In and out. In and out. Gasping. Rasping. In and out. The sound of my mother’s breathing broke the silence of the hospital room. I shivered and pulled the chair closer to her bed. Her room was always freezing. I understood the reason. Cold keeps the germs at bay. But it was already difficult to sleep through the night in her room.
She was awake. I knew it without even looking at her. Her breathing changed. That rough, rhythmic pattern was replaced by wet gurgling. With mixed feelings, I paged the ICU nurse. Someone entered the room, took one look at my mother struggling for air, and briskly slipped on a pair of gloves. “Okay, I’m going to suction you,” the nurse said calmly, and adjusted the dials on the tubes that traveled down my mother’s trachea.
I cringed as my mother turned her gaze to me. Her brown eyes welled up with tears as she gagged. I held my mother’s hand and looked away through my own tears. I hated this. Watching her get suctioned felt like a punch in the stomach. I felt like retching myself. I hated feeling so God damn helpless. There was nothing I could do to ease my mother’s pain. All I could do was sit beside her and hold her hand as the nurse vacuumed the thick mucus that was slowly suffocating the life out of her. It was just part of life on the ventilator.
After the nurse finished, my mother’s breathing returned to its former rhythm. In and out. In and out. Gasping. Rasping. In and out. Both of us knew that it would only be a matter of time before the mucus accumulated and I would have to call the nurse. Again. But until then, we tried to get some rest.
I’m not sure how she did it, but my mother actually fell back to sleep. Maybe it was a side effect from her medications. And there were plenty of them. I created a spreadsheet to track all of them. Actually, I created color-coded spreadsheets to track everything about her case. Blue was for medication. Green was for physical, occupational and speech therapies. Yellow was for hygiene and miscellaneous items. And Pink was for tracking meals and feeding tube maintenance. It was the only thing I could do that gave me some sense of control. But the truth was that I really had no control. None of us did. We were fighting against nature and losing.
After watching my mother’s chest rise and fall for half an hour, I finally felt comfortable enough to close my eyes. But sleep didn’t come easily to me that night. Between the rock hard chair and the bone-chilling cold, I had a rough time getting any sleep in the hospital room. The moment I drifted off, my mother’s liquid coughing woke me. Two more rounds of suctioning, followed by intercepting my mother’s team of doctors as the stopped by her room for their morning rounds. After grilling them and filling in my spreadsheets, I had one hour to sleep before my father arrived for the “day shift.” But another problem prevented me from napping.
I started cramping.
After several years of marriage, my husband and I finally decided that our wait was over. We wanted to be parents. At thirty-six years old, my odds of having a healthy pregnancy were decreasing with each passing day. Despite my mother’s illness, I couldn’t put off having children any longer. We had to try.
The cramps grew worse. It felt like someone was ripping out the walls of my uterus. I gritted my teeth and swore that I would see a doctor about them after I left the hospital. The moment my father arrived, I kissed my mother on the cheek and hurried out of the room.
Once I walked down the hall, I felt something wet trickle down my leg. I ran to the bathroom and saw that it was blood. In tears, I called my husband and told him to meet me in the ER at the hospital. I was almost seven weeks along. I stepped into the elevator and headed downstairs to ground level. The receptionist immediately made me sit down in a wheelchair and an orderly whisked me off to a room where I began the slow process of losing the baby.
It continued through the day. I was grateful that it ended in time for me to return to my mother’s bedside the following evening. I was devastated, but I couldn’t afford to indulge myself with the luxury of mourning. My mother needed me. I said nothing to her or my father, but I felt like dying inside.
People have asked me how I did it. How did I push down my own sorrow to be there for my parents? I don’t know the answer to that question. I don’t claim to have more strength or resilience than the next person does. I’m not looking for a pat on the back for something that I think anyone else in my situation would have done. I am writing this for people who are going through the most painful experience of their lives. My hope is that you will find comfort in knowing that you aren’t alone. You will find the strength from someplace within and get through whatever brought you to your knees. The source of that strength may be your faith. It may be your family, or it may be something completely different. But that strength will rise up and carry you through every painful minute of every painful day. And you will do what needs to be done. I have faith in that. And I have faith in you.