There are words that should be said but, for one reason or another, never are. One might feel embarrassed, ashamed, even guilt-ridden into silence, or merely forgetful, careless. And one might later feel regretful of never having found the words, never spoken. When my mother was dying, I was careless, and did not say what I should have, but it was not to her that I should have spoken.
It was the last Wednesday in October of 1986. Massachusetts, where I’d lived since August when my job had moved, was stunningly colorful. In New York City, my mother was dying. Not quite two years earlier, she’d been diagnosed with nephrotic syndrome, for which there is no cure and little treatment. Every weekend I went from South Station to Penn Station and back, and got into in the habit on returning of buying a round-trip-ticket for the next weekend. My ricochet travels paralleled my mother’s between hospital and home. Now she was in the hospital again.
That Wednesday, a series of phone calls came from my brother, a teacher who should have been in his class but instead was with his wife at the hospital, let me know Mom had had terrible pain, had asked for medication, but had been rushed into surgery.
“Probably appendicitis,” they were told. Then, that Mom had an abdominal aneurysm, and after seven hours was now out of surgery but on a respirator. Then, that she had 72 hours to live. In shock, I explained to my supervisor and left work to pack and run. Then, my brother said Mom was stable, sleeping, and advised I take it easy and go tomorrow.
Maybe because I had the tickets, or because I was not clear-headed, instead of going by air I boarded an early train and stared out the window as we passed through Providence, Kingston, and Westerly, absently noting cold-looking marshes and ponds, ducks, geese, and gulls. She’s dying, she’s dying went the rhythm over tracks. At Mystic, people got off and on, but the train did not start. We sat. My head pounded with thoughts of what might be happening in New York. Now Thursday, I knew that were my mother to die this day, my brother, an observant Jew, had to arrange for a funeral to take place before Friday sundown. Dark came early. I knew he wouldn’t want to go ahead without me, this being our shared responsibility, but I was stuck in Connecticut. In 1986 there were no cell phones.
I sobbed against window glass, quietly, I thought. “Is something wrong?” It was the conductor. With some coherence I told him my mother was dying, my brother needed to know he should not wait for me to do what might be needed. The conductor said he thought it was possible to send him a message by radio, asked for the number at the hospital, and went away. Soon, he returned: the message had been sent. We did not budge. Then the train jerked and slowly began to move. The next stop was New London, where the engine would be changed, so I counted nickels, dimes, and quarters and hoped for a pay phone on the platform. There was one. “We got the message!” my brother said, “Mom’s not awake, but still stable.”
Walking slowly back to board the train, my sole thought was, Mom’s alive! Just inside the car, I heard, “She’s back on! Let’s go!” Stations came and went and then it was Penn Station. I ran. My mother was conscious when I arrived, but because of the respirator could never speak to us again. Within days she went into a coma, and hours after that I held her hand as she died. My brother and I together made arrangements for her funeral the next day, a Friday.
A year afterward I decided to volunteer in a hospice, and one of the training meetings was attended by the physician advisor to the hospice. Suddenly, anger erupted: many of us became interested in hospice care because of difficult experiences with the treatment given to a dying spouse or parent or friend. This had been true of the treatment my mother received—or, rather, had not. ( But that’s a different story.) At the end of the meeting, the doctor walked over to me and asked would I write up what had happened in my mother’s care. I said yes. I had my mother’s diary, which she kept up to the day of her surgery; and I had my notes from the days and nights I lived in her room, until she died. Writing the damn thing took months, took tears. I was still horribly raw. A friend became my editor, so it was finished.
I sent it to the doctor, and months later, we met. “I was blown away!” said this parent of teenagers, “everything that could go wrong did.” He asked to use what I’d written as a teaching case study; would my mother have minded? My mother had opted for hospice care but had not lived to enter it. She had been told that doctors, residents, and nurses might want to talk with her, ask her how and why she had made this choice. Her response was that if answering questions might aid those caring for the dying and, in that way aid those dying, she was glad to be useful. The doctor and I agreed that my mother had given permission for him to teach about her experience and ours—my brother’s, his wife’s, their three children’s, and mine.
Even though I write poems that touch death, writing about my mother’s dying was terribly difficult yet, of course, purgative. I was grateful to the doctor for asking me to do it, and I told him so. But I never wrote to Amtrak to say how thoughtful its employees were. I never spoke to the engine driver who’d kept the train waiting until I boarded at New London. Worst, my gratitude to the conductor for his concern and help remains unspoken.
-Ellin Sarot, Gish Jen Fellow for Emerging Writers