Many worst days…

My writing prompt asks me about the worst day of my life. A day when I lost someone or something dear to me, a day when I came to an unpleasant realization, a day when I experienced a major setback. Well, that leaves me a wealth of territory to explore.

Well, well, well. Let’s see. The first really bad day that comes to mind is the day my mother died, and that day actually started the day before. I had gotten a call from hospice that she was going downhill, and that it was close. I said, quite stupidly, should I come? They, of course, responded in the emphatic affirmative. So, I got a plane ticket and threw some clothes in a carry-on suitcase, and I was on my way.

Looking back at my departure plans, I realize now how much denial I was in, because she had left a very nice dress in my apartment when she’d been here after the hurricane, and if I’d been thinking clearly I would have packed that to bring with me, but I wasn’t thinking rationally. I somehow managed to plan sufficiently to board the dog, and take medications with me. The flight was a red-eye, leaving from Greensboro at 5:45 a.m. the next morning. I somehow managed to be up that morning in time for the trip to the airport, and made it uneventfully there.

I was forgetting everything that morning…and it wasn’t even light out yet. When I parked and shut off the engine, I thought I was all set. I opened the door of the pickup and the lights went out. All the lights in the parking garage suddenly went dark. I thought maybe they’re on a timer and even though it’s not light out, they were set to go off at a particular time and maybe that hadn’t been adjusted for Daylight Saving Time. Or something.

I got the carry-on out of the back seat, and started walking toward the elevator. I pressed the button and leaned on the handle of the carry-on. I was somewhat lost in thought, and realized after a couple of moments the elevator had not come. I did what everyone does when they’re waiting for an elevator, which is to press the button several times in rapid succession, which does nothing to make the car arrive any faster. Still no elevator. OK, the elevator is broken (this has happened before) so I headed to the stairs. On opening the door to the stairwell, I got proof positive that it was not going to be a regular day.

The stairwell was entirely dark, no faint slivers of light, no emergency lighting, just a black pit. Power outage. This had to be a power outage. So, after entertaining a ridiculous thought that I could still make it down the stairs if I went very slowly, I started walking down the ramps of the garage. After a couple of minutes, I made it to street level, and the terminal was only a short distance away. An airport employee was just leaving the terinal, and I mentioned to him that power was out in the parking garage. He looked at me as if I had grown a third head.

“Power is out EVERYWHERE! The whole airport is dark. Look!” and he pointed toward the terminal, which I then stupidly realized had no lit entrance or exit signs, and no lights shining from the inside. He walked on, and I proceeded to the terminal. The automatic doors didn’t open (duh!) so I had to put some weight behind getting inside. Things looked far worse inside, though – no escalators, no elevators, dim lighting, no baggage carousel lighting. I had to get to the floor above for ticketing, and that was going to be a challenge. – not only was my back giving me quite a run for the money, I had the suitcase to ferry. There weren’t very many people wandering around, and the only thing I could see to do was to climb the steps of the stationary escalator.

I started, slowly, climbing one step at a time, then lifting the bag. Another step, dragging the bag up again. It was agonizing, because with every step my back screamed loudly in protest and my legs threatened to give way. After managing to get about a third of the way up the interminable stairway, an airport employee happened by (he was a young guy, and was running up the escalator steps) and asked if I needed help. I said, well, that would be great. He grabbed the bag in one hand and finished running up the steps, totally nonplussed by the additional burden. When I finally got up to the landing, he gave ma a jaunty wave and jogged off, leaving my bag where I could comfortably grab it. By that time I was all but limping, and my entire body was asking why I thought I thought an hour of sleep the night before was a good plan.

As I hustled over to the ticket counter (hustling being a relative term, but I irrationally felt as though I was moving quite rapidly) I was ecstatic to spot a bank of vacant seats in the waiting area. I plopped down heavily on a padded chair, and looked around to see what was what. There were twenty or so airline ground staff gesturing frantically toward each other, and I realized they had no clue what to do, either, because all of the ticket kiosks and their automated systems were down because of the power outage as well. I was early for my flight, so figured I would just wait a minute and recuperate from the long journey from the parking garage to this point.

After a few minutes, one of the ground crew members for my airline stepped into the middle of the pedestrian aisle WITH A BULLHORN and shouted a barely intelligble message about the power outage – there had been an automobile accident that destroyed a power pole somewhere, and that had knocked out power to the airport. We were going to be there for a while, she said, because they could not allow planes to land or take off, TSA was not able to check in passengers, and well, get comfortable and we’ll let you know more as soon as we know more.

Um, you don’t understand, I wanted to scream. My mother is dying. My mother. Dying. You have got to get me out of here as soon as possible. I knew it was serious when the announcer and another employee brought out a snack cart and offered everyone present a free snack, on the airline. The airline NEVER gives passengers anything free, so that scared me into the realizing the hopeless of my situation.

After a little bit, the bull-horn lady came back to scream at us that we could call the airline’s toll-free number to rebook ourselves on later flights, since we’d miss our connecting flights to wherever we might be headed. So, I did that. I waited on hold for four or five minutes, and got a cheery ticket agent who could not seem to understand why I was trying to reschedule a flight that had not left yet. (I had told her that I was at the airport). I kept repeating that my flight was not going to depart, according to her ground crew colleagues, and she was having a hard time with that, until I said…do you have any idea what’s happening with this airport? She said that she had no notices or alerts, and I broke the news to her that the entire airport was closed. She began to yell to people nearby that Greensboro NC airport was shut down, did they know? Nobody knew. I was their notification advisory, which I found hilarious in that macabre way that you find something funny while you’re in a situation so dire that you aren’t sure anything can ever be funny again.

I got booked on another flight, with another connection in Charlotte, and it looked as though I would only be delayed by a couple of hours, provided the Greensboro airport opened at some point soon After I hung up, I still needed to get a physical boarding pass, and by this time, the airport ground crew had instructed everyone to line up and they would be printing tickets manually. I did not realize that printing manual tickets was even more hilarious that being the person to instruct the airline that our airport was closed.

So, into the line I go. My back was not in good shape, and I started feeling a little light-headed. The line was moving so slowly that progress was imperceptible. It took upward of five minutes per passenger to print a single ticket. The sun was up, and the line was growing incrementally by ten or fifteen people every couple of minutes. I had to reind myself that I was not the one dying, it was my mother.

While I was at the airport, hospice called again to report that “her secretions have increased and her heart rate is low”. I didn’t know what that meant, but I knew it wasn’t good, that she was getting close to leaving. I felt hopeless, and invisible, and very small. Nobody knew what was happening, that my world was coming to an end, and I wasn’t there. I wasn’t there. Don’t you people understand?

Of course they didn’t understand, and they didn’t understand how much pain I was in just then, both emotionally and physically. My back was on the verge of unzipping itself from the rest of my body and abandoning ship, and my mother was dying. I thought back to the day after my grandmother died, and if I remember correctly, my aunt barely made it to the hospital before she took her last breath. I knew that was important, and I was inanely trying to send telepathic messages to my mother…I’m coming. I’m coming as fast as I can, but I can’t get these stupid people to move any faster. I began to sob in the line, mostly silently, but my shoulders heaved and I had no tissue and I was noisily snorting through my tears like a barnyard sow.

Nobody said anything to me. I tried to ask some pre-pubescent airline employee if he could please help me, and assist me in getting the first possible flight out of Greensboro. I told him the entire story of why I needed that assistance, and he calmly stated airline talking points about how the unexpected can happen, affecting everyone equally, and they are doing the best they can to get everyone moving and blah blah and blah. He seemed to be somewhat annoyed that I had called him over for such a ridiculous thing.

I was so defeated that I hadn’t gotten angry over this situation until I realized they were letting first-class passengers bypass the line and walk right up to the ticket counter. That pissed me the eff off, which could have been merciful because I stopped crying. Well, I stopped the snorting but tears were still flowing. At just that point, nearing the last turn before I finally got to see the wizard (the ticket agent), I muttered, to no one in particular, “I don’t even believe this – they are still honoring first class boarding in the middle of THIS disaster!” The nice man in front of me turned around and looked coldly at me, and said, “Hey, I know you’re upset, but everybody is upset, and they will get to us as soon as they can. So…just be patient.”

I found my anger. All the tears dried up in a flash, and I think my eyes must have flashed bright red because he turned away from me and we had no further contact. I think I said, “Thank you so much for your understanding. My mother is dying NOW AS WE SPEAK, but that’s so much for you consideration.” I didn’t shout, but I spoke clearly and distinctly. We did not make any further contact, thank goodness. From somewhere behind me, I heard my mother chuckling. and clicking her tongue at him in disgust.

Finally, I got the dang ticket, finally I staggered toward TSA, and after another wait FINALLY I was on board a plane bound for Charlotte. From there my next stop would be New Orleans, and right off to hospice. I was beside myself, but I wasn’t crying and I was fully aware of where I was and what was happening. I had not eaten or drunk a single thing and byt the time I got to Charlotte, it was after 1pm. I still had another 90 minutes or so before the flight to New Orleans, but I was lost in my own thoughts, or maybe my mother’s thoughts, I don’t know. I didn’t want to eat anything lest it upset my stomach, or drink anything lest it send me running for the bathroom on the plane, so I sat there. I tried to call a couple of people in New Orleans but didn’t connect, which in retrospect was fine. I don’t know what I would have wanted them to do, because there wasn’t anything anyone could do.

I made it to New Orleans at some point after 4pm, and was frantic to get the rental car and head to hospice. But, just then, I had to urgently use a restroom, in spite of my hunger strike, and figured I had no choice but to head off to the hotel (which was within a couple miles of the airport), take care of bodily function, and then head off to hospice. It also wasn’t very far from the hotel. In less than 30 minutes, I was heading off for what I was still not admitting would be saying goodbye to my mother.

When I got to hospice, I must have looked like a crazy person, barrelling out of the elevator and nearly crashing into the nurse’s station. They recognized me, and I managed to stammer out that I was going to Room 408. One of the nurses got up and followed me, introducing himself along the way. “My name is Joe-nn (which if you’re not from New Orleans you would recognize as “John”. ). We entered the room together, and…there she was. Her breathing was labored, because she had pneumonia. It was far worse than when I had been there a week before. Her chest rose and fell noisily, and I wasn’t sure if that was the death rattle people spoke of. The nurse didn’t seem terribly panic-stricken about it, so I sat down in the guest chair, and he and I chatted for a time. We started joking about absurd things, like the Saints and traffic and I was telling him about the airport debacle. We talked for a good half-hour, then he went back to the desk and I was left along with my mother.

I knew what I was supposed to do, but I did not want to do it. I was still in some kind of denial, even though I was saying all the right things. I had asked John about whether she had received last rites, and he said the priest had been there and did an all-in-one thing. Um, what? I was raised Catholic, I told him, and I don’t remember an “all-in-one thing” when someone is dying. Please ask him if he gave her last rights. That is important to her.” But here I was, in there alone with her, and her noisy breathing. She looked like a small child buried in the mountain of clean white sheets and blankets. She was not a large woman on a good day, and had lost a good deal of weight as she had declined over the past few weeks.

I stood next to the bed rail, and looked down at her, and I had “the Talk”. I told her what was on my heart, and there was a lot. I told her that I was grateful for everything she’d done, and that without her, on so many levels, I wouldn’t be here. I told her I was glad she had taught me music (as terror-filled as those days on the piano bench had been) and gotten me into good schools. I told her I was sorry I had worried her, that I wished we hadn’t had so much dissention. Told her that I was happy for all that time it was just her and me, and that I was OK. I told her several times…I’m OK. You don’t need to stay here for me, because I’m OK. You go and do what you need to do, and if you need to go, you can go.

I don’t know where those words came from, but I said what came to me. She could not respond, but I did not doubt that she heard me. The denial was still kicking in, thought, because I was suddenly very, very tired and thinking I would come back first thing in the morning and sit with her all day, until it happened. John came back into the room to check on me (probably more to check on her) and I told him look, I’m going to go and get something to eat, and I’ll be back – I haven’t eaten anything since yesterday and I’m feeling a little low, so I’ll be back. In my mind, I was still thinking tomorrow morning, but that was fine. So, on my way out of the room, I looked back and told my mother, “Now look, don’t you go and do anything silly. OK, no – wait – I take that back. You do whatever you need to do, but I will be back.”

That was the last time I saw my mother alive. I was on my way to a restaurant just down the road from the hospice, and maybe 15 minutes had passed. My cell phone rang, and I looked at the incoming number and realized it was hospice. I thought maybe I had forgotten something, or they needed to ask me something, and it was John. He said some words that I can’t really remember, but somewhere in all the consonants I heard something that made me say “You mean she’s GONE?” He said yes, she passed a few minute ago, and the doctor pronounced her. ” I repeated stupidly, “Wait, she’s GONE?” He said very simply, yes ma’am. She’s gone. I told him I was coming back, and I made an illegal u-turn and headed back to hospice.

I don’t know why I presumed that I should be in a hurry to get back. I knew that I was going to see a still, quiet body but I had to see it. When I walked in, John was on the phone, but he grasped my hand and held it. I couldn’t feel it. He whispered that he was on the phone with the funeral home, to come and transport her. I just nodded. Not crying, not really feeling anything. After a minute, he hung up and asked me if I was going into the room, and did I need anything. I said yes, but I will only be a minute, and I don’t want to be here when the funeral home comes to get her. He nodded, and I walked down the hall to Room 408 for the last time.

And there she was, as I’d imagined, still and quiet in her distinctive tiney-ness. For some reason I was afraid to touch her, didn’t want to feel the cooling flesh, didn’t want to know there was no longer any life remaining under her skin. She had always been larger than life, and I didn’t want to feel there was nothing there. I said, out loud, that I would take care of everything. In my mind, I was thinking I was going to make sure she got home, back to Lake Charles, and that I would make sure that happened. For some reason, I felt likke she was still near. I said again that she need not worry, I would take care of everything. Then I left.

On the way out, I ran into John again, and he told me that he had gotten the priest to come back, and that she had received last rites before she died. I was grateful for that, because I knew she was grateful for that. I asked John if it had been peaceful, when she died, and he kind of looked down and said, “Mostly.” I think I understood, and I said “She didn’t want me here.” John said, no, don’t think like that…but I cut him off. I said she didn’t want me to have to see that, didn’t want me to have to experience what she went through with her mother at the last moments. He nodded, and I left. I left alone. As I knew I would.

I’ve taken such a large amount of time and words recalling this, and writing out this account, that maybe it truly was the worst day of my life. I don’t know. I suppose there is still room for me to have a worse day, but that one was pretty horrendous. I look back on it and marvel on the whole airport closure and the protracted journey to get to her, and think, “Really, mommy? Was all that drama really necessary?”

I suppose every second, every minute of her whole life was entirely necessary. There’s nothing in either or our lives that could be omitted or changed that would have me sitting right here, right now. I have regrets, but somewhere deep inside I know that it was all necessary, no matter how absurd, no matter how painful. All of it to get me to this time, and this place. I told everyone I could find that when it was the last breath, my mother was going to do it exactly as she wanted to, and it would all be on her own terms. And so it was. She left here when she was damned well ready to go, and how she wanted to, and I tried to not get in her way. It was her journey, not mine, and what a ride it was.

So, when I started writing about this, I was thinking I’d have a bunch of “worst days” to recount, but I really don’t. This is enough. More than enough. I knew that I would never be the same after that day, although I have been alternately angry and sad that I wasn’t there for the last breath, when she slipped away. But that was not in the plan, so I accept that.

One final thing about this really very bad day in my life, though. It wasn’t quite over…I went back to the hotel, posted about her death on FaceBook (it seemed like the only thing to do at the time) and fell into the hotel bed and slept like I was the one who had died. The next morning, it seemed unnaturally bright, but I got up and got coffee, then headed to her bank. In my mind, I only wanted to tell the nice lady who’d been so helpful to bother my mother and me that she had died. I found that woman, and broke the news. She hugged me, and said how sorry she was, and how nice a lady my mother was. I thanked her profusely. Then she said, almost furtively, looking me in the eye…do you need to cash a check? I said no, you had told me that as of when she died, my power of attorney for her accounts would end, so I know I can’t do that. She got even closer to me, and said, sotto voce, “Anybody else know she’s dead?” I said not here, it just happened last night about 6-ish. She said hurry up and right a check, and I’ll cash it. So I did. I wrote a check for $10k because I knew I had to finish paying the funeral home and the cemetery in Lake Charles. The tellers counted out $10k IN CASH to me, put it in a bank envelope, and sent me on my way.

I’m in a high crime city with $10k in cash – what the eff am I supposed to do with THIS? Well, I went immediately to the funeral home, and told them I needed to settle up the account, so we did that. I counted out close to $7k in cash to the funeral director as though it was a drug deal, in an office with light streaming through windows that looked out on streets in the historic Treme’ section of town, cars driving idly by on their way to somewhere. Again, i had the urge to laugh in some weird and maniacal way, because it was so absurd.

After I left the funeral home, I finally went for a meal, and paid no attention to being what was going on around me. Later, I would connect with a friend and we laughed about motherisms (he knew my mother, and she said he was a nice boy). She didn’t even know that he helped out with her delinquent water bill when she lost the ability to pay it, as the dementia was taking hold. The water had been cut off, but she argued that it was still on. He was able to intervene and have the account restore because he worked at that agency – I paid him back, but he saved me inordinate amounts of time navigating that because I was 800 miles away and my mother was no longer capable of doing that herself.

I didn’t cry any more that day, or the next. After the funeral a couple of days later, the funeral home drove me and a cousin toe Lake Charles to inter he in a mausoleum crypt. I had another pseudo-drug deal transaction on the tailgate of the hearse (I am not exaggerating) where I counted out nearly the remainer of that $10k in cash that I had gotten from the bank. When the cemetery administrator had counted the cash twice, she relinquished her position at the tailgate, and the funeral home staff unloaded the coffin. We marched solemnly – well, I did anyway – over the the mausoleum and a cemetery sextant got the vessel onto a ladder cart, and lifted her up to her final resting place. As the casket slid inside, I felt empty. I made it over to the older side of the cemetery, where my grandmother, great aunts, and great grand-parents are interred and let them know she had come home.

Then, we all drove off. The funeral home took my cousin and me out to a nice lunch, and then it was done. They dropped me back at the funeral home, where the rental car was parked, and I went back to the hotel. I took a long nap, then went out to eat with some other cousins. I lost the rental car on my way out of that restaurant, and fell down on the sidewalk in the dark trying to find it. I ripped up the heel of my hand a good bit, but not to worry – picked up some Neosporin and bandaids on the way back to the hotel. I slept, heavily, and when I woke up the next morning, it was again unnaturally bright outside. Well, that was because it was almost 9am. My flight back to NC was at 5:45am. I called to rebook the flight, which cost me $545, and got a later departure. Called the kennel to say I would pick up the dog the next morning, but managed to get out of New Orleans withou any further mishaps.

Really, mommy? Seriously? Yes, really, you silly girl. Really.

Death is a second, a moment, a lifetime.

Published by annzimmerman

I am Louisiana born and bred, now living in Winston Salem, North Carolina. Fortunately for me, I was already living in NC before Hurricane Katrina decimated my beloved New Orleans. An only child, I now feel that I have no personal history since the hurricane destroyed the relics and artifacts of my childhood. As I have always heard, c'est la vie. My Louisiana roots show in my love of good coffee, good food, and good music. My soggy native soil has also shown me that resilience is hard-wired in my consciousness; when the chips are down (or drowned)...bring it on.

2 thoughts on “Many worst days…

    1. Thanks. It’s been more than 3 years now, but some days it feels like today. Circle of life and all that stuff…I am just glad I can feel things today. Spent quite a while being numb when I was younger, and that’s much worse.

      Liked by 1 person

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