For the past few weeks, my mother-in-law, Kate, had been on life support.
But, in reality, Mom or Bookie, as I called her, had been on life support for nearly 14 years. On such a night that is loathed, doctors told her years ago to begin treatment or die. Her initial response was to decline. She was defiant. Until she realized saying no meant saying yes to the end of life.
In those early days of dialysis, which is the removal of excess fluid from the body, we had to drive Mom to Lumberton, North Carolina, a town about 10 miles from her home in St. Pauls, for treatment. Back then, there just were not a lot of facilities available.
But, sadly, as people began to lose kidney function because of the horrendous toll that overmedication wreaks on that organ and because of the blatant excessiveness of drinking soft drinks, sweet tea, and anything but water, facilities began to pop up everywhere, including two in St. Pauls. Eventually, we simply had to drive her uptown.
I can remember in those early days of heart-dropping moments when we would approach a facility to be barred because an ambulance was there to retrieve someone who had succumbed to treatment or to the taxing injury that treatment had on their heart or blood pressure.
We sometimes wouldn’t know for a while if the ambulance was there to pick up Mom. It was gut-wrenching. Afterwards, we’d be faced with Mom’s sadness having watched the person lying on the bed next to her die.
She’d tell us that the devil had told her she would die of kidney failure one day. She’d say that she told the devil he was a lie. And, so she fought on.
She fought nearly 14 years: through three to four hours of treatment, three days a week. She fought, on days warmed by blankets because the response of blood leaving the body is chills. Some of us, on occasion, have the luxury of rescheduling a doctor’s appointment. She did not. To miss too many appointments with dialysis was to schedule an appointment with death.
We loved Mom. We carried her to dialysis. We picked her up from dialysis. We went with her to surgeries to have her port (a device through which treatment is given) removed to another part of her body, usually an arm or her neck. We carried her because, in spite of it all, she was really carrying us.
Our matriarch. The woman who would sing gospel to gird herself, the one who preached to us about her determination to live, to not succumb, to not take that ride in that ambulance.
Mom suffered a heart attack and died last year. The doctors brought her back. We were worried. But, she told us that if she didn’t say bye, we should’ve known she wasn’t going anywhere.
Weeks ago, she was rushed to a local hospital. Since I was the closest, I was the first to arrive in the emergency room. The last thing she told me was that she didn’t feel like talking. I told her to get well. When my father-in-law arrived, because the ER only allowed one Family member in at a time, I kissed her and told her I loved her. Later that night, she was transferred to UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Bookie was placed on life support. In surgery, she had a portion of her intestines removed. Her heart was failing, her lungs were compromised, her legs had poor circulation, her blood pressure was tenuous and she was on almost round-the-clock dialysis.
Mom never spoke again.
We were called in on Oct. 13 to tell her goodbye. In her own way, she had been telling us the same. In one of our last phone conversations she had told me, “My life has come full circle. I could die now.”
When her birthday rolled around in early August, she asked only for Family pictures.
“That’s all I want before I die,” she said.
Bookie prayed over my son, TJ, at his birthday party in mid-September, the last time she was in our home. She talked about her childhood, about her failing health. She laughed. She cried. She sang.
I’m still blessed to have my birth mother, Emma. But, in the months before I married my husband, I had this one woman who told me to call her Mom. I’m not Ms. Kate. I’m not Ms. Ray. I’m Mom.
From her, I learned many lessons: Sing your way through difficulty, love the smallest gifts (from a plastic flower out of a dollar store to scented candles from the mall), never interfere with your children’s marriage — whether it’s on track or running off the rails, it’s theirs to uphold or discard, and be yourself — a woman who was fearless, honest and straight-up.
By Mom’s deathbed, I squeezed her hand and told her I love her. We told her that all her children were there, all her grandchildren. We told her that we would be alright. She shed a single tear.
At my father-in-law’s request, I read 1 Corinthians 15:51-58. Verse 55 says, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? Verse 57 answers those questions: “But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Bookie gave us the victory to worship on Sundays when we are taxed by the troubles of this world, to live a Christian life, not just on Sunday, but each day of the week. To call the devil a lie. Mom died looking at heaven, eyes wide open, breathing slowed to nothing.
But, the life she breathed into our Family will carry through the generations.
Bookie, we call that life support.