder. "We're ready now," he says.

Two nurses enter the room and pull a curtain around mom's bed. "Louise, we're gonna remove your breathin' tube now, sweethaht," one of them says in a thick Boston accent. There is a loud, wet, gurgly sound, like sucking up water with a shopvac.

We enter the room one final time, and form a lazy circle around the bed. The monitor goes from 21, to 48, to zero, to 62.

"Hail Mary, full of grace," dad begins, and we all join in:

"...the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus.

Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death. Amen."

Mom is perfectly still. We watch her for what seems like hours. It occurs to me that I am watching the final seconds of someone's life.

The monitor goes to zero, and stays there.