Death Diaries: Part One

My mother’s potato salad has been on my mind for weeks now. I suppose that’s one of the very, very few actual recipes she consistently made for our family. My father often smacks his lips as he mentions her veal picatta, something I never tasted since she’d never made it for me – and he tells me with a smile that she described herself as an enthusiastic cook, if not a tidy one.

I don’t remember my mother cooking much of anything, though I do remember Thanksgiving, 2010. Under her direction, I’d “cooked” our entire Thanksgiving dinner for my entire family for the first time.

It wasn’t so much cooking as it was opening a lot of boxes and tin cans and mixing the contents, but I was proud of myself, damn it. Unfortunately, that’s not what made that holiday memorable–she barely touched the food (ostensibly because she was “on a diet”). I must have stopped for gas or something on my way home after the conclusion of the festivities, because not five minutes later as I drove home, I spied her car. 

She was parked outside a Sonic, burger in hand. Happy Thanksgiving.

Still. I miss her. Hence, my constant craving for potato salad.

…She’d probably eat my Thanksgiving feast now; twelve years later, I am an accomplished cook. But I’ll never know for sure. She died in May, 2013.

Trigger Warning: Death, dying, and complicated grief.

If you’re grieving or accompanying someone as they take life’s final journey, now may be a good time to stop reading.

Both of our parents (my mother, Jason’s father) died or are dying of their own preventable life choices–my mother ultimately succumbed from what should have been a correctable heart failure (obesity and a related staph infection prevented the operation), whereas Jason’s dad has a super rare and very preventable form of liver cancer. Drugs are bad, and I’ll leave it at that.

Let me tell you, someone’s self-imposed death is the worst thing in the world to be right about.

Jason’s father was given six months to live… nine months ago. 

I’ll never forget that phone call. One normal December day, Jason’s phone rang.

“Hi Sara Lou,” he said, forcing his voice into cheerfulness. I froze, listening through the wall one office away, because that was a name I never expected to hear… unless something was going on with Randy, Jason’s father.

She danced around the topic, making awkward small talk with Jason, the nephew she hadn’t spoken to in over two decades. Finally, she spit it out: “Your father is dying, Jason. Won’t you come see him? We don’t have a lot of time.”

It had been twenty years without a word from his father; to condense a long and fraught story, essentially his father essentially abandoned Jason and his mother when he was a young teen. 

The stories Jason has told me about him are enough to freeze my blood. 

We had to make a decision, and fast: would Jason visit a dying man, offer him peace when he certainly didn’t deserve it?

The short answer for us has been (and always will be) yes. Jason’s integrity is ultimately what drew me to him; he never shies away from doing the hard, right thing. 

Just because the world isn’t kind doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be.

So, two days later, off he went to visit his estranged father, ostensibly in his last days of life. He wanted to make the trek by himself… and though I desperately wanted to be by his side, I honored his wishes.

I lost a lot of sleep over those two days between receiving the news and Jason’s trip out to Arkansas, and I craved a lot of potato salad. 

Over and over, I wondered:

What do you say to someone with no future, when the past is full of landmines?

What would a dying man want to know about his son?

…What are all the things I wish I could tell my mom about Jason?

So, I wrote Randy a letter and printed pictures of our lives together, then packed them for Jason to bring along. And waited. It was the longest twenty-four hours of my life–even longer than the twenty-four hours I spent with my mother, the day of her death.

I thought a lot about my mom.

My Mother’s Journey Through Death

I remember the morning before the day of my mother’s death. The wonderful hospice workers had prepared a big breakfast for her, complete with a fresh-squeezed glass of orange juice. With help, she sat at the table and stared, long and hard, at the tasty feast in front of her. 

She frowned. Picked up her fork–then set it down.

“…Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day,” she told the nurse, who was sitting beside her to help her eat so that my mother and I could spend time talking.

“That’s okay, Kathy. We’ll bring you lunch when you’re a little hungrier,” the nurse said with a gentle, knowing smile. 

That day, I sat by her bedside. She slept most of it, though she’d wake for moments here and there to receive her veritable parade of visitors. My mother was so, so beloved by her friends, but she largely just smiled as each arrived, said little, then fell back to her peaceful slumber.

She woke that night and rallied hard, though, surrounded by our little family and a few other visitors. I believe that’s known as “terminal lucidity”, when someone who is dying suddenly has a moment–maybe lasting minutes or hours, maybe lasting days–of presence. Regaining a modicum of her former self.

A good hour passed where she was awake, lucid, smiling and laughing and sharing stories, before fatigue claimed her for nearly the last time. My then-fiance stopped by long enough to drop off some pajamas, my childhood stuffed animal I’d requested, and clothes for the next day, and brought us some of our favorite sushi / tempura–a dinner that I had planned to share with my mom (largely the wrong order, but I digress). He then left us to our visitors.

Eventually, Mom got tired, and one by one, everyone left. I picked at my sushi; her tempura sat, untouched.

I waited alone by her side on a tiny cot the nurses had set up for me by her bedside. I kept silent vigil when she’d randomly sit up, eyes closed and a small smile flitting across her pale face, her arms floating as if she were dancing–no, not dancing, she was hugging someone I couldn’t see. Then, she’d peacefully lie back into her pillows. Sound asleep.

I quietly noticed as her fingers and toes started to turn a shade of brownish-purple; as her breathing began to stutter and still between occasional big, gasping breaths; as the liquid in her catheter bag turned dark. As night claimed the hospice and the gentle murmurings from other rooms stilled, I tried to sleep. I’d jolt awake here and there when I’d realize that her breathing had stopped. I stared at her still form, silver in the moonlight, feel my heart thump, beat, beat, beat… and then, she’d take a big gasping breath. I’d lie back down, shaken–but she was still with me.

Back to December

When Jason called me from Arkansas around midnight that December, he told me that they’d all gone to a restaurant for dinner (his father included). I knew: his Dad wasn’t actively dying. Not yet. 

Dying people don’t have appetites.

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