Listening to My Mother

by Helen LaCrosse Levesque

My mother's cancer was not diagnosed until it was too late for curative treatment. The cancer had invaded her spinal column and, in a matter of weeks, she had become paralyzed from the waist down. Her doctor warned that the paralysis would spread with the cancer and recommended a type of palliative chemotherapy which, though invasive and requiring hospitalization, would give her the best chance of retaining some control of her upper body in the months or weeks which she might have left to live.

In the hours after her first chemotherapy, my mother's condition inexplicably deteriorated. She developed a fever and become delirious. For hours, she unceasingly called out, "I want to die; please take me, Lord." Later, the fever decreased, and her calling out quieted and changed. Her speech became seemingly nonsensical. I mentioned this change to the nurses, and they suggested that the morphine she had been given had eased her pain but rendered her confused. I accepted this, but, since I was spending the night in her hospital room, I could not help but listen to these new utterances. They mostly involved appeals on my mother's part to her mother, who had died seven years earlier, not to leave her. "Please take me with you, Mother, don't leave me here," she would say. "I'm ready to go home now, Mother."

Towards morning, my mother began to ask me if she could lie down. Because of the paralysis, my mother had been doing nothing but lying down for weeks. I tried to tell her this, and she became very distressed. I went to the nurses' station and relayed this new request of my mother's. They suggested that I play along and that I also tell my mother that it was time to go to sleep. I went back and told my mother that it was okay, that she could lie down. She continued to insist that she needed to lie down, and, each time, I said, okay, she could lie down and go to sleep. Sometimes she asked if she could go to sleep. I would say yes, but she would ask me again a minute later.

During the days that followed, my mother remained what the hospital staff called confused. Every few hours, a resident would come in with a battery of questions: who am I, who is this person, who is the president of the U.S.? My mother often responded with answers that were incorrect yet had some meaning. For instance, to the last question, she once answered, "Hillary." When asked who my father was, she responded, "Little Tommy," which was what my father's mother, but not usually my mother, had called him. She once answered that I was her mother; when I corrected her, she responded with a compliment, "You're too beautiful to be my daughter."

Her doctor searched for an explanation for this continuing confusion. He suggested that it might be the morphine. To our horror, he also suggested that the cancer might have spread to her brain and that there was a good chance that she would become totally senile within a few days. He added that, since the chemotherapy had had no effect, and my mother was now paralyzed from the neck down, he had nothing left to offer her. Hoping that my mother would be more herself in familiar surroundings, my father and I arranged to care for her at home with assistance from a wonderful home-hospice program.

My mother lived only nine days after coming home. Much of that time, she continued to say things that we did not understand. For instance, although confined to the rented hospital bed, she would continue to ask us if she could lie down. What was most disturbing to me was that she did not seem to recognize the house or her bedroom. She responded to all conversation about where she was with gentle denials, saying that this was not her home.

Each morning, Carla, a nurse's aid from the hospice program, came to bathe my mother. On her eighth day at home, my mother was more alert than she had been in a couple of weeks. She asked, in the presence of Carla and myself, if she had seen a priest. I told her that she had received the Sacrament of the Sick while in the hospital, and she seemed relieved. Then she asked if her father, her aunt, and my husband, the only close family not present, could come to see her. Carla whispered to me that people know when they are dying and that I should do whatever my mother asked. We arranged for her father and aunt to come. My husband was the furthest away and could not get a flight until the next morning.

Later that day, my mother told me that she would be gone by the next morning. When her father and aunt arrived, she asked my father, in all our presence, for his permission to die. At first my father could not say yes, but she asked again and again. Finally, he said, yes, he gave her his permission to die. She made him repeat it a couple of times.

Late that night, I was watching my mother sleep, and she woke and told me that she could see the ghost. I asked her, what ghost? She responded, the Holy Ghost. Then she said that she could see the lights of heaven, not one light, but many lights, like stars. She said that the Holy Ghost was right in front of her, waiting to lead her to heaven. Then she talked so quietly that I could not understand her; but, from what I heard, I thought that she was conversing with her mother.

My husband arrived the next morning, and my mother died within an hour afterwards, with my father, my husband, and myself at her bedside.

I cherish the memories of the last weeks I spent with my mother. I am thankful that, at least in retrospect, I can see so much meaning in statements that, at the time, seemed to be symptoms of morphine or cancer-induced confusion. I do wonder how, especially since I am a psychologist, it could have taken me so long to understand my mother's metaphors. Lying down and going to sleep were metaphors for dying. She had been asking our permission to die for weeks. But, now, what I wonder most about is, what was metaphor and what was not. Whas she telling me that she was not at home because her home was now elsewhere? Were my deceased grandmother and the Holy Spririt actually there? And could she really see the lights of heaven?

In memory of Margaret Hamilton LaCrosse, 1938-1994

Helen LaCrosse Levesque
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Helen LaCrosse Levesque is a research psychologist interested in the metaphorical langauge of the dying. She would be interested in hearing from others about this topic.
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