Tuesday, October 12, 2010

In the Presence of Angels


Three weeks ago I awoke to find 6-year-old Mary Ashley standing beside my bed, her face inches from mine: "I threw up."
I cast a weary glance at the clock. It was barely 6 a.m. Mary Ashley said she got sick during the night but made it to the bathroom in time. I reminded her to wake me anytime she is sick and sent her back to bed to get some extra rest.
I nestled further into my cocoon of blankets, hoping we were not in for a stomach virus, but thankful momentarily not to have to get out of bed to fix Mary Ashley's hair for school. I shut my eyes tight, memories of the last few days filling my mind as I drifted back to sleep.
The Saturday before had been full, with friends, football and family time. The day was winding down, and it was nearly bedtime when the call came. Mother was in ICU on life support, and doctors didn't think she would make it through the night.

With tears streaming down my face, I rushed into Mary Ashley's room and told the girls to put their pajamas away. When I told them Meme was seriously ill, Mary Ashley cried, "Oh, Mommy, we need to pray right now!" Immediately she folded her little hands and led us in a prayer, asking God to take care of Meme. Joe told the boys the dismal news as we quickly dressed to leave.

I stepped into the bathroom to comb my hair, then remembered the children would need to rest on the drive. "Everyone grab a pillow and blanket for the trip!" I called as I rounded the corner to the family room, where the children were gathered.

"We were praying, Mom," 8-year-old Christian said as they lifted their heads.

The children rushed to my side, wrapping their arms around me in a tearful embrace, and I asked Christian to lead us in prayer. He looked up at me and nodded, his big blue eyes solemn as tears trickled down his cheeks. Pressing his face into my side, he said a prayer I will never forget:

Dear God,
Please be with Meme and D-Dad, and the pain each of them is going through tonight.
In Jesus' name,

Within a few minutes we were ready to go, and I stepped out into the night. The children filed out the door, each clutching a pillow and blanket -- their mournful whimpers piercing the darkness as we headed to the van. Buckled in with pillows and blankets, the children fell asleep as we drove out of town.

Joe sped us through country roads, winding our way toward the hospital some two hours away. I cried most of the way, my heart breaking for my father. I have never seen a married couple more devoted to each other than my parents. High-school sweethearts who were married nearly 40 years, they spent most of their waking moments together. Daddy always doted on Mother -- especially during the last months of her life. After visiting Mother in the hospital after her stem cell transplant this summer, my sister, Jennifer, tearfully recounted stories of Daddy's tenderness toward Mother in the intensive care unit. Jennifer said Daddy would stand by Mother's bedside for hours on end, holding her hand, fanning her -- doing anything within his power to ease her suffering as she lay motionless on a ventilator. As much as I did not want to say goodbye to my mother, I could not bear the thought of my father losing the love of his life.

On our way out of town I made a frantic phone call to my friend Missy, who has organized a prayer group for the ladies of our church. Through my tears, I asked her to share the news, specifically asking everyone to pray that we would make it to the hospital before Mother passed. It was very important to me to be with her in her final moments. In fact, the most difficult moments of the summer came when I feared we would lose her after my back surgery. Despite my best efforts to remain calm, a floodgate of emotions burst forth one day as Mother teetered between life and death following her transplant. A single tear gave way to great heaving sobs as I lay helpless in my bed in Alabama while Mother faced life-threatening complications in the hospital in Utah.

When Mother finally made it home, I drove to Oxford, Ala., on a trail of tears, so happy to reunite with my parents. When I entered their house, I stopped in the kitchen to drop cupcakes, flowers and a birthday gift on the counter. I followed the oxygen tubing trailing into the family room and found Mother sitting on the sofa. She stood slowly as I entered the room. Overcome with emotion, I rushed to her side, nearly choking on my words as I hugged her. "Thank you for coming home!" I cried. "I was so afraid I would not get to see you again."

Mother was so frail from all she had endured, but she gave me a sweet, gentle smile. "I want ... my grandchildren ... to remember me," she said between labored breaths. I apologized to Mother for not visiting her in Salt Lake City, but she assured me that she knew it was not physically possible for me to be there. What treasured memories we made during that visit! Thinking back to that precious reunion, I pleaded silently, "Dear God, please let me make it to the hospital in time."

We reached the hospital around midnight, where we were greeted by other family members who had gathered in the ICU waiting room to support my dad. The news was better at this hour. Mother was still on the ventilator, but her vital signs had improved. We were able to go back to ICU, a couple of people at a time, to visit her. I wanted to linger at her bedside, but her vital signs indicated that she was distressed by our presence. The nurse said that sometimes patients have more difficulty resting when their family members visit because they want to talk or respond. Knowing Mother had spent a sleepless night in the hospital the night before, we stood quietly in the corner for a while, then reluctantly left her bedside so she could rest. Joe and I returned to the ICU waiting room for a while, but ultimately decided to return home as Mother's vital signs stabilized.

We arrived home around 5 a.m. Sunday, exhausted and heads throbbing from the tumultuous night. I took a Tylenol P.M. that morning and slept off and on most of the day.

Mother was still on life support Sunday and Monday, but her vital signs were stable. She was sedated, and doctors told us her condition could go either way. She had faced such difficult odds time and time again through the summer that it seemed likely that within a few days she would open her eyes, astonishing medical personnel once again with her positive attitude and quiet strength. Yet we also knew that her body had been through so much, and myriad complications compounded the trauma to her vital systems. My sister, brother and I began rearranging plans and settling details so we could join my father at the hospital.

Mary Ashley's Tuesday morning stomach upset turned out not to be a stomach virus, but the extra rest her sick day afforded me was a blessing. My dad called later that morning with grim news. When Mother's doctor removed the sedation that morning, nurses had not been able to rouse her. Mother's eyes would not dilate, and she gave no response to pain. The doctor had scheduled an EEG for that afternoon and a follow-up test the next day. The oncologist wanted to give Mother every chance to come out of the sedation, but she warned Daddy that by Wednesday it might be time to make a decision about life support.

I made arrangements to leave as soon as Joe came in from work that afternoon and drove out of town with my heart breaking. I thought back to the many times I had made this trip to visit my parents over the years, and I sobbed realizing that this time I was driving up to say goodbye. The anguish was so great I did not know if I could safely make the trip alone.

By God's grace, I did make it to the hospital and found the ICU waiting room full of family. Standing in the center of the room I saw my dad holding our family's newest addition, my 2-month-old nephew, Jonathan. Daddy talked to Jonathan in hushed tones as my sister stood nearby. Jonathan looked up adoringly at his D-Dad, cooing and trying so hard to talk. This portrait of grandfather and grandson was so poignant -- the moment so precious -- that Jennifer and I stood by silently for a bit before either of us spoke.

I exchanged hugs with family members and took a seat in the waiting room until we were allowed to visit Mother in ICU. Finally, a nurse came for us, and our immediate family went back. The nurse compassionately updated us on Mother's condition, citing signs that her body was shutting down. She told us we could stay as long as we wanted to and unlocked a smaller waiting room for our privacy.

Jennifer, Nathan and I clung to each other and our father as we stood around our mother's bed. Jennifer mentioned the panic her 2-year-old daughter expresses when she notices that Jennifer has left the room. "Mommy! Mommy! Where are you?" Jennifer said she felt like crying in this moment.

We said little as we gathered together, offering quiet words of love and thanks as we held Mother's hands. I stroked her palm with my finger, remembering how her tickling my hand soothed me as a little girl in church. It felt so strange to hold her hand and not feel a reassuring squeeze back, but I hoped our presence would bring comfort to her final hours.

Nathan's wife, Shana, joined us and we asked an elder from my parents' church to lead prayer with us. We lingered at Mother's bedside for a while. With a second EEG scheduled for the next day and another potentially long day at the hospital, Jennifer and Shana decided to take the babies home to my parents' house for the night. Daddy suggested we return to the waiting room to say goodnight to the family and friends still gathered, so we stepped out to see everyone off before heading back to the ICU.

After we said our goodbyes, Nathan and I sunk into waiting room chairs beside our dad. We sat there for a few minutes talking, when suddenly a nurse rushed past us. She looked for us in the private waiting room, and saw us in the general ICU waiting room when she turned around. "You need to come now," she said. "Something just happened."

We rose quickly and followed her to Mother's bedside. I felt relieved when I looked at the bottom corner of the monitor and saw activity, but my heart lurched when I looked up at the other numbers and saw 0, 0, 0. Flat lines. Zero activity. I was so overwrought I dropped my purse on the floor, rushed to her side and cried, "No! I didn't want her to be alone!"

As we took her hands, the nurse gasped as Mother's vital signs jumped back up.

"I have never seen that before," the nurse said in disbelief. "Somebody was listening."

Daddy, Nathan and I stayed at Mother's side as her vital signs slowed, gradually fading until she was gone from this life. And in that precious moment, grief was swallowed up in wonder that this sweet, godly woman is now safe in the arms of Jesus. My heart was full of gratitude that God had given her to us in the first place.

I left the hospital that night thankful that God answered my prayer, granting me the privilege of being by Mother's side when she passed from this life. And comforted beyond measure to know that even when her time on earth was complete, Mother was willing to turn back for a moment just to make sure her family would be OK -- a final act of mothering to last our whole lives through.

A gentle wind blew cross the land
Reaching out to take a hand
For on the winds the angels came
Calling out a mother's name
Left behind, the children's tears
Loving memories of the years
Of joy and love, a life well spent
And now to God a mother's sent
-- Tim Chambers
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