Write Before Thinking


An account of the events and experiences of losing my mom

An account of the events and experiences of losing my mom.

So you know who is who:

Patrick – me

Steve- Step-dad

Greg/Gregory- Younger brother

James/Jaime- Youngest brother

Kristin- My wife

Heather- Gregory’s wife

Molly- Mom

I can’t remember if it was Thursday or Friday the last time I talked to my mom. For the life of me I wish I could tell you, but I can’t. I feel guilty, like I was too self-absorbed to pay attention. Like the conversation wasn’t important enough to remember. But I’ll never forget it. She was being maternal. I groused about how upset I was that work scheduled me four closing shifts in a row. She felt bad for me, but she felt worse for Kristin. We talked about how I’d find a new job. She said not to worry; something would materialize. I assured her I was okay. Then I told her I transferred my existing credit card balances to a new card. She replied by mentioning that she just finished paying off a balance transfer she took care of for me. “I’m not saying this to make you feel guilty,” she said. “Just don’t make the same mistake again.”

I do know that on Friday, the 5th of October, I sent her an email about some black lab mutts that some folks had found on the side of the road. That was the last email I sent her. She saved the jpeg to her desktop.

On Sunday, Steve called and told me she was in the hospital with a kidney stone. I immediately thought “ooooh, that’s gonna hurt.”Monday morning I received the following email: 

From: my step-dad Steve ADDRESS DELETED

Signed-By: yahoo.com | Mailed-By: yahoo.com

To: my brother Gregory, meDate: Oct 8, 2007 10:12 AMSubject: Molly update

She is resting well.  She has an infection (low whiteblood count because of the chemo) to go with thekidney stone.She is hooked up to antibiotics and is on oxygen.  We will be here a couple of days.  If it doesn’t pass, we will move her to Abbot in the cities to break it up somehow or remove it.Jamie made the famous tex mex casserole for a hockey pot luck.  We had to recount the infamous baked bean incident at the cub scout pot luck.

Molly’s number at the hospital is 507 537 9224

She has not been using her cell.

I’ll keep you informed.

I tried calling her shortly thereafter. Steve answered, mom was down getting X-rays. He said she was doing fine, a little trouble breathing, but doing well.I figured I’d go for a bike ride then try calling again. I was gone just over an hour. I came home, showered, and tried calling again. No one answered. So I called my brother, Gregory. He said we needed to get to Minneapolis as soon as possible; that they were airlifting her up there and Steve needed us. I called Steve again, this time he picked up the phone. Yes it was serious; yes, he’d like it if we were there. He asked if he should pull James out of school. I figured he knew what he should do- he just wanted to hear it from someone else. Agreed that, “yeah, he should pull James out of school.” After all, how much anger would James feel if he was left at home and Mom didn’t make it? Though, we never said it like that. We used the phrase “worst case scenario.”

Reworking my plane ticket didn’t take too much effort, just $288 bucks. It was convenient that I was scheduled to go to Minnesota on Friday anyway. I called up work to let them know I wouldn’t be in; that I had to go home for a family medical emergency. I could hear the skepticism in my manager’s voice. After the fact, that pissed me off.

Steve, Greg, and I stayed in touch through the day. At about 2 or so Steve called and told me that she was sedated- he kind of broke up when he said that they had to put her under 15 minutes before they showed up. They were in the parking lot when the doctor called and gave them the news. It was at this time that the severity of the situation hit me. Up to this time I never considered that Mom was not going to be okay. When he told me she was in septic shock I remember thinking, “fuck,” and then I started crying. I looked up septic shock on Wikipedia; they said the mortality rate for the immuno compromised was 80%. I didn’t write her off after I read that, but I did fear that she wouldn’t make it. Steve called and told me how they were planning on treating her; that they were going to let the drugs try to do their thing and get her blood pressure down and fight the infection. If things went to plan they’d take her into surgery and remove the stone or put in a stent to remove the liquid.

Kristin didn’t come with me right away. She wanted to, but I didn’t want to jink Mom by overreacting- like whether or not Kristin coming had any impact. The ride to the airport was quiet- neither of us wanted to think about what the next few days would bring. She cried as she dropped me off. In the airport I called Mike, her brother, and told him, per Steve, that he should get to Minneapolis. He was actually on the last day of a Hawaiian vacation and wouldn’t be able to get there until Wednesday, the 10th of October. “Call with updates. We’re praying for you and your mom. She’s a tough girl, she’ll make it.”

Just before I got on the plane I talked to Steve. He said they were taking her into surgery; that the infection was just too powerful.I tried to hold it together on the flight. I tried to be hopeful. I prayed. But I fully expected to walk off the plane and learn that my mom died.

But she held on.

James and the daughters of close family friends picked me up from the airport. We walked into Abbott Northwestern at about 1AM. They took me up to the ICU waiting room: department 12. Lynn and Brian (the family friends) and Steve were sitting in the corner of the waiting room. We hugged, each blinking back tears. We were all jittery.

Steve asked if I wanted to go see her. “Sure,” I said, trying to sound strong and enthusiastic. I was scared to see her. I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t want to see my mom that way. Dehumanized, tubes sticking out of her, skin ashen and waxy. We had to go through a sterilizing anteroom. He told me what was going on, played with her hair for a second; then left me alone with her.

The first time I saw her was brief, almost like I wasn’t acknowledging the severity of the situation. I was amazed at how small she was. She looked so cozy, so vulnerable.I gave her a kiss on the cheek, brushed her hair, and told her I loved her. Five minutes and out.

Back in the waiting room we tried to make small talk. Clinging to the hope that we’d be taking her home soon.I went and visited her a couple more times. Each time I became more comfortable with her appearance. Each time I could talk to her a bit longer before breaking down.

Gregory showed up at about 3 am. I took him to see her. I tried to be the protective big brother and not cry. Instead I explained what was going on with mom. He struggled to hold it together. I’m not sure he did.

The resident tired to tell us what was going on. I felt sorry for her. She wasn’t comfortable. How could she be? This was just a rotation. This wasn’t what she wanted to be doing. She didn’t want to be an ICU doc. She didn’t want to deal with this day in and day out, but for the moment that what she had to do. For the moment we were her problem.

About an hour after she presented her case we went back to Steve’s apartment (he worked in Minneapolis and Marshall, MN, so he kept a place in Minneapolis). The ride back was quiet. We were all so tired. And I think we were all consumed with fear. I had no idea how precarious the surgery was. I had no clue as to what James and Steve had been through as they waited for her to come out of surgery. Even at this point, despite seeing her; despite the physical manifestations of the seriousness of the situation, I refused to accept, refused to even consider, that my mom was on the probably going to die. Even though, within the first minute of seeing her, I knew what the outcome would be.

You might read this and judge me for coming to these conclusions. I don’t blame you. After all, what kind of son recognizes that his mom is going to die within the first few minutes of seeing her in ICU? And while I may have recognized it, I certainly didn’t accept it.

Steve woke us up at about 6 AM and told us we needed to get back to the hospital, said that they called and said she’d coded in the night and it be a good idea to get back.

I don’t know what the others expected? I do know that I was scared. And tired.

I was shocked when I saw her again. I tried to recognize her, but she didn’t look like the woman I saw less than one month before. The nurses said she was stable and that her heart was strong. Someone remarked that she was a fighter.

Who knows when it was, but sometime that morning her intesivist met with us. His name was Dr. Melchert, though he said we could call him Pete. I don’t know what I expected to hear. I knew what I wanted to hear. Though as soon as he suggested we take a seat at one of the tables in the corner of the waiting room I knew it probably wasn’t good news. How could it have been, I figured. The way she looked precluded good news.

I’ll never forget how calm he was in delivering the news, nor will I ever forget how he made eye contact with each of us. He could’ve just talked to Steve, but he didn’t.“Guys, your mom is very sick. She’s got an infection in her blood, her heart is very weak, and her organs are failing. She’s very sick and I don’t know if she’s going to come out of it.”

There you go. Hopes dashed. Reality in your face.

“Even if she does come out of it, she’s facing a tough battle.” What does that mean, I asked myself? She’d be a vegetable? Bedridden? I didn’t want my mom to life such a life.“At any point she could suffer cardiac arrest. If she does… Well I need to know if you’d like us to take extreme measures to keep her alive? Different people have different views, but know that we’re working very hard to make sure she doesn’t get to that point.”

I heard what he said but I didn’t. I heard cardiac arrest, CPR, cracked ribs, we’re working hard to make sure it doesn’t get to that point, and do you want us to resuscitate? Do we want to let mom die? Do we want to give up? They opened up a conference room so we could discuss it. The fluorescent light was harsh compared to the soft glow of the ICU waiting room. As soon as the door closed I broke down, turning my chair away from everyone so they wouldn’t see me cry.

None of us wanted to see her in pain. None of us wanted to keep her alive just so we wouldn’t have to say goodbye. She made the decision very easy. How do you keep someone so full of life in such a position? In a way it was easy- she was too full of life to subject her to such misery. We trusted Pete. We knew he had Mom’s best intentions in mind. We knew he and the rest of the team we’re fighting to keep her with us. And we knew that if he said that suffering a cardiac arrest would be something she probably wouldn’t come back from then it probably wasn’t. We didn’t want her to die. We didn’t want to give up on her. But we didn’t want her to suffer more pain than she already was. No, we decided, do not resuscitate.

Never had I thought I’d have to make that decision.

That moment, in the conference room, was probably the first time any of us acknowledged out loud that we could very well lose her. I cannot put into words how much pain each of us was in, nor can I articulate the emotions that flooded through our minds. Even if I could, unless you’ve been there, you wouldn’t be able to grasp what I’m talking about. And if you had, you don’t need my words to take you back.

Kristin answered on the second ring. I was surprised since she should’ve been at school. But, in some ways I wasn’t that surprised. She knew that I might want her to fly out. I told her what was going on, said that it didn’t look good. Whether or not I lost it I couldn’t say.

Greg called Heather. I expect their conversation went much the same.

Steve got one of the attending nurses to open up one of the private rooms. That’s when you knew it was serious. This is where people went to wait for their loved ones to die. This is where they went to hear the real bad news.

The kidney doctor showed up and told us they were going to start her on dialysis. Hopefully, he said, that would give her body a chance to fight back. He told us he knew what we were going through; that his son had battled leukemia. He said he was praying for us. I’d never heard a doctor say that.

Steve’s boss, Vikki, showed up with a gift basket of snacks and 4 $25 McDonald’s gift cards. We maybe used one.

The hours flew by. Pete came in and told us they were going to put her on a different dialysis, one that wasn’t so rough on the system. The next 8-12 hours are the most important, he said. We need to see the acid levels in her blood drop. If they don’t, that’s it, there’s nothing more we can do. Most folks don’t last as long as she does.

The girls got in at about 6:30. It was a relief to see them, not only for the emotional support they’d offer, but to take my mind away from myself and focus on someone else.I took Kristin in to see mom. By now I’d grown accustomed to seeing her, but Kristin was shocked. She couldn’t hold back her tears. She brushed mom’s hair and gave her a kiss and told her she loved her. We left and she broke down in the hall. I gave her a hug and we cried together. I glanced back to the ICU and mom’s room and thought how alone she must feel, tucked away in the corner.

There was no reason for all of us to be there. No news was coming in and we knew the next few days would be long. Sleep was a necessity. Greg, Heather, Kristin and I left at about 8pm. I drove them past the lakes and my old neighborhood. We ate at Noodles and Company. The conversation was as light as we could make it, almost optimistic.

Back at the apartment we tried to sleep as best we could. I cried in Kristin’s arms. I kept repeating, “I want to give her, her boots.” Referencing a pair of hiking boots I’d brought with to give mom.

At about 3am we walked back into the hospital and relieved James and Steve. No news on mom, Steve said, see you in a few hours. We all lay down to sleep and for whatever reason we all managed to. I think it was because we were there and if anything happened we’d know.

Steve and James came back at about 8am. We all sat in that room and waited for an update. I visited Mom and talked with the nurses. They said her blood pressure was stronger and they didn’t have to use as many drugs. I noticed a bit of fluid in her catheter bag. When I came back later I noticed a bit of blood too.Pete came in to give us a status report, but Steve wasn’t there so he said he’d come back in a few minutes. I spent much of that time walking around and hanging out with mom. I wanted to cram as much time in with her as possible. I didn’t want to admit it, but the reality was I would never hear her voice again. I would never feel her arms wrap around me to give a supportive hug. I told her I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. I also had the nurse clip me off a few locks of her hair. I felt stupid, melodramatic, asking for it. But I knew I’d regret not asking.

An hour and a half later he came back, accompanied by his resident. As soon as I saw both of them I knew our last remaining shred of hope was about to be erased.It’s amazing how difficult it was- despite managing your expectations, despite knowing that there really wasn’t much hope to be had- to hear the news that there was nothing the doctors could do to save mom. I was clinging to the thinnest threads of hope and still it felt like a sledgehammer to the chest. Pete looked at each of us and delivered the news. He said there were ways to keep her alive artificially, but we should let her go peacefully and with dignity. He said he was sorry. That she was a fighter who defied all odds. That it was a testament to her strength and love for us that she lasted this long. She didn’t want to give up, but ultimately the body is a smart organism- it knows when the fight is over. He told us what would happen- how she would die. They were going to pull her off the paralytic and remove the machinery from her. They would take her off the Adavan and put her on pain medication. She would never be conscious. She would not feel pain. She would try to breathe on her own; her heart would try to keep up. Ultimately though, he heart would stop and she would die.

And we got to be there.

Pete left us alone to decide if that was how we wanted to handle it. And even though we all knew it was, we talked about it to make sure. There were many, many tears. Many, many heartfelt words. I told Steve he’d earned the right to be there, alone, with her as she passed. He said, we all did. I didn’t know if I could handle it, I almost didn’t want to be there for her death. Selfish, really.

We told Pete we were ready to say goodbye. We thanked them for working as hard as they did. Then we went into Mom’s room to say goodbye.I hated that I was walking into her room for the last time. I despised that this was it; that I had to say goodbye, that in a few short moments I would never see my mom again. Ever. I tried to be the stoic. I tried to put on a strong face. Kristin and I held hands as we walked into her room.

I wish I could recall specifically what was said as we stood around her. I know that we were there for about an hour as the paralytic wore off. I know that there was a lot of crying, but even more laughing. We reminisced. Told stories of happy days gone by. I joked that I hope Saint Peter asked for the day off because Mom was surely going to tear into him for calling her up too soon. We laughed at the realization that with the luxury of eternity, Mom could start as many projects she wanted. I told her I’d get to my bins when I saw her again. Kristin noticed that each time we laughed, Mom’s blood pressure would go up. And when we stopped, it would go down. There is no logical reason to explain that. She was not cognizant. She was not awake. She had no clue what was happening. The doctors assured us as much.

But I think she knew we were there. I think she knew she was not alone. When I stroked her arms, she got goosebumps. I saw tears at the corners of her eyes. I’m sure medical explanations could be found for each. Then again, maybe not.

I was holding her hand. She had three freckles on the skin between her thumb and index finger. I brushed her hair with my hands. I kissed her forehead and told her I loved her and that she did good and that it was okay. That we would be okay. She raised us well. Inside I was screaming that I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. I didn’t want her to go. She couldn’t die. Not yet. There was still so much we needed to do. So many things I had to say to her. I didn’t get to tell her how much she meant to me. I didn’t get to tell her how her dying was going to rip my heart out. I always thought I’d get to have that conversation sometime as she slowly died from a cancer that had spread. That was when I was going to do it. But this fucking kidney stone fucked it all up.

All of us except Steve left as they pulled the respirator and other machinery from her. Once that was done she was on her own. Minutes was all we had. All she had.

We came back into the room. Steve was standing to her left, holding her hand and stroking her hair. James stood to her right. Greg and Heather beside him. Myself and Kristin beside Steve. Deb, the day nurse, was also in the room. She didn’t know when to shut up and had no social abilities whatsoever. At times I thought anyone of us was going to tell her to shut the fuck up.

Steve told Mom it was okay, that we we’re all there for her and that it was okay for her to go. You fought hard, he said, just relax.

She was breathing slowly but her blood pressure rose and her heartbeat was strong- almost defiant. Like she was saying “I’m doing this my way” or “I didn’t need any help, thank you very much.”

Steve let me hold her hand. I tried to reassure her that everything would be okay. But I lost it and dropped to my knees. I couldn’t do this, but I had no choice.

She hung on for at least twenty minutes. There was a brief moment where I thought that this was her last attempt at humor. Here we all were, standing around being melodramatic and she’s savoring the moment. All attention on the queen. Really, it was the last time she’d be late for anything.

The machines wouldn’t shut up so Deb turned them off.

Mom’s chest heaved a few times then it stopped. Her eyes opened just a fraction of an inch and I saw her deep brown eyes sparkle for the last time. I didn’t know it then, but I think that’s when she actually died. We stood around her for a few more minutes then Pete came in and pronounced her. He looked at all of us and told us how sorry he was. I think Greg and Steve gave him a hug.

They gave me her pink pajama top that she came in with. Jenny, the other nurse, cut a few locks of her hair. We slowly filed out of the room. I was the last one out. I didn’t want to leave. I hugged her. Gave her a kiss on the forehead. Told her I loved her. Tried to leave. Turned around to repeat what I’d just done seconds earlier. Then finally left.

Mom was dead. None of us would ever see her again. I know her energy went somewhere and I prayed her soul was in heaven. I needed there to be a heaven. I felt empty.Walking out of her room, I tried telling myself that the woman lying on the bed wasn’t Mom anymore. Kristin and I hugged in the hallway. Neither was ready to accept that we were entering into a new phase in our lives. That despite how normal things would eventually seem, normal, as we knew it, was non-existent.

We reconvened in the waiting room. And then I walked down the hall to make the phone calls.I think I called my friend Erik first. I told him briefly that my Mom left us. Asked if he could come pick up Kristin and I. Of course he said yes.

Next I called Mom’s brother, Mike. Said that at approximately 3:30 PM we “lost her.” That was my cliché of choice. I just couldn’t say she died. Too harsh. Next I called my dad. I think that was it.

When I called I’d rush into telling the story, her story, how she never felt pain, how she never knew what was happening. That she was at peace and we surrounded her with love. I think that made people feel better. It made me feel better.

Erik picked us up about a half-hour later. Walking out of the hospital was like entering another world. And in many ways that’s exactly what it was. Suddenly all the energy and emotion I had was gone. I couldn’t give a shit about anything.

The plan was to spend the night at Steve’s. We needed bedding, we needed food, we needed alcohol.

Erik carted us around and paid for dinner. Then we headed to Steve’s. Luke came by; then Laz. We talked about everything but what had happened. It was nice.

Later that night Uncle Mike arrived. We stayed up drinking and telling stories. Greg and I drank 18 beers. Mike finished about 3 bottles of wine. That night sleep came quick.The next day all of us went to Perkins. We tried to make small talk. Really, we just sat around the table and quietly ate our breakfasts. Kristin and I went with Mike to the airport. Then we rented a car and picked up Heather and Gregory. None of us had any nice clothes. In packing, none had even considered that we’d be going to a funeral. Now we were and we had nothing to wear.

The mall was a nice diversion. Retail therapy is all that it’s cracked up to be. In memory of Mom, Greg and I shopped the sales. We wanted to look good for her. We did. After we ate at The Cheesecake Factory. Again, in memory of Mom, we had sliders.

The drive home was fitting. Overcast skies, long flat roads. We talked a little bit. Tried to talk about other things. Proved difficult.

Walking into the house for the first time…


Kathy arrives, garden…




October 28, 2007

Your birthday: 54. I can’t remember the last time we we’re all together for it. Today has to be the first time in a long time. A true celebration for the Queen. I’m sorry it took this to get us all together. James and I are making sliders today. Figure it’s about time I teach him how. Besides, it was on your list….


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