I graduated from high school 35 years ago this month, but I have yet to attend a reunion and I won’t this year either. That’s because I only attended the school I graduated from, The Roeper School in Birmingham, my senior year. Why, you my ask? Because at the conclusion of my junior year at Athens High School in Troy I had a 2.5 GPA. My conclusion? Hey, I passed. My mother’s conclusion? I was heading straight to Jackson Prison. As in “You are going to end up in Jackson Prison.”
I really shouldn’t have been too surprised. This was the same woman who would not let me buy a leather jacket as a teenager because only “hooligans” wore leather coats, and who sent a note to the football coach when I attempted to try out for the team informing him that because of my surgically repaired club feet, he could only use me as a punter. (He read the note, scratched his head and sent me home.) Let’s just say she has very distinct opinions about what will and will not happen.
So when I refused to go to college after graduation and said I wanted to just work and “hang out,” I was stunned when she actually let me. But of course I should have known better. Within six months of working various minimum wage jobs — which at that time was $3.35 an hour — my mom said she had a job lined up at Henry Ford Hospital where she worked as an epidemiologist. It was with the Facilities Department as a HC Vac Tech, or Heating Cooling Vacuum Technician. Translation: I would be vacuuming up the dust that accumulated on the inside of hospital room air conditioners. Ok, so not all that glamorous. But it paid $6.75 an hour!!
I quickly imagined myself pulling up to the Facilities Department in my red Ferrari, telling the hot blonde (who no doubt came with the car) that I’d see her later, and then hop out, peel of my driving gloves, hang up my scarf, and then grab my gold-plated vacuum. Of course, the reality was not what I had envisioned.
This spoiled suburban brat found himself working with a group of guys who likely never had a choice about going to college, nor did they feel deprived about it. They worked with their hands and knew how to fix things. They talked loud and laughed even louder, and let’s just say I learned a few new words. But beyond all that, they worked — HARD. All day, every day. People often ask me what it’s like working in radio and I almost always say, “It beats having a real job.” But when I say that, I immediately think back to my time with the Henry Ford Hospital Facilities Department.
But after three months of hauling an industrial vacuum up and down flights of stairs (regular elevators were for visitors, and the freight elevator was off limits to rookies), I was ready to do something else. I mean, $6.75 an hour was awesome, but not if I had to actually work for it! When I told my mom of my intention to quit and return to my preferred life on minimum wage, minimum work jobs, she quietly — too quietly as it turned out — told me to talk to so and so in Human Resources, who would surely find something more suited to my talents.
The following Monday I found myself moving furniture: hospital beds that needed maintenance, execs moving to a different floor, new couches in the visitor lounge. That cushy vacuuming job quickly did not seem so bad anymore. Needless to say, within two weeks I was ready to quit.
And then, out of the blue, a brochure arrived for me from the Specs Howard School of Broadcast Arts, strategically placed near the refrigerator so I was sure not to miss it. “Well this looks interesting,” I thought. Soon I was enrolled and on my way into the lucrative world of radio broadcasting, which would soon make that $3.35 an hour seem pretty good. But I was in school, which eventually led to a college degree; my mom’s ultimate goal and desire for her children. And only years later did I realize my clever mother arranged quite stealthily to let me think it was all my idea.
So why tell this story now? Because it came flooding back to me just last week as I returned to Henry Ford Hospital. Walking its halls, quickly glancing into rooms to size up their AC units, and breathing in that all too familiar smell of latex, disinfectant and sadness. As I made my way up to the Intensive Care unit, my nostalgia turned to dread. My mother, once so much a vital part of that hospital, lay motionless on a respirator. Officially it was pneumonia that brought her to this state, but it was just the latest development that stemmed from a diagnosis of congestive heart failure. The diagnosis had come several years before and my mother, as was her way, was very direct and open that it would be what killed her. I steeled myself for what lay ahead. But nothing can ever prepare you for seeing a loved one — hell, anyone — lying helplessly while a machine heaves their chest up and down.
My mother’s face was gaunt and sunken, so much so that they placed pads on her cheeks to properly attach the breathing tube. The doctors said it had been 14 days on the respirator, which is about the longest time you can have a plastic tube down your throat into your lungs. Any longer and ulcers start to develop and infections set in. Deadly, grotesque infections. The kind she had spent a good part of her career as an epidemiologist trying to fight.
The only options were to pull the tube out and let nature take its course, which all indications were that she would soon stop breathing and die. Or they could give her a tracheotomy (cut a hole in her throat) and insert a tube there to keep her breathing. While that was a long-term solution, it also meant putting what’s called a “plug” into her stomach so she could be fed. Having run nursing homes at the latter part of her career, that was something she distinctly did not want to have happen and expressly said so in a living will she made sure we all had a copy of about five years ago, when it was easy to say, “Oh mom, this isn’t necessary. You’ll be with us for a long time.” But that unnecessary time was now so very necessary. Watching her in the ICU with 11 tubes and lines (I counted) running into and out of her body, a machine keeping her alive and the bips and beeps of various monitors, my resolve to honor my mother’s wishes became fixed amid my desire to see her body stop being tortured.
But it was my father who would make the decision. Married for 60 years, he clearly wasn’t ready to let her go.
This latest episode had happened in the middle of the night and he had to make a snap decision to allow her to be put on a respirator. I’m sure to his ears, it was “Do you want your wife to live or die?” Well of course, he chose life. But two weeks later his desire to have one more conversation, one more minute, one more kiss hovered over all else despite her express written directions that she be allowed to die with dignity if the mechanical means to keep her alive were only prolonging her death. A geneticist and university professor, he has lived his life with data. And he desperately searched for a scientific rationale to avoid that decision. Perhaps she could be weaned off the respirator? Perhaps a tracheotomy wasn’t so bad. Perhaps there’s a therapy that could be invented? Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps…
Day 14 became Day 15 and then 16. The doctors were compassionate, but clear that they could not do nothing and a decision would have to be made.
Just one more night my father pleaded. Maybe this is the night she gets stronger. But each night is just another night on the respirator. Another night of pain. Another night of indignity.
So this past Tuesday, we gathered at the hospital; my brother and I with our father, who had been finally persuaded that delaying the decision would only prolong her ordeal. The doctors explained that a cocktail of drugs would prevent her from feeling any pain or anxiety as they removed the tube and then relieve her of the feeling that she can’t breathe once it was out. They assured us there would be no choking or gasping. And there was wasn’t.
When they pulled the tube, my mother’s eyes opened, staring straight at us. She tilted her head back and….took in a deep breath. The hospice workers who were there to intervene took a step forward and then waited. The machines bipped and beeped, but indicated slow, but steady respiration. The one thing I think we weren’t prepared to have happen. Because my mom wasn’t going anywhere. Despite being high as a kite on Fentanyl, she looked at my Dad, who bent over and kissed her. And while her underlying condition hadn’t changed and the long-term prognosis remains cloudy at best.
Let’s just say she has very distinct opinions about what will and will not happen.
And her dying … wasn’t happening that day.
But the inevitable always wins, and it did in this case as well. Late Saturday, 16 hours after having withdrawn medications (which were only prolonging her agony), my mother took two took final sharp breaths and left this world. And she did so from the same hospital where in the course of her career she was instrumental in helping learn about the causes (and prevention) of Legionaries disease, and then later in the 1980s about how AIDS was transmitted. When many others in the health care field succumbed to fear, she showed extraordinary compassion to the growing numbers of gay men who contracted HIV, inviting them into her home to learn more about who they were, and assure them they were worthy of competent, quality health care.
That was my mom.
This piece was part of the “Letters from Livingston” event at the Howell Opera House on June 20, 2019. “Letters from Livingston” — the event formerly known as “The Mommologues” — is an annual fundraiser for LACASA, the local, independent non-profit organization that works with the victims of child abuse, sexual assault, and domestic violence. For more information on LACASA, click here, or call (517) 548-1350.