The sentence lay there leaden in the air as if it were an embarrassment that no one wanted to acknowledge. The four people sitting around the table did not make eye contact and all that could be heard was the ever present din of commotion in the rest of the hospital.
The grief counselor said “Your mother will not recover from this infection and will probably die in a few days.” Even though Kevin knew this news long before he and his wife were ushered into this special conference room it still hit him like a hammer blow. The intern sat there almost annoyed, undoubtedly he had other things to take care of and this interruption of consoling a family was a bother and a bore. He wished it were not a requirement, but he was the attending physician and was duty bound to be at this meeting.
“How long?” Barbara asked in almost a whisper. A certain reverence in her tone of voice was present, as if Kevin’s mother was in the room and might overhear. The room was standard issue for the hospital. It was somber beige with burgundy accents. Oak conference table that could seat eight with a few side chairs which could be pulled up if needed. There was a long side table with pamphlets displaying programs for organ donation, hospice care, nursing homes and visiting nurse programs. The wall had paintings that would have looked at home in a Holiday Inn.
The grief counselor was a young woman in her thirties. She had studied to be a social worker but put that aside for a few years while her youngest was still at home. This part time job got her out of the house 3 evenings a week. She enjoyed the break from being a homemaker. On nights like this where she had to guide a family away from hope she wished she had never taken this job, it made her jaded and numb to her own feelings and she could sense it affecting her relationship with her husband and her baby. A few more years she thought and then she could return to grad school and help people to live instead of this hit and run counseling she was doing here.
Doctor Tanner cleared his throat as he thumbed through a chart “The pneumonia has spread to the left lung and as you know your mother has refused any further treatment. We expect that due to her advanced age and the quickness with which the pneumonia is advancing Mrs. Mueller will pass in 2, perhaps 3 days.” Kevin was frustrated that no one would look him in the eye, other than Barbara. She was the only one who seemed to keep a level head. She had lost her parents before they married and certainly had been through all this. She also had this strength of character that occasionally showed through that veneer of suburban composure. He needed that now as he fought to hear what he had just been told and the hunger to keep the order of his world unchanged.
Kevin was slightly surprised when the grief counselor said “Perhaps you two would like to take some time to discuss your options. If you will permit me, I will contact your minister as well as the make an appointment with the funeral home of your choice for tomorrow morning. If you need anything, I’ll be in my office.” It was just another of orphaned statements that hung in the air like an awful joke that you couldn’t forget. She and Doctor feigned weak smiles and awkwardly excused themselves leaving Kevin and Barbra alone with their thoughts and the room full of brochures.
The two of then sat in that conference room listening to themselves breathe. For an instant Kevin felt guilty that he could breathe so easily when just down the hall lay his 85 year old mother struggling for each of her breaths. He stood there that night after sending Barbara home just watching her comatose body struggling and fighting to fill her lungs. He knew that her fail form would soon lose this battle and she would struggle no more. Leaving the hospital in that vacant time before dawn he could not escape his own thoughts. The streets were empty and each street lamp he passed under illuminated not the road but the inescapable reality that in a few short days his mother would be gone and he would be more alone than he would ever be on this deserted drive home.
The following two days were an absurd mix of routine activities and the nightmarish reality of making final arrangements with the funeral home. He thanked God that a few years ago He and Mom had discussed her final wishes though now he realized that they should have been discussed in far greater detail then they had been. He screamed inside at the minutiae of selecting bronze over pewter or any of the thousand other decisions that needed to be made. He also knew that he and Barbara were being skillfully manipulated by everyone from Doctor Tanner down to the funeral director. If he weren’t weary to the point of exhaustion he would rail against it. One look into Barbara’s eyes and he knew that she understood what he was thinking and her soft look seemed to say that it was okay, let these people guide us through this. What Kevin dreaded most was picking up the phone and calling his daughters to tell them the news and to be prepared to return for their grandmother’s funeral.
Jean and Kelly were sharing an apartment in New York City, Jean was working for a small neighborhood newspaper as a feature writer and Kelly had followed her boyfriend to New York where she was dumped after a few months and moved in with her big sister. Kevin slept better knowing that the girls were together. He would have slept better if the girls were still at home but was happy that they were flexing their new found adulthood. “Jeanie, its Dad.” Kevin could tell his voice trembled slightly. Hearing Jeanie’s voice felt so good, he wished he could reach out and hold on to his daughter. He was feeling adrift and despite Barbara’s best efforts he needed the consolation of his daughters to help him through.
“Jeanie, Grandma took a turn for the worse yesterday and the doctors don’t think she’ll live through the weekend.”
“We took her to the emergency room Sunday. She was too weak to walk and was coughing up some blood. They admitted her right away and last night we were told not to expect her to recover.”
“Your mom and I have made arrangements with the funeral home. I’ll call the airline and have tickets for you and Kelly ready as soon as.” Kevin choked on the rest of the sentence and was unable to finish. He slumped into his chair and held the phone in his lap.
“Jeanie, honey,” Kevin said after regaining his composure. “Your mom or I will call you when it’s time. I love you honey, tell Kelly that I love her too.”
Okay, I will. Your mom wants to talk to you’” Kevin handed the phone to Barbara and he headed out the kitchen door into the sunshine.
Barbara Mueller had been married to Kevin for 32 years and in that time their relationship has endured a kitchen fire, Kelly’s addiction to cocaine, unemployment and Barbara’s affair 20 years ago. They met in Paris. She was 18, on vacation with her parents after graduating high school. They were there to visit the Louvre and Notre Dame Cathedral. Kevin was touring Europe on a Eurail pass between his junior and senior year of college. They met by chance in the lobby of Barbara’s hotel, held hands in front of the Mona Lisa, and had their first kiss on the Eiffel Tower. They married after her graduation from college when Kevin had just started grad school. Despite their best efforts they were never able to recapture the Paris experience. It took effort, but theirs was a loving marriage, it lacked the joy she always expected would be there. Barbara thought about her parents deaths. Dad died suddenly the year before she married Kevin when the two were on vacation in Mexico. After 33 years she still missed the “Old Man” as he used to refer to himself. Mom died shortly after Paris. Barbara didn’t know it at the time but her mom was dying of breast cancer and that vacation had been her Mom’s last hurrah.
“Hi Honey”, Barbara said trying not to sound tired.
“Mom, Kelly and I can come home right away. I just need to call the paper and tell them that I have to have the next two weeks off, and I’m sure Kelly isn’t doing anything important. She’s still hasn’t found a job.” Jean spoke with a rapid fire delivery as if time were too precious to only do one thing at a time. Barbara couldn’t remember the last time Jean wasn’t trying to do three things at once. She was well suited to her multi-tasking lifestyle she was leading.
“Jean, we don’t want you to do that and knowing grandma she wouldn’t want you to do that either. The doctors told us that it’s still a day or two away, and grandma is in a coma and wouldn’t know if you were here or not. Don’t interrupt your lives simply to sit around the waiting room. We’ll be fine.” Barbara was unaware but Elsie Muller’s stoic nature had rubbed off on her. Later, when she thought about it, she would have preferred to have her daughters nearby to comfort her, but by then it was too late and she’d feel foolish reversing herself.
“Mom, we’re not coming home to comfort Grandma, we’re coming home to comfort you and Dad. How’s he taking it?”
“Not good Honey, He’s not talking about it much and I can tell he’s bottling it up inside. It has to be hard on him, his dad died when he was five and Grandma was the only family he has.” From Barbara’s perspective Kevin’s relationship with his mother was standard fare but getting him to talk about it was nearly impossible. All she could do was be receptive to him and give Kevin the space to share his grief – when he was ready.
“Can I talk with Dad again?” Jean asked.
“Sorry Honey, he’s stepped out of the house. Why don’t you call back this evening when Kelly is home and the four of us can talk some more, okay?”
“Okay Mom, we will, but I’d rather be on a plane this evening instead of on the phone”
Barbara hung up the phone and for a few moments watched Kevin through the kitchen window as he was certainly lost in his thoughts boring holes in the lawn with his eyes. With her parents death she had been able to throw her grief at Kevin’s and he was to console and comfort her. She was able to intuit what Kevin was thinking and feeling but as long as he kept her at arm’s length she was unable to give any comfort to him. She thought of Paris and the man she fell in love with and this man that was in the backyard. There was a resemblance and at times they were one in the same man. She wondered if she were the same woman Kevin had fallen in love with under the Eiffel Tower.
The following morning Kevin got up at 5:00 am and found himself in front of the bathroom mirror. He saw himself for the first time in ages. There were bags under his eyes, his chin hung low and was beginning to show wrinkles. A man of 55 who once took care of himself, he now saw the years upon him and he recognized that eventually, like his mother, his time would come. He shook off that feeling the same way he shook off his dream of one day playing the guitar. There simply isn’t enough time in his busy life for flights of fancy of self indulgences. “Why the hell not?” he said to the craggy face in the mirror. “What am I waiting for, a heart attack to wake me out of my malaise?” Kevin began to curse the endless hours working behind his desk and the vacations delayed and his dream of playing “Stairway to heaven” on an electrical guitar. He heard his mother’s voice over the years questioning his decisions about his climb up the corporate ladder. She knew what he was sacrificing and it pissed Kevin off that he didn’t know until now.
There was a 1:00 pm conference at the hospital with his mother’s medical team and Kevin began to steel himself for the impending bad news. He was heading into the office for a few hours to take care of a few things. Work was a welcomed distraction from the heaviness of it all. Barbara would meet him at the hospital. Getting to his office was like walking the gauntlet. On occasion people would ask about his mother and Kevin’s replies were banal and trite. He was there to forget about her condition not to provide medical bulletins to people he barely knew. Mid morning there was a familiar face in Kevin’s office door. Marty Gillette was an occasional golfing partner and the two of them had joined the company the same year. Marty was one of those guys who was always upbeat even when there was no evidence for it. Ask him how things were going and his answer was always “Fantastic.” Kevin was certain that if Marty ever were to have a heart attack he’d tell the paramedics that he felt fantastic while his heart was exploding. Kevin admired his outlook as much as he was unnerved by it.
“Hey Kev, glad to see you’re in. Got time for lunch today?”
Kevin was almost startled by Marty’s visit. He had been absorbed by his email and the distraction of the routine had been working. “Sorry Marty,” Kevin said. “I’ve got to be at the hospital at one for a conference with my mom’s doctors.”
“Oh, yea, that’s right. How is your Mom?”
Kevin hesitated for an instant. He thought about the answer he had given the receptionist and his assistant when they politely asked the same question. “She’s hanging in there” had been purposefully vague and trite intended to share as little as possible and to deflect any follow-up questions but with Marty he felt differently and somewhere in Kevin’s subconscious he needed to talk to someone.
“She’s dying Marty.” Kevin softly said, not for the shock value but as a resignation and acceptance of the truth.
“I thought as much.” Marty’s replied and stepped into the office and took a chair. “I’m very fortunate. Both my parents are alive and healthy. I have yet to have anyone close to me die. I can only imagine how you’re feeling”. It was not the typical upbeat BS answer from Marty, nor was it a side of him Kevin had ever seen before.
Kevin turned away from his email and just began talking. “I can’t tell you how much stress this has put me under. I’m not sleeping or eating. As much as I want to tell Barbara how I’m feeling I just…can’t. I felt guilty calling Jeanie and Kelly and disrupting their lives and I just feel helpless as if caught in rapids without a paddle. It’s got a life of its own and I’m powerless to influence it.”
Marty simply sat there and listened.
“I’ve asked God to take her quickly to spare her the agony of a prolonged illness. I’ve asked God to take her slowly because I’m selfish and I don’t want to lose my Mother and all I’ve concluded is that God isn’t listening. There’s no Gods will in this. There’s no divine plan here. She’s just an old lady that’s dying except she’s my Mother and I love her”.
Marty didn’t try to fix it, or advise Kevin, he simply gave him the freedom to express himself. The floodgates were open and Kevin let it pour out. “It’s easy for me to be there for others. You remember when Kelly was sick?” Marty simply nodded. “Well, it was cocaine not a bladder infection. I was too embarrassed to tell anyone here the truth. Barbara thought it was all her fault, being a bad parent and all. I was able to be there for the two of them. I felt strong and capable and even though I didn’t know precisely what to do, I knew how to approach it and help the two of them through it. This, this is different. This is my thing and I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to handle it. I don’t know how to let Barbara help me with this. I just feel overwhelmed and lost”.
For a few seconds the two men just sat there in silence then Marty said “Kev, you’re a smart guy, a good father and a good son. You’ll find a way to talk with Barbara.” Then changing the subject slightly Marty said, “Do you know why I always say I’m fantastic when anyone asks me how I am?”
Kevin shrugged. “It’s because it’s how I want it to be, not how things are. Half the time I’m trying to convince myself that things are okay and not get overwhelmed by them. I’ve got my own crap to deal with and I think we’re more alike than you realize. We’re just two guys trying to navigate life, bring a little joy to those around us, and steal a little happiness for ourselves.”
The room grew silent again but before it became awkward Marty added “Listen Kev, I’ve got to get back to work. You know where to find me if you want to talk, or anything.” and gracefully got up and left. Kevin understood that from this point forward there would be other things to talk about on the golf course than sports or cars with Marty while they waited for the foursome ahead of them to move ahead.
Before the conference Kevin visited his Mother. He entered her room and it reminded him of a motel. Nothing looked very comfortable and it was the antitisis of cheery. It was functional, in much the same way a medieval torture chamber must have been functional. Luckily there was no roommate to worry about. Kevin stood just inside the door absorbing the scene. The sounds from the well lit corridor did not enter his conscience. Kevin strained to hear his mothers breathing and the numbers on the health monitor were reassuring even though he knew that they were well outside of normal. Temperature, 99.7; pulse, 81; blood pressure 90 over 50; respiration 25. He didn’t know what some of the measurements meant but he was reassured none-the-less that no alarms where going off.
He pulled up a chair that was far too big for the room and sat down facing his mother and took her frail hand in his. Elise Meuller had crossed over from being a vigorous elderly woman who if conscious would have argued with everyone about the nuances of her care. Her outline beneath the covers was nearly imperceptible in this subdued light and her head was turned to one side yet Kevin could see her eyes sunken and her face skeleton like. He sat there for 20 minutes or so holding her hand and just watching her take shallow breaths wishing he could slow down the clock.
In the same conference room they met in Sunday night he found a new grief counselor, a man by the name of Paul; a balding, spindly man who seemed to ooze condescension just by sitting there. Kevin disliked him immediately. Doctor Tanner sat in the same seat he had the other night and looked equally disinterested. A geriatrician and the head floor nurse were also in attendance. Barbara had arrived first and was sitting there in the awkward thick silence as Kevin took his seat. He was living a nightmare. He imagined this is how condemned prisoners feel when the call from the governor fails to arrive in time and the sadistic twitchy guard is about to throw the big switch.
Paul the grief counselor began by providing a history of Elise Mueller’s medical history bringing everyone up to date. Kevin began to have the sensation that for the most part, the health care workers in this room had collectively, except for the nursing staff, given his mothers care probably no more than 15 minutes of thought. After the history lesson he turned the meeting over to Doctor Tanner.
“We have monitored Ms. Mueller’s condition since her admission four days ago. The incursion of pneumonia into the left lung has affected pulmonary capability and as a consequence brain activity. In the last 48 hours we have seen positive indications and in consultation with Doctor Marburg here, have concluded that the infection is in retreat and that a substantial amount of pulmonary function will be restored to adequate levels shortly in perhaps the next 48 hours.” Tanner for the first time looked Kevin in the eye and said “In other works Mr. Mueller, your mother has fought off the infection, appears to be recovering and may leave by weeks end.” Kevin thought he caught a glimpse of a smile on Tanners face.
“You mean she’s not dying?” Kevin suspiciously asked.
Doctor Marburg, the Geriatrician fielded the question before Tanner, “Don’t misunderstand Mr. Mueller, your mother has been gravely ill and it is unlikely she will recover fully from this event, but it is fair to say that she is not in danger of dying at this time. Assuming she continues to fight off the pneumonia. When you speak to her advise her to take the antibiotics she’s been refusing the last few days. This will hasten her recovery”.
“I can talk with her? I thought she was in a coma?” Kevin felt the world was spinning off kilter. He was not expecting good news from this meeting, and his skepticism kept him from hearing what he was being told. One look at Barbara, teary eyed and smiling, seemed to say that what he had heard was true.
The nurse was almost laughing. “You’re mother is a pistol Mr. Mueller. Half the time she’s telling my nurses that they’re trying to kill her with all the tests and exams she’s been getting, other times she’s trying to tell me how to do my job. A pistol.”
Kevin reached out and squeezed Barbara’s hand and said to all, but really to her “I can’t tell you how relieved I, er, we are. Thank you all”.
Paul the grief counselor, who didn’t sound as condescending as Kevin once thought said “On occasion we have good news to tell people. We’re very glad your mother is recovering nicely.”
There really wasn’t any more to say after that. The medical team went back to their work and Kevin and Barbara headed to Elsie’s room when out of the elevator two blond tornados emerged. Jeanie and Kelly.
“Dad, before you say a word,” Kelly said beating her big sister to the punch. “Jean and I simply ignored your advice and came home anyway. So there! How’s grandma?”
Kevin couldn’t hide the relief nor his joy at having his daughters’ home and he broke out in a big toothy grin, “She’s going to make it. She’s down in room 51. You two head on down, your mom and I will be there in a minute. Just don’t scare her to death.” He added jokingly.
Then remembering his conversation with Marty Kevin turned to his wife. He felt like Atlas who no longer had to hold the world up. “Barb, when we get home tonight, and it’s quiet, I’d like to talk for a while.”
Barbara said a little prayer under her breath and for a moment she was under the Eiffel Tower once more.