I recently received the final royalty payment for my currently out of print novella, Slash of Crimson. I donated this to a fund supporting author Tom Piccirilli’s cancer treatment. He is one of our finest living authors of dark fiction, crime noir, and what I personally would dub literary fiction. Those interested in donating to Tom’s fund can Paypal his fundraiser at PicSelf1@aol.com. I’ve always thought that humans are at their best when there is something they can do about a problem, and they follow through and do it.
Below, however, is an essay about a different kind of situation I recently experienced. While my blog is generally an adults-only environment, there may be a little more reader discretion advised on this entry, so please read on with that in mind.
When my mother had the stroke I was off in the woods with a friend, helping groom his land for an upcoming hunting trip. By the time I got back to Albany Medical Center, she was on life support in the ICU, right side of her face, along with most of the rest of her body, paralyzed. Her left eye was red, and offered a tear in place of the words her brain would not let her mouth form.
“A pontine haemorrhage has a slim chance for recovery.” A paraphrase of many sentences from many neurologists. Due diligence took a little over a week. I think it was just after the spinal tap he first showed up—
“Looks pretty bad,” he said.
“I agree,” I said, not yet seeing who had spoken. I was still looking at the current of drool dripping down my mother’s chin. The ventilator tube had chafed her mouth, a red sore smeared with ointment to accent the futility. She lay surrounded by screens and tubes. Liquids clear, pink, and yellow, some flowing in, some flowing out.
That’s when I remembered that I was supposed to be the only visitor in the room. I turned to my left, and there among the shadows and netted curtains stood a slim figure in a black robe. The hood rose to a crisp peak above his skull of a face.
“You look like a ninety-nine cent Halloween decoration,” I said.
“And yet it’s not the cost,” he said, “but whether you pay full price, that matters.”
Death opened his robe, pulled a flask out of his ribcage and handed it over. I took a swallow, and he snatched it back.
“Not too much,” he said. “All things in moderation.”
“From the guy who just said it’s all about full price.”
“That’ll be ninety-nine cents,” he said.
“You’re a jerk,” I said.
“Afraid not,” he said. “I’m the best friend you got.”
I turned back to my mother. While I had been talking to the Reaper, the nurse had arrived and vacuumed up the drool. Mom looked worse, mouth contorting with discomfort. It was as much as I could take for a night, so I went home for a rest.
But I did not rest because there was the matter of the living will. Clichés jostled around in my mind about our culture being kinder to animals than to humans. Thoughts of how we give them the gift of death instead of allowing them to lie around suffering sounded off like sirens. The best the law would allow me would be to find her living will and have her taken off life support. She had always been a bit disorganized, but I vaguely remembered her handing one to me a few years back, calling it something it wasn’t, as had become her habit. If I didn’t find it, and she couldn’t talk, I might not be able to do anything for her. She might lie that way for a year or more. At the risk of sounding like a callous brute, in my panic I knew I could do more for her with my hunting knife, involving less money and more love, if our culture had a saner outlook on…
I felt a shove from a bony elbow. “Snap out of it. Here, look what I found.” The Reaper was kneeling next to me, papers from the filing cabinet strewn across his black silk pajamas. He handed me a document with the words LIVING WILL printed across the top. A downloaded legal template signed by herself and a witness that clearly stated she did not want to be kept alive in a vegetative state.
“Well I suppose I should say thanks,” I said. “By the way, where’s the scythe?”
“Honestly, do I look like a farmer to you?”
“I was thinking more hunter-gatherer.”
“Really I’m a fall guy.”
“Heh. Best friend you got.”
My mother was born in the 1940’s—though I have always thought of her family as a bit fifties-fabulous—lower middle class Italians with a restaurant near Long Island Sound. She went to Catholic School where she did well academically. She married a marine home from the early-Vietnam War era Pacific. In her adult life she swapped fifties-fabulous for seventies-fabulous. I’m-Okay-You’re-Okay astrology meets Wicca. A rainbow of pop-psychology books and magazines decorated our house as she sailed through her first divorce. Her education was taking her in the direction of social work but she never seemed to nail down a quality career path.
I had come along a few years before, and she cared for her kid, mind and body, best she could despite the impending economic and marital issues. I’ll spare the general audience the details of this and just say it fell somewhere between The Brady Bunch and Orange is the New Black. Somewhere between idealistic ranch house America and exquisite metaphors about what it’s like to have few choices and be blamed for having few choices.
I will offer two anecdotes about her life:
When she and her sister were teenagers, they enjoyed hanging out with their friends on a boardwalk along a beach on the Connecticut side of Long Island Sound. The sisters were two years apart. My mother was older, bright kid in the upper grades of high school, sister also a bright kid who had chosen to go to a public high school. Both girls liked hanging out with their groups of friends, but apparently the Rockwell painting of a teenage scene was less than ideal for the younger sister who wore prescription glasses and was being tortured à la an after-school-special on bullying. My mother advised her sister to get prescription sunglasses. She gave her sister money earned from her part-time job to pay for the doctor’s appointment and the glasses he prescribed. Whether it’s beside the point with regard to our culture’s ethics, her sister rocked the prescription shades up and down the boardwalk, enjoying her improved social life, and tells the story with fondness to this day.
The second scene occurs forty-something years later, when I was visiting my mother in San Francisco. She had moved there after her own father died to work as a nanny for a well-to-do west coast family. She had always been a great driver, and zoomed around the Bay area in her employer’s Lexus. She also had a moped of her own. She could drive a stick and liked to speed, explaining that it cleaned out the engine…
So when I arrived I was struck by how aged she looked. Three marriages, three divorces, a slew of not so great jobs in New England because she didn’t want to take me away from my friends when I was growing up, and a continuing struggle with a yet to be identified mental illness had taken its toll. The woman who had done everything she possibly could for an asthmatic kid on a short budget was now the one in need of protection. I had a decent job back in New York, but in my small apartment, without real equity of my own, there was little I could do for her economically. Still, I could visit when possible and look out for her however I could… …much to the chagrin of a shabby man in the BART station who approached her while I was buying us a train ticket. Keep in mind I am used to the New York City subway system which will challenge you on your post-apocalyptic survival skills at the drop of a dime (literally). So when I saw Shabby standing with his broad, beer-stained shoulders over my mother’s diminutive frame, her handing him cash, I reacted swiftly. I leapt between them, shove shove, and “What the fuck? What the fuck is this? You wanna fuckin’ die?” He outweighed me by fifty pounds easy, so I wasn’t holding back, he’d better let go of that… dollar?
My mother was tugging at me, whacking me with the proverbial purse. “Stop it! Stop it! That’s Victor!”
“Who the fuck’s Victor?”
“Victor carries my groceries. He does it every week, for a dollar.”
“I don’t see any groceries.”
Mom kinda looks away. “I didn’t have any cash last week.”
I turned to apologize to Victor, but Victor had decided to leave.
I felt a poke-poke from Old Bonyfinger. “Are you having violent fantasies?”
Glaring back at him: “You have a problem with violence?”
“Mais non, a vaincre sans péril, on triomphe sans gloire.”
“What’s that, The Talking Heads?”
“Pierre Corneille—to win without risk is to triumph without glory.”
The next day I signed the pink form that allowed the doctors to take my mother off life support. I attached a copy of the living will. They transferred her to a quiet hospice at St. Peter’s in Albany. It’s the same hospital where her grandchildren were born, in the small city where my wife and I have made a home. My gig has improved somewhat in recent years and in combination with my wife’s efforts, we’ve managed to build a decent life for our two daughters. My mother moved to a seniors apartment down the street to be closer to her grandkids, and enjoyed those five years with two little kids who adored her.
And yet even that small gift I was able to give back to her took everything I had—in the years leading up to my current situation, I watched her struggle, living with her sister for a while in New Haven until she’d become so unnaturally argumentative that I had to take a turn doing what I could to help her along. Her sister and I tried an intervention at one point—we brought her to a psychiatrist affiliated with Yale University who gave an initial diagnosis of hypomania, pending her agreement to more visits and treatment.
Fiercely independent, she did not agree to treatment. She continued to make her way working part-time until her Social Security kicked in. To give an example of the difficulty of the brain dysfunction that held her prisoner, let’s say she might be sitting quietly with the kids, giggling and playing a game:
“Would you like a cup of tea Mom?”
“What Earl Grey? Oh I can’t take this, you’re so Anglo-Teutonic. Oh my son, just because the pervs down in Washington won’t let the Connecticut Ice Queens out of the closet, doesn’t mean I can serve that empire. It’s all part of your condition. I’m going to call my attorney about this. They know what Wicca’s really about and I’m not just some Catholic casualty…”
“So should I get you some tea or not?”
I sat by her bed at the hospice as often as I could. For a while she opened her eyes, then they stayed closed. Her body looked contorted. A week of no food left one arm swollen, the other with skin tight against the bone. Her gums looked loosened where her mouth hung open, teeth crooked, monstrously devouring air like they were aware of their uselessness. The tracheotomy tube was still stuck in her neck, the minimal ration of oxygen underscoring the absence of the ventilator, feeding PEG, and blood pressure medication. Minimal oxygen and morphine were all she had left.
Somebody was in the bathroom attached to her room. But how? I saw anyone who came in or out of the hospice room. Kind old folks who volunteered to read or bring you coffee. Kind nurses who ensured there was no interruption in her pain medication. Social workers who wanted to make sure everyone was okay. Commendable volunteers and staff, all of them.
But there was someone else in the bathroom.
“Is this some kind of joke?” I asked. Night had fallen, I sat by her bed with the TV off. Her eyes, which had gone from open to closed, were now slightly open again. Slits of white lined with bloody vessels. Her arms getting bluer, her breaths distressed. What the hell was this?
I stepped to the bathroom door. “Who’s there?”
“You know who it is.”
“What, you’ve come to perform Extreme Unction?”
“I’m no priest.”
“What, you don’t have a religion?”
“More like a flake, one with your supposed stature, saying people shouldn’t have a religion.”
“Sure they should. Maybe some things are truer than others, who knows. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s all TMI.”
At this I felt something push against the door. I pushed back.
“So you’re just some nasty-ass functionary? A foul-breathed bureaucrat?”
I felt a harder push, accompanied by a wretched odor that made me dizzy.
“Far too impersonal,” he said. “I’m telling you, I’m a friend.”
The door burst open, knocking me back. The figure stepped out, a darkness bleeding against darkness. His bones glowed with a bile-yellow incandescence, his head hung to the side, jaw hammering against itself. His form nauseated as it moved forward. He had fangs that ripped strips of meat from his bones, dropped them down his throatless gullet only to tear them off again.
“What happened to the Halloween decoration?”
“Shut the fuck up,” he said.
Death smacked me with his reeking forearm. I went down with the wind knocked out of me and he picked me up again. He held me by my collar and slammed my back against the wall. He had horns on his skull and a tongue like a laughing snake that hissed as it stung me again and again. I retched on the floor, and he slammed me against the wall again. Behind him I could see my mother, face turned toward me but seeing nothing with her dehydrated slits of eyes. I had to do something, I pulled my leg back and kicked the rotted ribs, because that’s what you did, no matter what, you fought—
Because hard as she had it, my mother never stopped fighting. Sometimes she was right, when she was trying to get medicine for her kid—sometimes she might not have been, when my stepdad was trying to get us a better but more expensive apartment—but she never shied away from a battle when she thought there was even a shred of a chance she was being mistreated. Her brain had an illness that deceived her, but in her own coded way, she fought this, too. When I cleaned out her apartment, my aunt found a life insurance policy that was within days of being cancelled. There were a number of registered mail receipts indicating she had come close to losing it before. But each time she had eluded her brain’s prison warden and kept the account active. Though a small amount of money, it would be enough to cover her final expenses and maybe a little leftover to contribute something useful to the family left behind. As my aunt was sorting through this, inside a kitchen cupboard, among the kids’ plastic cups, I found (and almost threw away), a small, scribbled on cardboard box containing four wedding rings (wait, Ma, who was number four?).
Come to a poker game and win the jackpot with three royal flushes and a full house, and I might call you competent. Come to a poker game, play all night with a pair of deuces as your highest hand, walk away from the table ahead five bucks, and I will call you a winner. A vaincre sans péril, on triomphe sans gloire.
I peered over Death’s shoulder at the hospital bed, but my mother was not there. I kicked harder, again and again, but though the ribs shattered, there remained an endless cage of rot.
“Cease! Cease you little bastard, you would make this worse!”
His claws dug into my neck, blood and suffocation, my strength ebbed.
“What the hell did you do with her? Where did she go?”
“You little fool. You still don’t know what this is. You want to act, but it is not time to fight, but rather, to pick the right ally, the right friend.”
“The hell with you,” I cried. But my muscles slackened. The kicking stopped, and I felt my body slump on the windowsill.
“Finally,” said Death. He let go of my neck and stepped over to the bed. He slid his maggot-strewn bones beneath the sheet, took hold of the tracheotomy tube and slipped it under his jaw. He lay there, bleeding, broken, smoldering with pain, the wheeze between his ribs a million souls wailing on a distant wind.
“But where is she?” I asked again.
Death raised his bony hand and pointed—
In the doorway stood a woman in a wedding gown. She had hair combed to the side, accented with flowers, and the veil pulled back. Her grin was full of wistfulness and curiosity. The hands clutching her bouquet held it loosely, and yet were full of strength. She looked young, beautiful, and intelligent. She didn’t speak, but her eyes conveyed love, excitement, and courage, delivered like a streak of glittering lightning in a gaze at once forever distant, forever close.
Rest in peace, Patricia.
Patricia Lissey Moore