It’s impossible to walk into a room where you watched someone die and not think of them. Something about the space is forever altered by the memory you have of watching them fight their way out of this life. There is no such thing as a graceful exit. We go out the same way we came in. Kicking, screaming, messing yourself and scared. Birth and death are violent acts in which we get ripped out of one world and launched in the next against our will. Neither birth nor death allow one any dignity.
When the Hospice Nurse arrived, Mama was sitting at the roll top desk in her bedroom, reading glasses perched in the end of her nose, paying bills. I remember the nurse as dirty blonde, but that’s all. She wore light green scrubs and her thick-soled nurse’s shoes gleamed white. I led her down the hall to the bedroom. I knocked on the partially open door. She put her pen down and pushed her glasses up on her head.
I fetched a couple of chairs and the nurse sat in one very close to Mama. Dad came in the room and sat on the edge of the bed. I stood by the dresser.
“Ms. Vandiver, do you know what Hospice care is?”
“Yes. You take care of sick people until they get better.” My stomach dropped. We were all trying our dead level best to avoid talking about it, but I thought Mama understood the diagnosis. She looked over at me and saw my discomfort. Dad stared in the other direction. She reached up and pulled her glasses off her head and sat them on the desk.
“Or if they don’t.”
The nurse never hesitated or blanched.
“When the time comes that you need it, we will bring in a hospital bed. Where would you like us to put it?” She pointed to where I was standing.
“I suppose right over there.”
As the tumor at the top of her lungs grew larger, her ability to speak weakened. By then, the cancer was in her bones, had passed the blood-brain barrier and was affecting her mind. We kept very careful notes about how often we changed the Fentanyl patches on her back and how much morphine we dripped into her mouth.
One afternoon, my father changed her diaper and left to go run an errand. I noticed that the sheets on the bed had a small bit of mess on them, so I decided to change them. I had spent enough time in hospitals to know how nurses changed the sheets around a patient, so I pulled the edges of the sheets away and started. I began to fail almost immediately. Mom was too heavy for me to push, so I had to pull on the sheet to roll her. She opened her eyes and stared at me. She was on too much medicine to be in pain, but not enough to stop her from being annoyed. I had seen that stare before. I felt like a laser beam and even when I looked away, I could feel her eyes burrowing into me.
“I’m sorry. I have to change your sheets.” Her little, shaking hands pulled the sheet on top of her up to her neck defensively.
“I want Drew.”
Most fistfights are not lost in the moment of the first punch, but in the moment that follows. When the shock of being hit causes you to hesitate and not react with a return blow.
“Mama, I am Drew.”
I focused intently on the sheets, tugging harder, trying to finish. The second that you get hit, your body disconnects from your mind. That’s why fighters train. You train your body to react, not think. The body reacts to a hit with a hit. You have to take you mind out of it because your mind is never going to get used or be okay with being hit. I focused on my hands. I have her hands. Small, with little fingers.
I looked up again. Her stare had neither abated nor relaxed.
“I believe I told you that I want Drew.” I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. My whole body shook. The feeling was the same as when you are holding on to something to keep from falling and you lose that grip. That seized, frightened body shake. She tried to clear her throat and couldn’t, which made her madder. Her voice came out no louder but strained by anger, with a slight gurgle behind her words.
"I want Drew. Go get him.”
I nodded and closed the door behind me as I left.
I walked down the hall towards the kitchen, reeling. I had read in the hospice manual that this would happen. But feelings are mystical things and no matter how many times you read about them, it does not ready you to feel them. I squeezed the edge of the metal kitchen sink and locked my elbows to stay upright. That was the first time I felt the feeling I would feel when she actually passed. She’s gone. My mother is gone. But what do I do? I pulled my cell phone out and held it. I couldn’t call anyone. I would just dissolve in tears. I had to go back in there and finish. I had to give her a clean bed to lie in. And I had to be her son, even if she didn’t recognize me. I took a couple of deep breaths and walked back down the hall. I tried to straighten my spine and clinch my abs. Another blow was coming. Be ready for it.
I opened the door and met her gaze head on. She was waiting for me. I stretched my lips across my teeth in the closest approximation of a smile I could muster. I grabbed the sheets where I left off and went to work.
“I believe I told you that I want Drew.” In that instant, my fear and sadness transformed into respect and admiration. My god, she couldn’t hardly move or talk but she would not give over her will. She would not bow her head. It took every ounce of soul she had left, but she was not going to be ignored. I looked up at her. A pale, grey wounded lion, cornered and bleeding, but roaring as loud as she could with no idea how to surrender. Tears rolled down my cheeks.
“Well, mama, I am Drew. And you ought to know that because you are the one who gave me that name. You put it on my birth certificate. I am legally Drew because you said so. So I have a question. If you say I’m not Drew, does that a legal standing?”
Her hard, pursed lips relaxed and the corner of them turned slightly upward, almost to a smile.
“Never mind. You’re definitely Drew.” I coughed out a laugh and wiped my eyes. She tried to curl lips into a smile, but she now she was aware of what just happened. Her lips quivered and she began to cry. Her small voice tried to croak out the word sorry, but she couldn’t push it out.
“It’s okay, mama. It’s okay.” She shook her head gently from side to side. It wasn’t okay. She knew now that her mind was going. She couldn’t trust her own thoughts. And she had frightened me and she had no ability to watch her children in pain. I held her hand and kissed her on the forehead.
“It’s okay. You’re on a lot of drugs. I remember when I was doing this many drugs. I once slapped my friend because I thought we were both animated and I had Go-Go-Gadget arms.” She opened her mouth to laugh. No sound came out, but she shook with laughter and that was good enough for the moment.
“And you have some good drugs. It’s a damn shame I’m sober.” She shook with more laughter and an easy sense of relief. I smiled at her and she nodded.
“It’s going to be okay. I promise.”
I’ve never stood in that room since without thinking of her lying there in that bed, the sand of dignity and life sliding through the little fingers of the small hands we share.
DREW VANDIVER is an actor and writer who currently lives in Los Angeles, California.