A daughter’s first Mother’s Day without her mother.
Lisa Martucci-Thibault, a TD Corporate Communications Manager for Social Impact, wrote this story that was originally published in The Star-Ledger.
By Lisa Martucci-Thibault
“I’m not ready,” I confessed to my husband when the early pregnancy test indicated I was carrying a tiny embryo. He had heard me say that repeatedly over the past decade and laughed. Then, I picked up the phone to tell my mother, patiently hoping for this news since my wedding.
She was hardly subtle when I broke the news, “Oh Lisa, this is the best thing you will ever do, I know you will be a wonderful mother and you will love raising a child!”
On Mother’s Day 20 years ago, she was in the room with us as we welcomed our daughter Emily into the world. In fact, as she would often recount, Mom was the first family member to see Emily’s face and I will never forget her reaction: sheer joy. That moment in time -- three generations together for the first time, exhausted, and overcome with emotion -- is conjured up in my memory every Mother’s Day.
This Mother’s Day will be my first without her.
“I’m not ready,” I whispered to my husband after receiving a call from my Mom’s physician explaining that she likely had COVID-19 and was not going to survive. The virus was spreading through long-term care facilities and now visited hers, a small memory care residence. The nine days that followed are a nightmarish blur. Her doctor told me he doubted she would last beyond three to five days. I faced a choice of returning her to my father’s house for hospice or transporting her to the “COVID” unit at the hospital for “comfort care,” a gentle euphemism for end-of-life treatment.
Given my 83-year-old father’s fragile health, pulmonary problems and Type 2 diabetes, we determined the hospital was safer than home hospice.
As another example of how COVID separates us from each other, my only sibling was uncomfortable with the risks of exposure to the virus because his 24-year old son has cystic fibrosis. He would not come to see our Mom in the hospital nor come to see our father, who lives alone.
The hospital prohibited all visitors with two exceptions: end of life and neonatal intensive care. Each visit entailed a thorough screening process just to be allowed into the hospital lobby. After not being able to hold my Mom’s hand for over a month, my Dad broke down and cried, grateful for finally being able to be physically present with her.
After a few days, my mother’s breathing became audibly labored and my father found the visits unbearably painful. So, I went alone and called him from her room, holding my cell phone to her ear so he could talk to her. Without having had any nourishment for over a week, no oxygen, no vent, on the fifth day of her palliative care, my resilient, 79-year-old mother’s fight response kicked into high gear. This would not be a sprint into the good night, she was running the last leg of a marathon.
I arrived each morning and stayed until dark, hating to watch her push herself but also hating to leave her side. Prior to entering her room, I gowned up, covered my head and face with a shield and/or goggles and mask and put on gloves. Alone with my Mom in that isolation room the hours felt more like decades, the excruciating torment of watching someone I loved fighting against an impossible enemy. I played her favorite symphonic and popular music, a hymn she asked to be sung at her memorial service, Dvorak’s “Going Home,” and I read to her, a final reversal of our roles. I lost track of the date and day of the week and felt like a strange intruder when I went back home at night to my husband and daughter.
Nurse and physician visits to my Mom’s room were infrequent, more to check in on how I was doing. They shared my frustration that it took so long to get a morphine drip approved, ordered and set up. Sometimes, a nurse would simply pop her head in the door to ask if she could bring me something to eat or drink or see if I wanted to talk. That’s when I realized that I have never felt both so utterly alone and embraced all at once. These courageous caregivers were anxious, exhausted, emotionally drained and we were bound together in this. One attending physician confided that the hardest part of caring for end of life COVID patients was knowing they would die alone, without a loved one by their side. In this, my Mom was one of the lucky ones.
The day before my Mom died, “Here Comes the Sun” played over the loudspeakers and a nurse, joyfully dancing down the hallway bumped into me as I was putting on my PPE. She explained that the song was being played each time a patient is discharged and goes home.
On the following day, I knew it would be the last time I saw her sweet face, now contorted in a painful expression. A nurse introduced herself to me on my way in and promised to pop in later. My Mom’s breathing grew violent, convulsive. I felt desperate and opened her door just enough to shout “Can someone come check my Mom?” Her nurse and an aide rushed in to check my mother’s vitals. Her blood oxygen was at 63% and her lips were turning blue. She was working harder to get enough oxygen and failing faster. Both hurried out of the room to obtain more morphine.
My Mom’s final breaths were made easier owing to this nurse’s efforts and I held one hand while she held the other and after my Mom’s final exhalation, I broke down sobbing. When I looked up, I saw that this nurse was crying, too. While we waited for a physician to come make the official death pronouncement, we chatted comfortably, crying, laughing and sharing personal anecdotes. She explained that she was from the oncology unit but raised her hand to volunteer to care for patients like my Mom.
I sat for nearly an hour with my Mom before her body was transported to the hospital’s morgue. This would be my last opportunity to say goodbye and to grieve. I drove to my father’s house, feeling as lifeless as my Mom and let him know she was gone. After that, I chose a funeral home and made the other arrangements. I also brought meals to comfort my father, alone at home. This aloneness has been the hardest to understand and accept.
But this was overshadowed by the tidal wave of texts, calls, emails and cards from friends, coworkers and relatives who were sad along with me. Some continue to call, then break down and cry over the pain of losing their oldest friend or fiercely loved cousin. Like my Mom, I have lifelong friends and to say that they have sustained me would be an understatement. Their acts of kindness remind me that while we're unable to gather physically, we are not alone in our grief.
As I began going through my mother’s belongings, I discovered recipes she had typed and placed in nearly every drawer. Several were ones I had asked for but never received because her dementia made recall impossible. Cooking and baking had bound us together, an avocation passed down from her mother. Discovering these recipes, carefully tucked away when her dementia was taking over, trusting that I’d find them, was a way for her to continue taking care of me long after she left. Another act of selfless love that has brought comfort.
No one has been left unscathed by COVID’s broad and cruel strokes. My stream of tears flow into an ocean of tears. On this and future Mothers’ Days, let’s express our gratitude for the brave ones who risked everything to help people like my Mom by practicing kindness, generosity and treating others gently. I will always be grateful for the working heroes who took care of my mother and I’ll never forget the friends who mothered me back into life after losing her. And when we are finally able to hold a celebration of her life, we will dance to “Here Comes the Sun.”