My mom died last week. It was saddest day of my life. My mom was my rock, my best friend, a mirror into which I gazed upon my past, the person I am today, and with any luck, who I just might become.
At 4AM on October 18 my mom took her last breath in my arms. I would have expected the sky to split and time to stand still with a deafening roar. Instead, it was very quiet and small.
My cousins called my mom “tut,” short for tete, which is Czech for Aunt. My cousin Colleen arrived just a moment after my mom passed. She pressed her face to my mom’s and closed her eyes. “Oh Tut, you’ve flown away,” she said, and I have never found such solace in words before in my life. I like the idea that my mom, the essence of that great, great lady, just flew away into a perennial blue sky on a soft warm breeze.
Two days after my mom passed we learned my dad needed triple bypass heart surgery…immediately. There was no time to worry—much—and even less time to grieve my mom. Memorial services were postponed as we rallied around my dad. Although I am an only child, I say “we” because as long as I’ve been back in Wisconsin I have not been alone. My cousins excel at circling the wagons.
I was warned that open-heart surgery at his age, 88, was not a slam-dunk by any stretch. I should prepare for the worst. I could hardly breathe. This couldn’t be happening. Mom passed away Tuesday and now I was potentially looking down the barrel of a double memorial. No no no no no.
Pops went into surgery at 8:30AM and was in the ICU by noon. I was allowed to see him at 1PM. My tough old pops had a huge tube coming out of his mouth, which had been taped shut around the tube. His hands were tethered so that he wouldn’t inadvertently try to yank out the breathing tube. “Hi pops,” I said and his eyelids fluttered open. He blinked a couple of times as if to say hello.
A nurse came in and told me my dad was doing incredibly well. He was still groggy from the anesthesia and until he could stay awake and breathe on his own they needed to leave the breathing tube in. Dad shook his head back and forth, lobbying for the removal of the tube. “Not until you can stay awake and breathe on your own,” the nurse repeated before walking out. Pops immediately went back to sleep. What the heck, I figured. Let him sleep.
By 6 PM they really wanted my dad to stay awake and start breathing on his own. A nurse leaned over my dad and said loudly, directly into his ear, “We need you to stay awake for 45 minutes, Tom. Then we can pull the breathing tube.”
He blinked—they were annoyed looking blinks. “Some people like music to keep them awake. Would you like some music to keep you awake?” He nodded, and I swear I saw him roll his eyes. He glanced at me and wagged his index finger. Pops was in the house.
“Good,” the nurse chirped. “What kind of music does your dad like?”
“Oh, he LOVES Bruce Springsteen!” I told her. “Bruuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuce!” Pops began violently shaking his head from side to side. The nurse switched on a Christian rock station and set the speaker by my dad’s head. He appeared to have a mini seizure.
“Not a fan of Christian rock?” the nurse asked, crestfallen.
“He likes Sinatra,” I told her.
She found a Swing and Big Band station and walked out of the room. The Benny Goodman song that had been playing ended, and a program of Billy Holiday classics began. Pops has never been a fan of Lady Day, but I didn’t expect him to go berserk. He started to shake, his hands flapping at his sides.
“What is it, dad? Are you in pain?” he shook his head no, and then made crazy rotations with his hands, index fingers pointing out. One finger had a blood oxygen monitor attached to it, which must have signaled danger to the nurse as dad was whipping it around, because she flew into the room and straight to my dad’s side.
“What is it, Mr. Ferderbar? Are you in pain?”
“I already asked him that,” I said. Pops began breathing fast, his eyes darting from me to the nurse to the TV screen, which told us we were being treated to an hour of Billie Holiday. He flapped his hands.
“Are you having trouble breathing?” I asked. The nurse told him to calm down, that the breathing tube is uncomfortable, but you can’t choke to death. Pops rolled his eyes then began motioning with his right hand, as if he were writing.
“Get him a pen!” I shouted. The nurse handed my dad a pen and pad of paper, but with the monitor on his right index finger, and considering he was tethered at the wrists, all he could do was make swirlies and gibberish, doing most of the writing in thin air.
“Do you need to use the bathroom?” the nurse asked him, and my dad looked at me imploringly…but what was he asking?
“Are you hungry?” I asked. “Thirsty?”
“He can’t eat or drink until the breathing tube comes out,” the nurse reminded us.
“Maybe he wants to be turned,” I offered, and my dad made little fists, which he shook at me as best he could considering he couldn’t move his arms. He flung the pen across the room with a flick of his wrist, and then he began “writing” on the bed sheet with his index finger. He wrote deliberately, emphatically, precisely and…angrily?
The nurse grabbed the pen and pad and told my dad to spell out what he wanted one letter at a time. He looked relieved. The fists relaxed. He slowly drew a letter, as if we were halfwits and it was the first day of Halfwit School.
“A W, hmmm,” said the nurse, like we were playing charades. “Are you…wet?”
Dad narrowed his eye to slits, which I knew was his way of saying something very very bad, but which the nurse misinterpreted. “Warm!” she cried out, possibly expecting a prize. “You’re too warm!”
Dad went crazy. His whole body shook, his eyes rolled back in head, then he made fists that he shook in the nurse’s general direction. He drew the same letter over and over and over, as emphatically as possible. W. W. W. W. W.
“What else starts with W,” I asked aloud and red laser beams shot out of my dad’s eyes and straight into my face.
Another nurse walked in and asked whether everything was all right. All of pop’s monitors were beeping and alarms were going off left and right. He asked the other nurse how long pops had been awake. We looked at the clock. It had been 45 minutes.
Well, let’s get this breathing tube out,” he said, and then asked me to leave the room for a moment. When I was summoned to return pops was sitting up in bed.
“Oh, you look so much better,” I said. “You really scared me there.”
“It was an M,” my dad said. “For music. As in ‘change the music.’ The music that was supposed to keep me awake was putting me in a coma!”
“It looked like you were drawing a W,” I said weakly.
“It was an M!”
Pops comes home tomorrow. We’ll grieve, and laugh and share memories of my mom—a lot of good stuff that begins with the letter M.
In case you didn’t know my mom, her obituary offers a glimpse into a life very well lived. Memorials suggested to Age Related Macular Degeneration Research at the Froedtert & Medical College of Wisconsin Eye Institute, 8701 Watertown Plank Rd., Milwaukee, 53226
My family has been going through a medical crisis of late and it has become impossible to find a good stretch of uninterrupted time in which to write, not to mention things don’t seem particularly funny right now. Oh, there are moments, such as when the nurse at the hospital suggested my mom watch the “relaxation channel” in her room in an effort to distract her from her pain.
The allegedly soothing station features time-lapse footage of Vancouver street scenes—we are in Milwaukee, so in and of itself this is odd—scenes so frenzied that I feel like I’m an hour late for a job interview and my armpits are on fire. The zoomy footage is intercut with shots of hammerhead sharks—hundreds of them—finning around in darkish, murky water, and multiple horrific angles of glaciers calving, no doubt thanks to global warming and the impending doom of our planet. The accompanying music is a cross between dribbling piano such as you’d find at a weirdly upbeat funeral and Guns n Roses covers performed on a harp. Ten minutes of this “relaxation” and I chewed a hole inside my cheek and my mom broke the red emergency button on the nurse-call clicker thingie as she bashed it on her tray table trying to shut off the TV.
I’m an NBW—natural born worrier. When it comes to fretting, procrastination is not in my wheelhouse. I like to avoid the rush and worry, obsess and torment myself right now. “One step at a time,” friends and family tell me. “One foot in front of the other.” When randomness strikes and I flap about in utter chaos, my inclination to plan ahead days, weeks and years is of no benefit. I make myself crazy thinking about every contingency even though there is literally no way to know what’s going to happen in an hour much less a day, week or year.
When I need to get outside my own head, oddly enough I turn to Facebook. In small digestible bites, it is mercifully distracting. Sure, I’ve had to block, unfriend and stop following countless people because of godawful political posts, but I’ve also made some lovely discoveries.
Facebook friends are banding together to find homes for animals and raise money for their care and rescue. Mahatma Gandhi said, “The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” This may be the creepiest most icky election cycle in the history of our nation, but the compassionate Americans on Facebook give me hope. I am rejuvenated by the women and men who go into high kill shelters and liberate dogs slated for euthanasia, then find foster families for them. I’m inspired by the folks who start petitions to save lions, tigers and bears, and who raise awareness so there is less suffering in the world. I applaud the efforts of the hundreds of thousands of compassionate animal lovers who seek justice for those who have no voice.
I don’t know most of the “friends” who do all this or who post about it, but I genuinely love them.
While losing myself in Facebook animal posts today I stumbled upon a poem that changed my life. The lush quality of these simple words, strung together in elegant and simply beautiful form, has altered the way I look at the future—be it immediate, or days, weeks and years out.
This poem brings me peace of mind. Should you be in need, I hope it does the same for you. Rest well, dear friends. (And rescue a dog or cat.)
The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Speaking of poetry…my heartfelt congratulations to the poet laureate, the voice of a generation, the troubadour’s troubadour, Mr. Bob Dylan for winning the Nobel Prize in Literature. Nice going, Zimmy!