When I was a teenager, my mother threatened to throw herself in front of a truck if she thought my older sister and I no longer loved her. I tried to imagine the scene. Would she stand on the edge of a highway and run out when an 18-wheeler came speeding along? Would she do it at night? In front of us? I envisioned her sprawled on the pavement, auburn-dyed hair in place, her skirt spread about her, a high heel flung off. No blood, no broken bones, no breath. Just quiet. Would it be our fault? So, kisses on her cheek and hugs around her neck became our suicide-prevention plan. After all, Mother was the only parent around.
Decades later I’d recall this threat as I stood before Mother’s hospital bed. Was her trip to the ER another attempt to reinforce her gravitational pull when she feared her daughters were floating out of orb? Not this time. Even she couldn’t fake the grayness that claimed her face, the ghostlike pallor that demanded I pay attention and take note. Her white hair blended into the starched pillowcase. A pungent antiseptic odor overtook any lingering fragrance of the Tabu perfume she sprayed on her wrists despite arthritic fingers. An IV dripped clear liquid into stark blue veins that formed a tiny roadmap across her hand. Looped to the bedrail was a plastic bag catching pale urine streaming from a catheter. A thick fleece blanket wrapped Mother’s small frame like a cocoon, but promised no vibrant metamorphosis.
I located her in the emergency room holding area after wandering a labyrinth of halls pockmarked with abandoned stretchers and vial-laden carts that clattered from patient to patient. Two racks of sliding curtains created her makeshift room, providing a mere facade of the privacy Mother would have craved. She appeared asleep, oblivious to the rhythmic beeps of machines or the tapping of my high heels on the scarred linoleum. Her heart monitor spiked life, but she delivered not a moan.
Is this what it will be like when Mother’s dead?
I breathed in her unfamiliar stillness. Typically, she used silence only as a weapon, as punishment for some perceived slight or word misspoken, withdrawing for lengthy periods from her father, her brother, a niece—whoever aggrieved her.
But this silence was not self-imposed.
If Mother were awake she’d be yelling, “Get these contraptions out of me and me out of here,” in the bullying voice that was her soundtrack. I’d spent my life devising strategies to limit my exposure to her toxic fuming. Shouldn’t I be present for her quiet?
“She’s being taken to 5 North,” an attendant interrupted, nodding toward a bank of elevators. “There’ll be a waiting room on her hall.” Nurses and orderlies swarmed around Mother. If she were aware, she’d love the attention.
Go there. Sit here. Wait. I wasn’t usually so passive, so subservient, but I gladly handed my mother over to the hospital staff, just as I’d relinquished her care to my older sister. Arline never could, or maybe never wanted to, navigate an escape from Mother’s demands. She took each verbal punch like a child’s clown bag weighted in place to easily bounce back for more. Widowed at a young age and childless, Arline made Mother her primary focus. Wearing her caretaking mantle as comfortably as a frayed winter coat, my sister washed our mother’s laundry, picked up her groceries, chauffeured her to all appointments. Even Mother’s middle-of-the- night persistent phone calls didn’t deter Arline. Her own needs and desires had been buried for so long, they were like scraps tossed into the disposal. She couldn’t reach in deep enough to grab them back if she tried.
“Her blood pressure is plummeting,” Arline had told me on the phone earlier. “And they have no clue why,” her voice coated with worry.
“I can be there in ten minutes,” I’d reassured, stuffing unfinished tax court memos into my briefcase, imagining my sister sitting at her desk, fretting about a demanding boss and letters that still needed typing. Rarely, if ever, was I the first at Mother’s side. Could I handle this?
By the time Arline arrived, I’d spent an hour flipping through the assorted magazines scattered on end tables. Did headlines tattling affairs and facelifts really distract those waiting for life-or-death pronouncements?
She dropped into the dark green vinyl seat next to me, clutching her cracked black purse to her lap as if protecting it from theft, as was our mother’s habit. The wedding rings Arline continued to wear some five years after her husband’s death spawned rainbow colors under the fluorescent lights. Otherwise, my sister was unadorned: short, tinted ash-blond hair showing a residue of spray; tan trench coat still buttoned and belted; small gold hoop earrings, a birthday gift from me.
I shook my head. “A doctor’s still examining her.” I returned to People magazine and the handsome actor on the cover. We relaxed into our familiar conversational vacuum, Arline’s habitual allergy sniffling and my page shuffling the only interruptions to the quiet. Though sisters, the common ground we shared was barren, populated by parents who had wandered away at different times and on separate journeys. Neither made a path wide enough to include their two daughters. Our father had disappeared after the divorce; I was eight, Arline twelve. Mother left us years later to chase a runaway second husband who had fled to Florida. She finally returned when I graduated from college. The wound from her being AWOL during my adolescence still festered. Why was I sitting in this waiting room now?
A white-coated doctor appeared. With his unwrinkled face, dark blond hair, and somber demeanor, I expected “Dr. Kildare” to be engraved on his nametag. The hint of stubble on his cheek suggested a long workday.
“I’m afraid it’s necrosis of the colon. It’s black, no longer functioning, and should be removed.”
Arline’s hand flew to her mouth, catching a gasp. Necrosis? I flipped my mental Rolodex of biology terms. Didn’t “necrosis” mean something was dead?
“A woman in her early eighties has a fifty-fifty chance of surviving such a major operation,” the doctor continued, as if reading from a script. “If she pulls through, she’ll wear a colostomy bag the rest of her life.”
My mother, who had cha-cha’d and tangoed in three-inch heels and tight pencil skirts at many a singles’ dance, wearing a bulging bag to catch her waste? I closed my eyes, conjuring up memories of my eight-year-old feet in black patent Mary Janes trying to follow mother’s lead as she sashayed around our living room humming a Sinatra tune.
“She’s not capable of understanding the gravity and giving her consent,” the doctor interrupted. “You two must make the decision.”
“And what if you don’t operate?“ I needed to hear the words aloud.
“She’ll die within three to four days.”
There it was. That truck coming down the highway. Should we let Mother remain in its path? Or pull her out of its way? This doctor, this stranger was delivering our mother’s life to us. He wanted an answer. I had only questions. If we did nothing, what would those few days be like? I envisioned keeping vigil at Mother’s bedside; watching disease spread like poison; holding hands as they chilled; listening to breaths become gasps. Would she let go peacefully? Or would she thrash? Beg for our help?
If anyone had the guts to let Mother die, it would be me. Would I feel relief? Regret? If Mother survived, it would be my sister who bought the supplies and changed the waste pouch. Is that what Arline wanted?
“What shall we do?” my sister whispered. I sensed that old fear we shared. Imprinted on us since childhood, it was like a tattoo that faded over time but could never be obliterated. We’d learned that lesson early: avoid any behavior that might trigger Mother’s anger. Make a decision that would result in her dying? She’d haunt us. Make a decision that would leave her feeling dirty around the clock? She’d blame us.
A gurney rumbled by. Visitors shuffled into the waiting room. One nibbled McDonald’s french fries, their warm salty aroma swirling. Another was reading the magazine I’d tossed. Ben Affleck’s face stared at me.
Had anyone overheard our conversation? What would people think of a daughter who chose to let her mother die? Should I care? I looked back at my sister. Her hand remained clasped to her mouth.
Renee C. Winter is a writer whose essays have appeared in The Coachella Review, Qu Literary Magazine, Pren-Z, and the 2016 anthology Tales of Our Lives: Reflection Pond (Knowledge Access Books). She has presented her work at the annual “Celebration of the Muse” event honoring female writers living in Santa Cruz, California. A retired attorney, Renee currently is a volunteer writing instructor at the Santa Cruz County Jail.