“This is Shoshana. CT shows she had a stroke on Monday, right side affected. Some mobility in extremities. Age 93. Receives nourishment through Zonda, also Lipitor and sedative. Left arm in restraint.”
Behind me, Yocheved the nurse is ending her shift—it’s 11 pm—and giving instructions to another nurse who will finish the night. I sit on a yellow chair looking at my mother on a bed in the Internal Medicine unit of a Jerusalem hospital. I can hear the traffic of passing cars on a busy highway 8 floors down. The lights are dimmed. Night 2 has begun.
I arrived yesterday, was taken from the Tel Aviv airport directly to the hospital by my brother-in-law, and stayed throughout the evening, night, and morning, leaving after the doctors’ visits at noon today. Slept at my sister’s home for 3 hours, showered, brushed teeth, changed clothes, ate, back to hospital for second night vigil.
“I brought you bandages, gauze. Here’s a pink doll, let her hold it [my mother was never into dolls]. This is trash. For the next phase I’m going to get the doctor. He already had his first phase, now he starts the second.”
My mother can’t swallow. They can hydrate her through IV but can’t provide her with nourishment, so they suggest an NG tube, which means inserting a narrow tube through one nostril and down to her stomach. We consult and at first say no, but now I’m on my own at night and I’m not sure. She had a good day yesterday—the physical therapist actually sat her up on a chair and she smiled happily at her granddaughters who came to visit—but she’ll get weaker because she’s had no nourishment for 3 days. And in fact, today she’s weaker.
It’s easy to say. No intrusive procedures from 6,000 miles away; it’s different when you’re right by her bed. We agree to try it, they recommend I leave the room (It’s not pleasant to watch), but I want to see everything they do. She fights it for ten minutes, and then settles down, drops of food descending in tiny bubbles into her frail body blotched with large red and purple bruises. She’s no longer skeletal, she looks like a young, starved boy, fleshless bones obtruding through paper skin between deep, dark cavities.
“I bought her a flower [it’s one green leaf], let her smell it. Here are straws [they fall on the floor]. Now the third phase is starting so I’m going to get the doctor. He’s an American doctor and he’s going to lose his job and he’s going to get drunk and he’s going to get into an accident and he’s going to die and go to hell because he doesn’t help anybody and—”
My mother, with very labored breathing, may be dying in a bed next to a window overlooking southern Jerusalem (see photo), but on the other side of the curtain is Diane (not her real name), a woman in her late 60s, short, rotund, with two flabby, pale cheeks, who can’t stop talking. Surrounded by very sick patients, she herself is full of energy and obsession, unable to lie down, rest, or stay quiet.
Diane takes all the junk off her bed and puts it on our hospital table. I hear her coughing and overhear someone saying she’s under psychiatric care; other than that, I have no idea what she’s doing here except to disturb the peace of the ward. I close up the curtains surrounding the bed, but curtains don’t stop Diane, who walks in, ushering them out of the way.
“The doctor is coming right now, oh he went to other people I’m going to get him do you need tea? Here take this peppermint lozenge and give some to your mother [she can’t swallow] and while you do that I’m bringing you prayers and meditations here are Psalms and there’s a women’s group I know that studies only Song of Songs they’ll do this for her for seven years and—”
1 in the morning, 2 in the morning, 3 in the morning, and I hate Diane worse than anybody in my entire life. CAN’T YOU SHUT UP! I want to yell. My mother may be dying here, can’t you just shut up!
“People are telling me to stop taking the garbage out but nobody’s doing it so I’m doing it and—”
My mother’s breath comes out in a gargle because of the fluid accumulating in her lungs (X-rays reveal she does not have pneumonia) and they suction it off by inserting a tube down her throat for only seconds, against which she struggles, but when they remove it lots of phlegm comes out and her breathing is much drier and clearer.
“I’m going to take a shower and then go to bed but I can’t go to bed because the mattress isn’t right and they gave me the wrong sheets the size is wrong so I’m waiting for sheets the right size and the blanket is also no good and—”
Show some respect, I almost yell at Diane. It’s just our luck to be next to the bed of a complete lunatic! Four o’clock, five o’clock. The first light streams in from the desert and I take a deep breath. What am I doing? My mother can’t hear Diane, I hear her. After all, what’s more mundane than death? People around the world are dying all the time, most without the care my mother gets, and still I want it to be a certain way, quiet, dignified, nice, spiritual. Faced with loss, I want my peace of mind, which this crazy obsessive is busy disturbing. My mother doesn’t care; she’s at some threshold, we don’t know how near or far, and I don’t want too much noise or glare; I want a nice, spiritual end-of-life experience.
I look at the dawn streaming in through the window and press my forehead against the cool windowpane.
“And we’re now in the 7th stage because we’ve already been through 4, 5 and 6 we just had the wrong doctors for that that’s all and I told him to go to hell and he already got there and here is lots of paper for you in case you need it and also coloring crayons and pictures I will draw you a picture and she’ll feel better she’ll love it you need to go to sleep and she will get better and stage 7 now begins but the doctor just went into Room 41 and—”