In 2019, I answered my phone and learned that my mother was dying 3,000 miles away.
I flew to Baton Rouge and went directly to her hospital. As I approached her room, I could see her through the glass door. She was connected to five tubes and three machines that I knew were keeping her alive. I took a breath, and tried to calm myself before opening her door.
The first thing I heard when I pushed the door open was a ventilator machine breathing for her. It pumped air through a tube in her throat, and forced air into her lungs at five breaths per minute. Another monitor showed her heartbeat was 54 beats per minute.
Five tubes dripped fluid into her veins, and they fed her nutrients and pain relief, and I knew that she was unable to tell us if the pain medication was working.
Her doctor told me she had been unconscious for three days, and that the only thing keeping her alive was the ventilator, and that she wouldn’t wake up, and that I had to choose when we’d remove life support. He said he’d return at 8:00 the next morning.
After he left and the door closed, I looked at Wendy and grasped her hand and collapsed to my knees and began crying in front of her, even though I had told myself I wouldn’t.
A minute or two later, I was able to tell her that I loved her, and that wouldn’t leave her side. I held her hand and listened to the beep of her heart machine, and I tried to focus my thoughts on what I needed to do by 8am. I couldn’t; I cried a lot more than I thought I would.
Visiting hours ended, but no one asked me to leave. I stayed by Wendy’s side, and a few hours later a nurse brought me a cup of coffee. She said it was “nurse’s coffee,” and that she had made it extra strong for the night shift. I thanked her, and I asked about Wendy’s hair – someone had braided it after connecting her to the equipment.
“I wanted Miss Wendy lookin’ her best for you,” the nurse said. “She’s so pretty, and so young,”
She looked at Wendy, and patted her hand and said, “Miss Wendy, I can see where Jason gets his good looks.” She smiled and left the room, and I put my hand on my mom’s and agreed that she looked beautiful, and I told her that the nurse thought I was handsome and must must know what she’s talking about.
I sat by Wendy’s bed and listened to the ventilator pump air into her lungs, and I watched the pain killers drip into her arm, and I knew what I’d tell the doctor when he returned the next morning. I shivered in the cold intensive care room, and I sipped nurse’s coffee and tried to imagine what my mom would want to hear during the final 12 hours of her life.
I placed my right hand on hers, and I showed her Uncle Bob’s watch on my left wrist. I told her I had it repaired and cleaned two weeks before, and we talked about him and Auntie Lo and Granny and how much we miss them. The watch was as old as I was, and still useful. Like me! I told her, smiling. She wasn’t able to smile back.
I explained how her equipment worked, talked about our past, cried, cursed, and found other things to talk about.
By 2am, I was running out of things I could say without crying, so I walked into the hall and got more nurse’s coffee and tried not to think about what would happen in 6 hours. I tried to relax, but couldn’t, so I walked back into Wendy’s room and told her about her machines again. This time, I focused on the funny coincidence that I knew the people who made them. I explained to her how they worked, as if I were leading a college class on medical device design.
I told her that the company making the ventilator had photographed my hand pointing to a critical step in their manufacturing process, and my hand may have been behind the scenes of her machine. I held up my left hand and showed her the scar and finger that healed askew, and laughed and asked if she remembered when that happened, and said life was full of funny coincidences, and Uncle Bob’s watch told me we had four hours left.
I alternated between laughing and falling to my knee and holding her hand and crying and saying I’m sorry I didn’t visit her more often, and cursing her for slowly killing herself with alcohol, and for keeping it a secret. It was 4am. I didn’t know what to say, yet somehow a few more hours passed.
At 7 am I drank more of the nurse’s coffee, and when the doctor arrived I authorized removing life support, and at 8:30am he removed the ventilator tube – I felt my chest tighten and spasm and fight for air; she may have, too, I knew. I held her hand, and she breathed at two to three breaths per minute.
I waited. I don’t know how I knew when she took her last breath, but I knew it. My last words to my mother were, “I love you, Wendy.” There are books about experiencing the death of your mother – this won’t be one. Unfortunately, most of us will learn.
I let go of her hand I walked away and let the nurses do their work, and I stayed in Louisiana and learned about Wendy Anne Rothram Partin.
I learned that she had become certified as a master gardener, and that she helped neighbors with their lawns, and that she cooked food for them when they were ill or grieving. She volunteered with an animal shelter, and she fostered stray dogs until a family adopted them, and that she fostered a tiny dog named Angel. Wendy cared for her while searching for a perfect family to adopt her. Angel passed away after 14 years with my mom.
I found Angel’s ashes in a small wooden box with a brass plaque that said, “Angel.” I carried the box outside, and sat on a bench in Wendy’s garden. She had been designing a final resting spot for her Angel, and had placed a small bench under tall pine trees and surrounded by azeleas bushes that were just beginning to bloom their red flowers. The bench was made from local cedar wood and cast iron, and was the perfect size for two people to sit in the shade and watch the fishing pond in her back yard. A new bird bath was a few feet in front of the bench, and a patch of cleared dirt foretold where Angel would have been buried.
I sat there for a few hours and watched birds play, and thought about my mom. I had learned a lot about my mom in the week I waited for her to be cremated, and I was reimagining my childhood memories with the new facts I had learned about my mother.
She spent her retirement building a perfect home near Thompson Creek. She had always wanted to travel, but hadn’t left Louisiana, and spent her retirement savings building her dream home in a small town north of Baton Rouge, along Thompson Creek. It was a beautiful home, almost a mansion. The views are beautiful and calming, and I can see why she loved it so much. I decided to spread her and Angel’s ashes into the creek.
Four people who knew and loved her stood on the bluffs and watched me I poured Wendy and Angel’s ashes into the water. The creek is wide but shallow; the water flows slowly, and their ashes sank to the bottom at first. I watched pieces of Wendy and Angel slowly break away and drift downstream. Thompson Creek flows to the Mississippi River, and the Mississippi flows into the Gulf of Mexico, and the Gulf blends with all Oceans on Earth.
I bawled in the mud for 20 or 30 minutes, until my asthma forced me to gasp for air. The people there did what they could. We didn’t know each other, so there wasn’t much they could do.
I felt that they expected me to say something. I didn’t know what I could say that mattered, but I was the last of her family, and people expected me to say something, so I started saying what I thought should be said based on habit, what’s expected when one’s mother passes. I stoped for a reason I can’t explain, and I collapsed to my knees and bawled incomprehensible words to people I did not know about a past they did not understand.
They listened, and then said their peace. I listened, and I knew my mother was loved by those people as much as she had loved Angel, and I felt gratitude fill some of the emptiness I had felt since I arrived in Louisiana a week before.
They followed me to her home, and we at leftovers she had cooked a week earlier. I arranged for her possessions to be sold and donated to the animal shelter where she volunteered, then I packed my bag and planned to return to the airport. I looked around and wondered if I should bring anything back to San Diego. I had one small piece of luggage that was already overfilled, and I would have to leave something in order to take something. I searched for what was important.
One of the tokens I took back to San Diego was my grandmother’s retirement watch. It was gold, and a Seiko. It still worked, even after all of these years.
Her employer gave it to her after 25 years of service. It was a small watch, and it would barely fit around the wrist of an eight year old girl, but Granny had been proud of it. She had worked hard as a single parent earning minimum wage, and she died at age 61, a year before collecting her retirement check.
Wendy inherited the watch, and she worked at the Exxon plastic manufacturing plant for 25 years. She retired and died at age 63, a year after collecting her first retirement check.
Uncle Bob and Auntie Lo had also died before they could use their retirement. All were alcoholics. I was the last alive. Wendy had collected their combined inheritances, and built her dream home on the bluffs of Thompson Creek.
Back in San Diego, I gave Granny’s gold watch to an eight year old girl. It fit her perfectly, and when I asked her what time it was, she said, “Time to play!” and I said she was right, and we went out side and played. It was her best day ever, I hope.
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