A red-eye flight to Minneapolis after Christmas
“It’s about Mom. She’s worse. Doctor said it’s a matter of days. Can you come back?”
My sister from the Midwest was phoning on this gloomy mid-winter’s night in the Puget Sound. Rain chattering on the roof, a chill in the air.
“I’ll be there as soon as possible.”
I got on the phone, used my flight miles to get a plane the next day, and started packing a bag for Minnesota, where the temperatures hovered in sub-zero range and snow was forecast.
The past few years had been a rough patch for Mom’s health. Back surgery in her mid-70’s, respiratory infections, and then a burst colon that went untreated too long, resulting in sepsis. She almost died then. The doctors wouldn’t even give her odds. She had so many surgeries they didn’t bother to sew her up for three weeks. She survived, minus a large section of her intestines, and against her wishes, was checked into a nursing home.
She hated the nursing home, so she packed her bags one evening, called a taxi, and went back to her apartment. She was met there by Emergency Medical Services and transported back to the hospital. Eventually, she got her way – as usual – and moved back to her home. She lobbied for a re-section of her intestines some months later. It was successful. She moved out of her apartment north of St. Paul into a cozy ground floor condo in a wooded area closer to the city and set about making what would be her last home.
My daughter and I had been back to see her in December. She was perky, laughing, joking, and telling us how much better she felt and how she loved her new home. Her Christmas tree was fully decorated with ornaments from my childhood, tinsel shimmering, lights twinkling. We left fully believing this resilient 82-year-old was entering a new, exciting stage of life.
She drove to my brother’s house for New Year’s dinner, despite it being 20 degrees below zero and icy streets. A few days later she starting having serious flu-like symptoms. Soon she was once again in an ambulance on the way to the hospital. Her lungs were fragile, and she’d developed pneumonia. Within days she was hooked to a respirator and was going in and out of consciousness. And I was on my way to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on a red-eye.
I met my sister at Regions Hospital in St. Paul the next morning. I could hear Mom’s raspy breathing before I could see her. She was on strong pain medication, slipping in and out of a coma. She blinked when I talked to her. I squeezed her hand and she squeezed back. My sister had made an appointment mid-morning with her doctor and a palliative care doctor. As the oldest sibling, I was now part of the team on the ground.
The doctors cut to the chase – they’d tried everything over the past week. Nothing was working; she continued to rapidly deteriorate. It was time to move into the palliative care stage because survival was becoming less likely by the hour. The pain was getting worse, she could not breath long unassisted, and they were draining her lungs of fluid several times a day with a chest tube. She could pass any time, but almost certainly within a couple days. She’d stay right where she was, in a quiet and naturally lit room.
The Death Watch
My youngest sister, with her young daughter and her husband, arrived from Hawaii. So with my other sister, her daughter and her husband, who lived close by in Wisconsin, we were seven strong. We worked out a plan so that at least one of us would be at our mother’s bedside from morning until evening. My Hawaii sister’s family took that evening’s shift. My Wisconsin sister’s family lived close by, so they drove home. I was staying with long-time friends in Stillwater, where I’d grown up, just a half-hour’s drive from the hospital.
I had the next morning’s shift. Mom was slightly responsive, so I sat or stood by her bed, held her hand and talked with her. I just talked. The old days. The farm we grew up on. The weather. Politics (which she loved). Kids now days. She showed signs of recognition and comprehension.
I took regular breaks to walk around the big city hospital, get coffee, and have breakfast. I was already a familiar face to hospital staff in this section, and they always greeted me with a smile and an offer of assistance. I remember how pleasant Minnesota people can be. Minnesota nice.
I put her headphones over her ears, moved a chair close to the windows, and sat down. We were at the far end of a very large room with high ceilings on an upper floor of the hospital. Thick curtains were set up to divide the room, or open it, as needed. A wall of windows overlooked downtown St. Paul, its air frozen still in the deep winter sun, as if you could shatter it into a million pieces with a light hammer blow. Smoke from the ventilation systems suspended in frozen puffs above the buildings. No sign of even a breeze.
I put my head in my hands to cover my eyes and consider what was happening. There is little you can do to change some things, but more that you can do to make it easier on everyone else. I heard a rustling in the curtain between where I was sitting and my mother’s bed.
I looked up to see who it was. But I saw no one. I thought perhaps the ventilation system had disturbed the curtains, but there were no vents there. There was no movement otherwise in the room. No nurses, no staff, not even a voice. All the activity in the section of the room beyond the next curtain was very hushed because in this part of the hospital, the patients were very sick. Everyone was quiet, except for the lights blinking and a variety of machine noises.
I put my head back into my hands, and almost immediately I not only heard, but felt, the air around me begin to move. At first it was a whispered breath passing my face, but then the air moved more turbulently, like a small, invisible tornado passing by. I looked around and still saw nothing. I went around the curtain to my mother’s bed. There was no one there but her. Somehow her breathing seemed steadier and she was resting, so I said nothing.
I went back to the window area and looked out again over the city. Then I heard the distinct sound behind me of the curtains again rustling. As I turned around, I saw them move, shimmer, from top to bottom. An air disturbance seemed to come toward me, then the curtains stopped moving. But in front of me air seemed to be moving, shifting. I still could not see what was causing it, but I could feel it breathe on my shirt. My face felt cooler. A shiver went through me. I could now distinctly hear wind rushing between canyons of fabric walls.
This is where my senses stopped being helpful in making any sense of what seemed to be pure energy moving rapidly, erratically, very close by. It had mass that I could feel, but not see. My logical mind kept telling me this could not be, that it was not. But it was. Something was.
There was another presence in the room that I could feel, but not see. I reached out to try to touch it, and I took a step toward the turbulent air mass, but as I came closer, it moved away. Then it was in back of me. I turned, and now looking towards the windows I detected, not saw, but detected somehow the source of this presence. It was at the top of the room. It moved across the room, over the curtains, rustling them once again, then came past my mother’s hospital bed and around the curtains.
It was rapidly moving towards me. I felt the force of air in front of it pushing on me. As it came almost next to me, it dissipated. Instantly. As if it were never there. The room became as it was before. Curtains hanging languidly. Not a sound except my mother’s breathing, and my heart beating.
I went to the bedside. Mom seemed to be resting easier. Before, I could see her fighting the respirator, with a grimace on her face, her hands clenched, her arms stiff has she braced against the IV’s taped into her. Her breathing was still labored but steady. The body tension had retreated. She seemed to be slightly smiling.
My sisters and my two nieces walked in a bit later. I could not begin to tell them what had just happened because I would not have known what I was describing. I still don’t.
We started talking from both sides of Mom’s bed. We kept the conversation natural so that we included her. We weren’t sure what she heard, but it didn’t matter. We just wanted her to feel our voices.
As we discussed the weather, the news, the ordinary and mundane, Mom stopped breathing. She was breathing, then with one long exhaled breath, she stopped. She was still. She had died. Her face was relaxed, and all stress left her. She looked smaller.
“She’s gone,” one of us said.
“Could you please get a nurse?” I asked my oldest niece.
She was gone. But to where? Did she go with The Visitor? Who was The Visitor? What was The Visitor? Did The Visitor come to check up on her? Did The Visitor come to make her more comfortable? Did The Visitor come to take her? From where did The Visitor come? Why did The Visitor make itself known to me? Was there a message?
I don’t know the answers. I categorize myself for the sake of convenience as spiritual, but not religious. For now, I have only concluded that I had a visitor from somewhere else, a place I do not know. I’m not in a hurry to meet this presence again. Though maybe we all will in the end.