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