Mom's grave the afternoon of her funeral. (photo by Lon Horwedel)
My rain-soaked windshield blurred the ambulance lights as it drove further and further out of my sight in the murky darkness down Berlin Road on a cold and wet, March morning.
My mother was in the back of that ambulance, but I’ll be damned if I could keep up, or even wanted to try, as it navigated Berlin Road’s twisting turns and rolling hills en route to the highway. I’d heard too many horror stories about people getting killed in car accidents on their way to the hospital, and I wasn’t about to become one of them, so I tried to calm myself and stay within the speed limit, hoping my mother would still be alive by the time we arrived at Firelands Hospital in Sandusky.
Within minutes I could no longer see the ambulance lights, but I knew where I was going. I was born in the same hospital nearly 45 years earlier. Now I was heading there for an entirely different reason.
The horrible crashing sound that had jolted me awake no more than 20 minutes ago, and the sight of my mother sprawled on her bedroom floor struggling to breathe, were burned so clearly into my brain I couldn’t seem to think.
The events of the morning kept playing over and over in my head. I was supposed to take my mom to the Cleveland Clinic to start her fifth week of radiation treatments, but we never even made it to the car. The radiation and the chemo had left her very weak, but there was no reason to believe things wouldn’t get better. She had a feeding tube in place, so we (my family) were hoping that would solve any nutritional issues, and she was past the halfway point in her treatments, so we were hoping that would help raise her spirits and give her the necessary mental boost she would need to take this thing to the end.
But we also had our doubts. When I arrived home that Sunday night I was shocked to see how far my mother’s health had declined in just two weeks. The constant bombardment of radiation had changed her saliva into a thick, ropey enemy that forced her to keep a suction hose near her at all times to help keep her airway clear.
When I found my mom on the floor, she had a scared look on her face as mucous ran from the corner of her mouth. My father called 911 as I tried to get my mother onto her side and clear her airway. It was 5:40 in the morning, and my body had just gone from deep slumber to massive adrenaline rush in a heartbeat.
I asked my dad to hold mom on her side so I could run downstairs and grab the suction machine. Seconds later I tried to find an electrical outlet so I could plug the machine in, but by the time I found one, my mom’s eyes were rolling back in her head.
Once I flipped on the machine and began clearing the mucous and blood from her throat, my mother regained consciousness. With my father’s help, we got her onto a chair where she continued to clear out her airway on her own. I then made the mistake of telling my mother an ambulance was on the way, prompting her to curse at me.
“Why the hell did you call an ambulance?” She snapped hoarsely, “I need to take a bath.”
For a brief moment I thought, “Okay, that’s my mom, things are going to be just fine.”
But things weren’t fine at all. When the EMT’s arrived five minutes later, my mother lost consciousness again, only this time we were there to hold her in place so she wouldn’t crash back to the ground.
Now she was in the back of the ambulance somewhere in front of me in the darkness as I fished for my cell phone to start making calls to my two brothers, Lance and Duke, and my sister Dina.
My brothers were in town, and after a few tries, I got in touch with both of them and soon they were on their way to the ER, but my sister Dina, who lives in Denver, didn’t hear the phone ringing at what, for her, was four in the morning.
Moments later I was at the ER where I ran into one of the EMT’s already loading the stretcher back into the back of the ambulance.
“Is my mom still alive?” I asked.
“Oh yeah, she was talking the whole way here.” He said.
Inside, I found my mom somewhat responsive in room #5 of the Firelands Hospital ER, and within 15 minutes, my father and two brothers would arrive. The doctors told us they thought my mother was having a heart attack and they wanted to run a catheter up into her heart to check for blockage. By that time, the adrenaline that had been rushing so efficiently through my body had begun to retreat, and I felt like I was going to throw up. I had to get out of the room and get some fresh air.
I wasn’t gone long before a frantic nurse rushed out to the ER waiting room and called for me, and my brother Lance, to return to my mother’s room. When we got there, my dad and my brother Duke were crying at her bedside. The doctor told me she was crashing and there was nothing he could do because she had signed a “do not resuscitate” order.
Duke urged her to fight; I pulled down the covers to find her hands. I took one of her hands in mine and told my dad to take the other. Lance rubbed her head as she fought to breath. I called Dina again and this time she answered. I can’t imagine how shocked she must have been when the first words out of my mouth were, “Dina, mom’s dying, if you want to say goodbye you have to do it now.”
I don’t know if my mom could hear it or not, but Dina was crying on the phone as she told my mother she loved her. I whispered in my mom’s ear that I loved her too and that “God doesn’t want to spit you out this time, this time he wants to keep you.”
Rather than urging her to fight any longer, we now all urged my mother to "just let go" … and she did, albeit not a Hollywood death. It was slow, and painful, and hard to watch. The last gasps of air were brutal - the involuntary twitches even worse.
But we were lucky, my brothers and I. We had come full circle with my mother. We were standing in the same hospital where she gave birth to all of us, and now we were there with her when she died.
I didn’t cry much, but I know I will in the coming days and weeks - probably when I go to pick up the phone to call her and remember she’s not there.
But she is there.
She’ll always be there.