Awoken with a start from restless sleep on my mother’s sofa, I grope not for my watch or the battery-operated alarm clock. I do not reach for my smudged glasses, either, but instead, fumble for the switch on the floor to turn on the Christmas tree lights. Each evening I pull the cushions off the sofa bed in the living room, stacking them on a dining room chair pushed back from the galley kitchen, and pile worn blankets and duvets and pillows on the bony mattress. I read by the light of Christmas tree lights, glowing day and night. Against the winter darkness, the tiny bulbs flicker and sparkle without devotion. Against the winter shadows, the lights twinkle and sparkle without devotion. Still, without the soft glow and the lights catching the blushing ornaments, I cannot sleep if I only drift off for an hour or two. Tears dry then moisten as another surge of recognition consumes me.
My mother is going to die.
Drained of sleep and faith, I drift to the living room window and tentatively reach out to touch the frozen glass. Like me. Alone in the apartment, my mother has lived in for thirty years, I watch snow tendrils creep across the road. Last night, the wind blew in from the north, squealing and moaning, creaking and wailing. More than a foot of fresh snow fell in the night. Though a plow pushed back the storm’s accumulation, it may not be possible to drive to the hospital once daylight breaks.
Day Nine. Before the colorless sun rises, though I know information about my mother’s condition has not and will not change, I page through my notebook, noting more questions to ask before the too-fresh memories of the last nine days fade into the annals of crisis. I turn on the electric kettle in the galley kitchen, toss a teabag in a mug, collect the cream a few days past its expiration date from the refrigerator, and wait. I pour the burning water into the mug when the kettle boils, watching the teabag bleed ginger brown against the bone-white china. Absently, I press and push against the pouch urging it to steep a little faster.
Setting the steaming mug on the dining room table, I push back the week’s mail. Bills that need to be paid. Letters to be answered. Respond to Christmas cards that have arrived from people who are oblivious to my mother’s condition. Pulling my ‘master’ list of To-Dos, I grasp a pen and add tasks to a clean page. Visit the bank manager. Make an appointment with the investment administrator. Buy multiple expandable files and another cartridge for the label maker. Return a page worth of phone calls. Buy more international phone cards. Call Steve before he goes to work.
I am lost in this perfunctory world of list-making when the phone rings. I glance at the mantel clock on the piano — 6:20 a.m. The phone rings until after midnight most evenings; I am juggling four time zones leaving me stretched like a taut drum around the world's circumference. I pick up the telephone receiver and mumble a distracted hello.
“Is this Anna So Chalk E?” The voice is unfamiliar. When I do not answer immediately, the hesitant voice repeats the question. My mind’s roll-a-dex grinds. No British or Australian accent.
“Yes. This is Anna Sochocky,” I respond crisply, refusing to allow a tone of gloom seep into my voice. Still, my hands begin to shake. I put the pen down and wait.
“Ms. So Chalk E. This is a member of the hospital nursing staff. Your mother went into respiratory arrest at six a.m. We have been executing chest compressions for twenty minutes, but your mother is unresponsive. Would you like us to continue with chest compressions and intubate her,” the anonymous nurse’s question hangs by a thread in the silence. The nurse persists. “Did you sign a hospital medical directive? Does your mother have a resuscitation order,” the nurses fire off companion questions.
My mother is dying. My mother is dead. For a few seconds, I cannot speak, do not speak. I stare out the window into the black morning. The wind is fierce now. The invisible squall’s direction changes and tosses the snow into somersaults. From the moment I walked into the ICU unit, I knew that my mother was gone. My mother is dying. My mother is dead.
I return to the present with a vengeance. “I gave you copies of the medical power of attorney, which said specifically not to do any chest compressions or intubation. Stop compressions now. DO NOT intubate her. Mom wouldn’t want any of this! You’ve probably broken her ribs pounding on her chest! Stop breaking her! I’ll be at the hospital as soon as I can be.” I march around the tiny living room, desperate to be clear through the rapid onset of tears, tripping over the corner legs of the unmade sofa bed, looking for my clothes, my shoes, my watch, my heart.
“Ok. We will stop all resuscitative efforts,” confirming my answer to her question, the nurse responds meekly. “I am sorry,” she adds before the receiver tone clicks in my ear.
Half-dressed and stunned, I dial Janet’s number. When she answers, I cannot speak. I cannot breathe. I must breathe. “What’s happened?” The octave of Janet’s already silky, deep voice plummets.
“She’s gone, Janet. Mom is gone.” Weaving around the bed and chairs, the loss, I race to the kitchen sink to spit, expecting to find acidic bile in the basin. Instead, I emit dry heaves. I stare mutely out the window, listening to panicked noises on the other end of the line: a chair’s legs scrape across the floor; boots selected and quickly discarded; affronted grunts from Janet’s two dogs registering their displeasure at being disturbed in the pre-dawn dark. Janet’s declaration that she will be over as soon as possible dissolves amidst choking sobs on both ends of the line.
With nothing left to say, I hang up the phone and aimlessly begin to throw the blankets and pillows off the sofa bed. When I try pushing the lumpy mattress into the hidden compartment, the frame refuses to collapse. The sofa bed is stuck. I am stuck, too. Do I get on the phone or finish getting dressed? I crumble to the carpet and lean against the bent steel. The tree lights fuse, the ornaments bleeding the color into a watery pool. I cannot breathe. I must breathe. Struggling to my feet, I shove the bed violently into place and reconstruct the sofa, cramming cushions into place and fluffing the accent pillows.
The phone rings a second time. Believing it is Janet to tell me her truck has skidded into a snowdrift, I answer the phone with a question — are you stuck? The person on the other end of the line is not Janet but the hospital again telling me that one of the nurses found a pulse in my mother’s flaccid wrist. How can this be? My mother is dead, and now she is alive. By now, any tears I have shed have evaporated. Dulled and confused by the conflicting messages. I scream without a hint of grace into the phone receiver. “What the hell are you doing? You violate my mother’s wishes and ignore or cannot FIND the directive I signed and the medical power of attorney. She’s dead. She’s alive. Are you sure this time? Do you want to check again? I’m on my way!” I hang up the phone and slam the receiver against the sofa. Wriggling into a second sweater, I am zipping up my boots when the phone rings for the third time. Once again, an anonymous nurse asks me to confirm my name and follows with a final apology. “We are sorry, but we were mistaken. Your mother does not have a pulse.”
Time of death six-thirty.