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It’s been over two months since my mother passed away on Monday, October 13. While she had wanted to die for the past few years, and talked nearly daily about slitting her wrist or drinking cyanide, it was startling when the “fait accompli” occurred.

Months earlier, she went on hunger strike, barely eating a few hundred calories a day. When her weight reached 73 pounds, Rich rushed her to the doctor, who prescribed several medications, designed to improve her appetite and attitude. They worked with her gaining a few pounds, and not fighting the staff when they took her down to the dining room for lunch. Doris Stark

Her progress was short-lived, however, with her once again refusing to eat, and becoming so weak, she was mostly bedridden. We bought her a foam mattress to make it more comfortable, and the staff propped her up with multiple pillows.

We visited every weekend, and each week, her ability to keep her head on the pillow, and not slump into her chest declined. The last Saturday we saw her, she was awake, but confused, her head tilted off to one side.

The next evening, we received a call that she had a very high temperature, and possibly pneumonia. After several calls, the retirement home got permission to call an ambulance to take her to the emergency room.

We spoke to the physician who confirmed she had pneumonia, and recommended a round of antibiotics. We then got ready for bed. As we were climbed under the covers, we received a call from the admitted physician who bluntly said my mother’s body was dying, and we should get to the hospital immediately. She comment that prescribing antibiotics was like taking vitamins to fight cancer.

After hurriedly getting dressed, grabbing our computers, and stopping at McDonald’s for coffee, we headed up to Mount Vernon, arriving around midnight. My mother was in great distress, struggling to breathe, confused, and extremely cold and uncomfortable with the nurses having to constantly clean her up, and change her linens. It was frightening to see her.

Around 1 a.m., we meet with the admitting physician who reeled off the list of her ailments, including pneumonia, possible heart attack, failing kidneys, septicemia, and high potassium levels. My mother’s body was shutting down, and she could conceivably not make it through the night.

With nothing to do, but wait, and my mother waving us away when we were in her room, and then drifting off to sleep for a few minutes, we drove to our Mount Vernon house to catch a few hours of sleep.

The next morning, I called my brother, who lives in Portland, before heading back to the hospital.

While still struggling to breath, my mother appeared more comfortable, having had several injections of pain killers. We waited until after 10 a.m. to speak with the palliative care team, which had met earlier to discuss my mother’s and other patients’ treatment plans.

A palliative care nurse, and young physician (who was probably in training), escorted Rich and I to a conference room. A decision was made to administer a morphine drip, and then return my mother to the retirement home the following day for hospice care. I secretly hoped she’d pass away before then since getting her ready to go by ambulance back to the retirement home, and then wheeling her in a gurney up to her room– even though it was less than a mile away – would be very disruptive and cause her more discomfort.

With my mother resting, after the morphine drip was administered, Rich decided we should go to Costco for flu shots (he’s all about efficiency).

When we returned, my brother and his girlfriend Trinka were at my mother’s side. They’d brought their Kindle and were playing soft music, which was a welcome distraction, along with the dimmed lights. We caught up on news while Trinka sat on one side of my mother’s bed, knitting, my brother was on the other side, in a daze, and Rich and I were on a sofa across the room, periodically checking our phones.

Around 3 o’clock, Rich abruptly decided we should retrieve my mother’s cat from the retirement home, since my brother and Trinka agreed to take the cat. We’d taken a few steps down the hall when my brother chased us down, saying he thought my mother had stopped breathing.

Rich rushed back to the room, while I got a nurse. Sure enough, she’d stopped breathing. According to her living will, she wasn’t to be resuscitated. It was very surreal to know she was gone. None of us knew when she’d actually passed. It could have been ten minutes or a few seconds.

We said our “good-byes,” and then walked out into the crisp air. A gust of wind caught us off-guard, and was a precursor to a sudden storm, complete with lightening, thunder, and pelting rain.

While my brother and Trinka headed back to Oregon, with my mother’s cat Mei-Mei and a few needlepoint pictures from her room, Rich and I visited a mortuary to make agreements for the body. It was disconcerting responding to questions about your mother, who was reduced to one of many bodies in the hospital’s morgue.

I was asked whether I wanted my mother cremated, wearing a certain outfit? No. The idea of someone taking her out of the body bag, and trying to pull clothes on her stiff body seemed unimaginable awful. Was there going to be a funeral? No. Did she have a pace-maker? No. What did I want done with the ashes? I didn’t know.

The questions continued.

All I could think about was whether the body could be cremated within a few days, according to Jewish custom. The mortuary director couldn’t give an exact day; it depended on when the death certificate could be signed.

After making the necessary arrangements, and handing the mortician a check, we made a quick stop at our Mount Vernon house and then heading back to Kirkland, less than 24-hours since we’d frantically driven up the night before.

A few days later my mother’s body was cremated, and I sighed in relief. We brought her ashes, along with those of her favorite cat Growltiger, to my brother at Thanksgiving. He’s researching whether the ashes can be placed in the pond at the Portland Japanese Garden. Otherwise, they’ll disperse the ashes at the Oregon coast.

The last few months of my mother’s life, she was fixated on “returning home” to Burbank. I imagine she’s somewhere in Burbank of yesteryear with tidy bungalows, and palm tree-lined streets. She’s riding her bike around the back lots of the movie studios. Maybe she’s at high school, talking with Debbie Reynold’s brother, chatting with Nic Tayback (on the TV series Alice), and other people who ended up in Hollywood. Or perhaps, she’s with her first love, a man named Herbert Ross, who she lived with in the 50’s, and then reconnected with him after my father died.

Doris Stark
May 17, 1930 – October 13, 2014

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