I suppose I should begin, at the beginning.
My mom, Jackie, gave birth to me on December 19, 1980. She was having contractions — pangs of sudden and suspended cramping — her second baby, so she knew it was time.
My mom and dad drove to the hospital in my dad's 1969 green Cadillac convertible. (I’ve been in that car many times. I can still smell the black leather.) Because my brother, Carlo, Jr., arrived via c-section, I would too.
My parents didn't know if I was a girl or boy, until the doctor announced it.
"It's a girl," he said.
My dad said my mother had a big smile on her face. I've heard my birth story first-hand from my mom and as she recalls, she couldn't believe how much “jet-black hair I had” and how “long my fingers were.”
They brought me home on Christmas Eve. It was snowing. My dad forgot my mom's sneakers and slippers and any other reasonable footwear, so he brought me inside first. She had on socks. That’s a silly story I always think about: socks in the snow, snow in the socks. Sounds like a children’s book.
My big brother, Carlo by only 18-months, and grandparents were waiting at the house. My dad put me under the Christmas tree. I was called “the best gift.”
I got only 38 years with my mom — what a rip-off, what a sham. In fact, I turned 38 on December 19, 2018 and she died on January 30, 2019. Do you know I vowed to make 2019 the best year ever? It’s my 5-year-cancer remission milestone. I had plans. Goals.
I’ve been in a haze since January 30.
My mom stopped talking on January 29. Carlo called me and said, “Come now.” I was in North NJ. Mom was in Monmouth Medical Center down the shore. I left work crying, picked up Lucy at my apartment and signed Jack out of school.
The ICU was bright and white, but everyone there was dying. I had become a person, waiting for death now.
She was not getting better.
Jack said goodbye, then buried his face in Carlo’s chest, crying. Carlo said goodbye. He kissed my mother twice on the cheek, gave her upper arm a gentle squeeze and said, “See you later, Mom, I love you.”
Carlo knew. He took Jack to his home at the shore. His job was to be with Jack, now. Brian, my dad and I stayed with mom.
I held her hand. I brushed my hand on her cheek. I covered her with the black and red crocheted blanket her grandmother made for her. I placed photos of our family and Jack in her view, even though her eyes were closed.
I cried and told her she was such a good mom and rambled on and on about how she was my Girl Scout troop leader, always there after school, how she drove us to the movies and dance class and sports practice.
Took me for my formal and prom dresses. “Remember looking for my prom dress in New York City?” All the summers at the Preakness pool and Jersey Shore. “Remember getting our hair cut at Cut N’ Loose in Little Falls? Remember when you finally let me get my eye brows waxed there?”
I reminded her about the time I was having really bad panic attacks my Sophomore year of college. I wanted to drop out of school. Instead, she took a week off of work and lived in my brownstone walkup rental with the spiral staircase. Having her there calmed me down. She enjoyed going to Rittenhouse Park and having a coffee while I was at class — and we went out for delicious, expensive dinners in Center City. Sometimes you just need your mother.
I reminded her how much Jack adored her and gave her the name Mema. My mom always thought she’d be called grandma or grammy, but Jack came up with Mema at age two and it stuck. “Remember when he was born, mom?” I said. “You were in the OR with me and then in the nursery with Jack.”
I reminded her of my first week home with Jack as a single mom. “Mom, remember the third night home with Jack, when I handed my baby over to you at 2:30 am and locked myself in my bedroom, because I was so exhausted? Mom, take this crying baby, here.” And she did.
My life with my mom flashed before my eyes that day in the ICU. The big green chair I sat in. The pacing in front of her hospital bed. I was squishing all of my memories with my mom into words, hoping she could hear me. I wanted more time.
Time was not on my side.
She was on a BiPAP machine. Her directive indicated she did not want to be intubated (a tube down her throat) and she was DNR.
At one point, her numbers were stable. The nurse said she could come off the BiPAP, but needed to go on oxygen through her nose. I thought this was actually an indication she wasn't leaving yet. I hoped.
The nurse and respiration specialist removed the mask. It was an awful mask and she didn't like it at all. The nurse fastened the oxygen tube to her nostrils. The tubing was thicker than someone who might get oxygen in an ambulance — and the flow of the oxygen was more aggressive.
And then she opened her eyes. Her eyes looked greener than I'd ever seen them.
My family and I held onto her. "Hi mommy," I said. "You're OK. Everything is OK. Don't be afraid. She searched all of our faces. She was aware we were there. She knew she was not alone. My younger brother, Brian, swabbed her mouth with water, that little blue sponge on the white stick. She liked this and she signaled for more with her eyes.
She couldn’t talk. Or swallow.
Her eyes were gorgeous that day, green as ever. I keep thinking about her eyes.
For a half-hour she stayed aware, eyes open, blinking, but unable to squeeze my hand.
Her struggle for breath began again. We all hugged her. We told her how much we loved her. Everyone had wet faces. We sang Happy Birthday to her. She would have been 70 on 2/2/19.
The respiratory aid came in and put the BiPAP machine back on. She closed her eyes. She went to sleep.
For the next hour or two she was non-responsive. My brother played Barry Manilow for her on his iPhone. My dad whispered things to her. I held her hand and drank many Cokes. I specifically drank regular Coke and not Diet. Brian kept getting me Coke and not harassing me about all the Coke I was drinking. (Brian doesn’t agree with my soda vice.)
The room was dim and calm. It was hours waiting. Just waiting. Waiting to throw up and curl up in a ball and not sleep. Waiting to start a new life without her. Waiting for the inevitable. Knowing that everything was going to change and that it would be infinite, was like waiting for the rollercoaster to drop, or for someone to pop an over expanded balloon.
Sadness hung in the air. I wavered from tears to no reaction at all, to aggravation, to peace. I felt deflated one minute and manic the next.
She wasn't recovering. She wasn't coming off the BiPAP again. She could have stayed on that BiPAP for hours, days, weeks — in that hospital bed by the ocean. But she didn't want that. We all knew she wanted to go and be at peace and not suffer anymore. In fact, a few days before, she told the priest to get out of her room, she didn’t want to pray - “I’m not going anywhere,” she told him. My sassy mom. I get it from her.
But the days that followed were different. She needed to know where her boots were. She had to go. She wanted my cranberry knit gloves. She held them. Her father, my Poppy who died when I was 18, was taking her to a Yankees game. And when the priest gave her, Last Rights, there was no protest, this time.
The morphine bag began to drip. The Fentanyl patch came next. I held her hand and watched the numbers on the monitor, then her face, then the monitor, then her face.
It was somber and quiet for more hours, the 29th became the 30th — and it was the end.
The beeping started. The monitor flashed. The numbers fell. I was watching the number that monitored her heart now. At one point it was in the 70s and strong. I knew what was happening as it dropped into the 40s and then suddenly a zero. A zero. And beeping, that God awful beeping.
A flat line 0.
I tried to say, “Oh my God,” but I couldn’t. I just sobbed and felt all of the air leave me.
We all held her. We all wept.
The doctor was there.
"Time of death: 3:48 AM."
The worst words I’ve ever heard.
Brian took the BiPAP mask off of her face.
I kissed her. I fell onto her chest.
But then something happened: I watched her face change. It was not death or scary. She left. I saw a transition. She went somewhere.
I combed her hair.
My father held her for 20 minutes.
We stayed with her until we were literally told to leave because the next phase needed to happen.
March 30 will be two months motherless. But I still catch myself switching a load of laundry and getting that internal ping to, call mom. We spoke daily. Sometimes multiple times.
Something will happen. Good, bad, sad, silly. Jack will have a good soccer performance or Jack will be a hormonal wise-ass and I'll think, call mom.
A lot of people ask how I'm doing.
I mean, I go on. I have to.
There was before my mother died, and now there is after.
I believe in signs. I look for them.
A bird’s nest on our balcony.
A purple sky. Her birth stone is purple.
Look at this sky. There is no filter, I swear. This came the day after she left. When I see purple in the sky, I say, hi mom.
I visited her resting place a few times at the cemetery. I can’t decide if I like going there, because after a visit, I hibernate. She was cremated. She’s in a rose gold marble box. There’s a photo of her in a gold frame. It’s beautiful and bizarre.
But sitting there one morning with Jack, in silence, I kept thinking ... I kept thinking, why did the scrambled eggs taste so off this morning? Why did Jack give me attitude about the egg and cheese sandwich. I whisked them. Butter in the pan. A pinch of salt. They were kind of fluffy.
And in my head, I heard my mother say, “Milk, Christine.” I always forgot to put milk in the eggs and Jack would always tell me how much better my mom’s scrambled eggs were.
I felt warm with relief when I heard her say, “Milk, Christine.” And we left, even though we’d only been there minutes. I was satisfied with our visit. I know she’s not in that pink box, anyway.
She is in the wind. She is in the sun spots on the grass. She is among the stars.
She is all around me.