I don’t remember how long I’d been there: maybe only a few weeks. It was two or three or four in the morning when the staff at the Place came in on their regular checks and I didn’t completely wake up until one of them came back out of her room and said, almost casually, ‘She’s on the floor.’
She was on the floor. Hospice had got her a hospital bed but we hadn’t been using the rails because the Place had a policy against it; she couldn’t move much at all though so I thought it would be all right. How she fell, when she fell, no one could tell, including her. Did she reach for something on the bedside table? Did she call for me and I didn’t hear her because I was so tired? I ran in and she gave me a big smile, lying twisted on the floor, unable to move: “Hi honey.”
I knew I wasn’t supposed to shift her or try to help her back into bed, so I did what I was supposed to do: I called the hospice emergency line for the first of several times during those awful weeks last year. “We won’t be able to get out there for hours.”
“Okay, well, what do I do? What should I do? What can I do?”
“I guess you’ll have to call the paramedics.”
The ambulance eventually came and I sat with her the whole time, in my pajamas, asking if anything hurt, if she was all right. I put a pillow under her head. She couldn’t tell us what had happened but she seemed okay, more or less. A little confused but very pleasant and friendly to everyone—the behaviour that made her a firm favourite with all the health professionals with whom she came in contact and which made my own poorly suppressed fear and anger seem even more destructive and chaotic. I was holding it back, pushing it down, but I’m sure everyone could tell how furiously, aimlessly terrified I was. She, on the other hand, was keeping it together nicely as the various staff and then the paramedics showed up. It must have seemed, by then, like just one more strange thing that was happening to her.
I didn’t have time to put on any real clothes, not even a bra, so I pulled on a pink hoodie she’d sent me one time, the postage to New Zealand about three times the cost of the hoodie itself. They came and checked her and I felt weirdly shy to have them see the unmade foldout couch on which I’d been sleeping. They put her in a neck brace and asked me a lot of questions—“I have durable power of attorney, I have medical decision-making authority,” I said, over and over. I had her Medicaid card and her driver’s licence in my bag, which I grabbed on the way out the door. They wouldn’t let me ride in the back with her. “Mom, I’m going to be right in front. Right in front, and I’ll see you as soon as we get there. I’m going to be right here the whole time,” I babbled, to which she serenely replied, “Okay honey.”)] The paramedics lifted her in the back board into the ambulance like a queen into her palanquin and shut the doors quietly.
The driver asked me which hospital I wanted to go to. I didn’t know, I wasn’t from there, I had no idea where anything was. I knew how to get to my sister’s house and to Target, and that was it. He didn’t start the ambulance until he’d had a leisurely out-loud think about which hospital was best and what the traffic would be like and if he should take side streets or the expressway, while I chewed the inside of my cheeks raw and tried not to scream JUST WHATEVER HOSPITAL YOU HAVE AVAILABLE WILL BE FINE, SIR.
“Cancer, huh,” said the driver, as I was finally texting my sister to tell her what was going on. Four, five, six in the morning? There wasn’t a window between the front and the back of the ambulance so I couldn’t see what was happening to her.
“Yeah. Brain tumour.”
“You know, you should do some research. Online, on YouTube, there’s a documentary. About Vitamin C. Megadoses. That’s how they treat it, in Mexico, and it works much better than chemo. The pharmaceutical industry won’t allow it here because it doesn’t make them any money, but the documentary explains all that.” He went on and on as my phone beeped with frantic texts as my sister woke up.
“That’s great,” I imagined saying back to him, as we slowly, slowly pulled up to whatever hospital he’d chosen. “Why don’t we stop off at the grocery store on the way there and I’ll get a bag of goddamn oranges and we can forget that this is sort of an emergency and you are taking your sweet time getting us there.”
“Vitamin C! Look it up!” he said, with an encouraging smile as I leapt out of the passenger side, braless, to be next to her.
I texted my sister and told her not to come to the hospital, that I would take care of it, that I would be in touch. I said, “I have durable power of attorney, I have medical decision-making authority,” many times to many health care professionals. I asked for cups of water because she was thirsty, for extra blankets because she was cold. I scrolled through Facebook aimlessly as I waited in front of the MRI room. I fell asleep for a while when she was in a curtained-off cubicle, waiting for discharge papers, curled up in a little alcove next to the hospital bed. Everyone who saw her mentioned how easy she was, what a joy she was to treat. She smiled and said thank you to everyone she met. She held my hand.
At one point, when it was full bright morning, we were both hungry enough and I thought we’d be waiting for longer enough that I told her I would go I search of some food. I was still embarrassed for being braless in my pajamas—hoodie, tank top, baggy pants, flip-flops—but I asked around and finally found the hospital cafeteria. It had a Starbucks in it so I ordered the biggest, sugary-est coffee with milk they had. A fruit cup and a cinnamon bun. I’ve worked at several hospitals but had never been in one as a patient, or as The Family. Never been in a hospital cafeteria except on my lunch break, wearing my employee ID. I flip-flopped back to her room, where the doctor told me that she was fine and hadn’t broken anything and that they just needed to do some paperwork and they’d get us an ambulance home. I had no idea where we were, or how to get back to the Place, so I was grateful for the ride.
I don’t remember many more of the details; I didn’t write about it at the time because I was so ashamed I’d let her fall. I know the hospice staff later chastised me for not sleeping on a mattress on the floor in her room, and the staff at the Place got into a long and protracted battle to keep her from using a safety bed that would prevent another fall because it was against their policies. I know I was very worried about the cats the whole time we were gone, and that by the time we got back my sister had made sure to feed them. I know the second ambulance driver was a girl in her early twenties who thought it was very exotic that I lived, most of the time, in New Zealand, and wanted to know how she could live there too. I know Mom slept for the rest of the day, when we finally got back, and that that fall marked the beginning of another decline. Soon she would start whispering to herself for hours at a time, and soon she would stop being able to sit in the wheelchair at all, and soon she would start the morphine, and soon after that she would leave us.
I do remember she said, “Ooh, yummy,” when I told her I’d brought breakfast, and this is how I know it must have been early on: I broke bits of it off and handed them to her, and she ate them on her own, neatly and with a smile, looking at me gently, as if we were at brunch somewhere nice. As if we had all the time in the world to be mother and daughter; as if there was no place else she’d rather be.