It was a late October morning, 2005, and there was a crisp chill in the air. Couldn’t decide if I should go out and work in the garden, tinker in our antique shop, or just relax inside, in the warm. In the minute, it seemed like I was facing a dilemma.
My wife Annie was very encouraging, saying, stay home with me. We can finish up the bedroom that needs painting and do some chores around the house. You know, the honey do list. Well, you probably know what I was about to say, when out of the blue, I was startled by the phone ringing, it was my brother Timmy, with some dreadful news.
I’ll never forget Timmy’s calm voice, or these dreadful words, Bobby, Mom has just had a stroke.
Oh no, Timmy. How bad is it.
Her brain is “70% fried” according to her MRI. She’s alive, but in a coma. Her doctor said it’s likely she will not regain consciousness.
Wow, that was as much as I could take in, so I told him I’d talk to him in a bit. At that moment I, needed to get off the phone and try to process the information I’d just received.
You’d think, instinctively I’d grab the phone and immediately call the airlines and book a flight to Northern California. But I didn’t do that. Instead, I turned to Annie, (she heard the conversation) told her how I was feeling while, asking her for any advice that might help me, help my mom when I got there.
Annie was a caregiver for her sister Wendy, who died of a dreadful cancer a short few years earlier. A month later in the same neighborhood in England, she lost her baby sister Tracy to breast cancer. Annie knew death in a way I couldn’t possibly understand and was still struggling, trying to process her grief.
Book your flight Bobby, get on the road and call me when you get there, after you’ve seen mom. I’ll help you.
On the 24th of October I got a flight out of Wichita, to Medford, Oregon, where I was met by my brother-in-law Johnny who would be taking me on the two hour drive to Crescent City, Ca.
Not long after I greeted Johnny, he said these words; Bobby, you need to prepare yourself for when you see your Mom. You’re going to be shocked, and probably not recognize her.
He repeated his message more than once on our journey, reinforcing, that what I was going to see would make me very uncomfortable. And I needed to know as, there would be no way of escaping what was going to become a forever memory.
Looking back, I could remember Annie and I being invited to certain events that we just didn’t want to attend. But in the end, they were okay.
Perhaps, I thought, that’s how I would feel be when I saw mom. The unknown was raging inside of me, overwhelming my internal controls. Still, I had the sense I was entering some very troubled waters and navigating them was going to be tough.
At one point on the trip, Johnny broke the dreadful silence by pulling the car over to the side of the road and saying, “get out–have a smoke–you need one.” He was reading me like a book. I got out, walked over to a rotting stump that appeared to be on its way out. In the process of sitting down I, pulled a pack of Pall Mall Blues out of my shirt pocket and lit one up. I never knew a cigarette could be so calming as I was still trying to digest, or, perhaps come to terms with, the lousy hand of cards I was going to be playing.
When we got back on the road and hit the home stretch, driving hard, my mind was everywhere, with a certain amount of anxiety. My focus was on my cell, hoping it wouldn’t ring, saying I was too late to say goodbye to my Mom.
It was around 5PM when we arrived at Sutter Coast, the small local hospital in town. I remember, Johnny and I walking through the west doors side by side, like two solders on a mission to reach the end of the long hallway. When we got to the end, we made a right turn and proceeded on another 30 feet or so. The room was on the east side of the hallway, facing the common area.
Johnny was spot on. From a short distance I wouldn’t have known her, if not told it was my Mom. She looked dreadful–her face was all creased up from what I thought were the wretched side effects of the stroke.
Her room was a typical 10′ by 12′, her bed was facing south. There were a bunch of family members in the room, mostly saying a quiet goodbye. My brother Timmy, sister Marcy, I believe my dad and a few other family members were in the room too.
Being the oldest son and although 18 months younger than Marcy, I took on the role as the person making all the necessary medical decisions for our mom. I was now her caregiver.
Dad was 80 years old and I knew this event would be more than he could handle. However, not long after I got there, Dad and I walked out to the common area, sat on a bench and had a father/son chat. Basically I was getting his blessing, so to speak.
It was apparent from the beginning that this was going to be a team effort. What a blessing. My family were like the beat of a heart, always popping in from time to time, saying hello to mom, knowing they were really saying good-bye. My brother Timmy stopped by throughout the day. He was a local pastor, a man of great faith and there was no doubt in his mind, he’d be seeing mom, one day, in heaven. Listening to him was comforting. Beyond that, Timmy had a lot of experience with dying and death. And I knew he was as close as the phone if I needed help. And of course, every morning he picked me up, took me to his home to get washed up and for a bite to eat.
Johnny was simply amazing. He was like an honor guard to Mom. He was in Mom’s room by first light and stayed until the darkness set in. We didn’t speak much, there wasn’t much to say. He never left my side during those hours, he became a very steady balancing force for my chaotic mind. And of course, with him in the room I, felt comfortable taking short walks for exercise and a comforting smoke. (Sadly, Johnny passed away in July, 2018. I miss Johnny, too)
My wife Annie played a significant role in helping me understand how to deal with the questions I needed answers to.
When I called Annie, my main question was: why is her face so distorted and her forehead full of creases?
Bobby, Mom is in a lot of pain. Go find the doctor and tell him to up her pain medication and give her something for anxiety, too. Once her pain is under control, the creases will disappear.
On a mission, I ran down the hallway and located her doctor. He was in the little room opposite the nurse’s station. He appeared to be from the Middle East, someone said he was from Syria. He was easy to talk too, full of compassion and had no problems helping me with my request. A short time later the nurse came in, put mom on a higher dose of morphine and added a liquid anxiety medication, too. Rather quickly, the distortion in Mom’s face started clearing and once again she started looking more like my mom.
Don’t cry, Momma
It’s been said that a person near the end of their life with heavy brain trauma can’t hear your words. When I’d be holding Mom’s hand and talking to her, telling her I loved her, thanking her for being such a wonderful mom, talking to her about some old fond memories, the tears would start filling the sockets of her eyes that were now sunk in. She was hearing me and acknowledging me with her tears. It was a very profound moment in my life. Your loved ones do hear you.
It’s tough being in that sort of situation with your Mom, but in my case, although I didn’t know it at the time, it would appear that I was being prepared for an event that truly did rock my world.
On Friday morning, 30 November, a lady from the hospital administration came down to Mom’s room and told me they would be transporting her to the nursing home this afternoon.
It’s hard to be rational when the world is spinning around in your head, so I said, you’re not taking my Mom anywhere. The doctor has said she probably won’t make it through the weekend. But the admin insisted. So things got heated and we took it out into the hallway. In the end, I made it very clear, I wasn’t going to let anyone move my Mom.
Did I make an ass of myself? Probably. But, when a son is emotionally distressed and trying to protect his Mom, he’ll go all in. Right or wrong. And I did feel like the humane thing to do was to let her die where she was, in peace. The admin was just doing her job. She said we’d have this conversation again on Monday. They’re counting dollars and I’m counting how many hours Mom will be with us.
On the 31st of October, a Saturday morning, I walked down the hallway, contacted Mom’s doctor and asked him if he could help mom out by giving her higher doses of her morphine. He knew what I was talking but, said he couldn’t do that. I explained to him that when Wendy was dying in England, they put her on what was called the Pack which was continuous IV morphine and anxiety meds at a higher dose. Again he replied, we don’t do that here.
Around noon, the doctor entered the room. Timmy and Johnny were in the room with me. I guess he wanted to think about what I was asking him to do and give me time to do some soul searching. He told me to take a break, get away from the hospital for a few hours and he’d talk to me later.
Timmy suggested we go fishing for a few hours. So we went to his house, got all the gear and went to the Smith River, Cable Hole. Apparently mom was there too. When we got to our spot, we were kind of bummed out. There were two men in a boat, setting in the middle of the hole, fly fishing. We sat down on the bank and chatted back and forth with them for a few minutes which kept our mind off our troubles. Abruptly, one of them started pulling in the anchor. As they were pulling out of the hole, one of the guys in the boat said, he had a fish finder and that the hole was full of Salmon. (Normally that would be a high five moment, but not this day.)
The first cast I made, drifting with a bobber, I caught a nice 25 to 30 pound Salmon. Tim’s hooked one just after we netted mine, but lost it. On my second cast I landed another nice salmon, which looked like the first Salmon’s brother, only a bit darker. We had our two fish, it was now time to go get cleaned up and back to the hospital to be with Mom. My thoughts were very conflicted that day, fishing on the river while your mom is actively dying, didn’t make a lot of sense. But then again, that’s why we went fishing. Life happens. Timmy gave the fish to someone in need.
For seven days and nights I was with Mom. I’d sleep on the recliner beside her bed, which was difficult due to her loud snoring. One could hear her 24/7 snoring down the hallway. It was very loud. I didn’t know it at the time, but, it was the “Death Rattle.” I shall never forget it. I thought I would never have that experience again. But life has an uncanny way of preparing one for things to come. Sadly.
Around 4:00 PM, Mom’s doctor came by the room, spreading his arms out wide he whispered to me, I’ve given your mom this much morphine. I thanked him and he went on his way.
At approximately 2 AM on 1 Nov, I fell asleep in the recliner. At 2:21AM, my eyes popped open. I looked at the clock and immediately felt the deafening silence in the room. I knew at that moment, Mom was gone. I picked up the red hotline that went directly to the nurses’ station and told the nurse, I believed my Mom has passed away.
Standing in the doorway of Mom’s room, I watched as two nurses’ walked side by side coming down the hallway to her room. Both nurses listened to Mom’s heartbeat and one said, your mom still has a faint heartbeat while, asking me at the same time if I’d stay in the room another ten minutes until they returned and checked her heart again.
It seemed like a very long ten minutes but, they returned, both listened for a heartbeat, then told me she was gone. A short time later the doctor came in and pronounced time of death.
It was a very strange time for me. I didn’t know much about death, except from scenes on the TV. It may look the same, but as I found, reality puts death on a whole new level.
Little did I know, that in a few short years, all the things I learned through watching over my mom, would be instrumental in my care for my beloved wife, Annie. (Mom died Nov 1, 2005, Annie died, Nov 2nd, 2010)
Note: When I was young, my Mom told me stories about her all time favorite movie, and how much she loved it. I managed to find a copy the book that was turned into the movie, dated from the 1940’s. Ironically, I hung onto it for a special occasion, to give to her at a later date. I brought it with me on this trip and was able to place it in her grave when, she was lowered in. The title was: “Gone With The Wind.” “Love her.”
Bob Harrison was raised in the heart of the Redwoods in the far northwest comer of northern California. The little town of Crescent City, California was located near some of the world’s tallest trees, with the west shoreline being the Pacific Ocean. Bob spent most of his time fishing the two local rivers where some of the finest Steelhead and Salmon fishing is located. He was also well known up and down the north coast as an avid motorcycle racer, winning several hundred trophies, and one Oregon State title. Bob graduated from Del Norte High School with the class of 1966, then spent a one year stint at the College of the Redwoods, before having a strong sense of patriotism and joining the United States Air Force. After three years of service, Bob met Annie, the love of his life, and they got married in England in 1972. Bob’s love of country pushed him on to what turned out to be a very successful career, retiring in 1991. Bob’s last military assignment was Wichita, Kansas, a place he and Annie decided to call home. Together they developed and ran two very successful antique businesses until the stranger knocked on their door and changed their lives forever; “Because of Annie.”