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As She Lay Dying

Updated on October 24, 2012

As she lay dying, the intensivist, her primary care doctor, the ICU nurses were telling her children that her blood acid levels were “incompatible with life.” She heard them talk about her inability to breathe on her own, her liver and kidneys beginning to shut down. They all recommended removing the life support, the vent. She screamed, “NO! NOT YET!” But emitted no sound. Her eyelids were heavy; she could not lift them no matter how hard she tried. She told her hand to rise up, form a fist, assert her will, to no avail. Time passed. She could mark it by the changing nursing shifts, but could tell no one.

As she lay dying, she heard her daughter pray, pray for her recovery. She could not tell whether her daughter was actually there, in the hospital room; she still could not lift her so-heavy eyelids. But, her daughter could not actually be there, could she? Her daughter worked full time in the city and had her little girl to take care of, all by herself. She thought of the little girl, her granddaughter. How could she die? Who would be the foil between the little girl and her stressed out mother?

As she lay dying, she remembered that day; well, she could not remember what day, exactly, it had been, or how long ago; how long had she been here, dying, anyway? She remembered smiling up to her daughter’s concerned face. She remembered thinking, “It will be okay. It’s always okay. Don’t worry so much, my darling daughter, she of the exaggerated, dramatic, too-strong responses.” She remembered sleeping deeply and being roused again and again by her daughter. Then, she remembered her daughter and granddaughter making her get up out of bed. There was no more light; it must be nighttime, now. She remembered her daughter at the computer.

“So, are you going to call the doctor, or what?” she asked her daughter, grouchily. She no longer felt peaceful or rested, just extremely grouchy and crabby. This, in itself, seemed unusual to her; she was normally very even-keeled. She never showed extremes, never screamed at anyone or railed against her fate, never shouted for joy. Unlike her daughter. Eleonora Duse, Sarah Bernhardt, those were usually the family’s sobriquets for her daughter. Sometimes, though, her daughter also became rather martial, dictatorial; that’s when they jokingly called her Evita, or Mussolini.

As she lay dying, she remembered the ER. How did she get here, from there? She remembered being just fine. It was late, or very early, to be sure, but she finally felt well again, normal. She remembered the little girl’s moving from concerned anxiety to laughing calm. She remembered joking with the little girl, about her mother.

Tua mamma è sempre esagerata!” she told the little girl, in their native Italian. “Your mother is always so dramatic! We might breathe a little more easily if she loved us less!”

“Okay, Mamma,” her daughter said. “You are obviously better, if you can make fun of me! They will be keeping you here for observation and we’ll come back to get you in the morning. But, right now, it’s 3 a.m., and Alessia should have been in bed seven hours ago; we’re going. By the way,” her daughter added in a whisper, as she bent over the ER stretcher to kiss her cheek, “I really love you and I’m glad you can make fun of me again. You really scared me, this time. But, now, we can all breathe, and sleep.”

As she lay dying, she remembered all that and wondered: So, how did I get from there, to here? She heard them, the clinical staff, saying that they were doing tests. Breathing tests. Well, she thought testily to herself, it would be so much easier to breathe if you all would only remove whatever you jammed down my throat. How can anyone breathe with that thick plastic thing blocking the way? Oh, wait. There was no thick plastic thing down her throat anymore. She vaguely remembered a trip somewhere else in the hospital. What had they said? A trach? Why? She strained to hear more of the conversation.

“She’s not responding. Is the vent off?

“It was off. She’s not breathing longer than a minute without the machine.”

“We have to tell the docs, and they can tell the family.”

“This is such a waste of time. She’s not conscious. She’ll never recover from all this. I would hate to be in her shoes. They should just pull the plug.”

“Yeah, I would want them to put me out of my misery, that’s for sure.”

As she lay dying, she screamed, soundlessly. “I DO NOT WANT TO DIE! NOT YET! I’M NOT READY! I HAVE THINGS TO DO! OH GOD! SAVE ME!” She wanted to pray the Divine Mercy, but she could not remember the words. Her fingers could not feel the beads of the rosary she was sure her daughter had brought her. Who were these people, these heartless souls who wanted to pull the plug, without even giving her a fighting chance? They could not possibly be her nurses. No one in her life had ever wanted to harm her, to do away with her; she had always been wanted, needed. Despair seized her.

As she lay dying, she wondered, what would her children decide? She knew her daughter well enough to know she would never just pull the plug without exhausting all possibilities. Her daughter was very detail oriented, just like her. But, would her boys? Her middle son was very rational, also just like her. Sometimes, though, he was too rational, too much of a practical realist. Unlike her daughter, he did not believe in miracles; he created his own. She had done too good a job raising him. The baby would follow the middle child. It would come down to two against one. Her three children worked in concert but operated on a strict code of majority rule, with an up and down vote. She hung her hopes on the dictatorial, Evita-Mussolini, side of her daughter’s nature, a side that had not dominated in twenty years, a side her daughter had worked very hard - through psychologists, spiritualists, and yoga – to mitigate, if not eradicate. She nonetheless desperately hoped her daughter would browbeat her brothers this one last time, should the need arise.

As she lay dying, she heard them all come in again. Another test. She would have closed her eyes in resignation had they not already crusted shut, for having already been closed so long. Another test, another nail in her coffin. Or, was it? There was a sudden flurry of activity. She heard her daughter’s voice, shouting, whooping for joy. She could just imagine her 43-year-old daughter jumping around the hospital room, hugging everyone in sight. She smiled, probably to herself, she thought. She was getting used to being ignored when sending commands to her body.

“Fifteen minutes!” she heard, over and over. “Fifteen minutes! She breathed on her own for fifteen minutes!”

As she lay dying, she relaxed for the first time in however long she had been here. Words flowed back to her and she said a silent prayer of thanksgiving. No one would have problems making a decision now. No one would be pulling any plugs around here, she thought with satisfaction, mentally thumbing her nose at whomever those faceless, heartless creatures were who had advocated for that outcome in her presence. Her children, she was dead certain, would now be unanimous in their call for rehab. Fifteen minutes. Those fifteen minutes assured her resurrection.

© 2012 Everymom/Language Development Company


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  • everymom profile image

    Anahi Pari-di-Monriva 6 years ago from Massachusetts

    Thank you, @kj force, for your kind words. The inspiration was my mother's experience. She came through this very scenario, as perfect as rain, but she refused to talk about it to anyone. All she told me (I was her primary caregiver a year later, after a second medical event) was that she could hear everything, couldn't communicate, and was scared to her core of dying.

    She passed away in 2011 and this has been stuck in my head since it happened more than 2 years ago. Not knowing has been bugging me and so this piece is my way of feeling like I have an answer to what exactly happened to her.

  • kj force profile image

    kjforce 6 years ago from Florida

    Very cleverly done..this could almost be a dream where upon your wakening only to realize it was not a dream...enjoyed the cliff hanger..curious to know what was your inspiration for this write ?