A Tale of the Heart

“What else can I tell you?” Sharon asked her mother. Her mother who stared at the ceiling without blinking, it seemed. Without showing any emotion. Tucked into a hospital bed, tubes snaking everywhere. But nobody home.

Sharon checked the numbers monitoring her mother’s blood pressure, heartbeat, and oxygen level. It was an exercise in futility, she knew, but what else could she do? She couldn’t shake her mother back into consciousness. There was no amount of coaxing or pleading that would work miracles that medicine could not.

“Did I mention that Pete planted the corn and tomatoes this week? Or that Steve might come for a visit in July?” Sharon gently patted her mother’s hand. She stroked her withered fingers, hoping there would be some kind of reaction. There was not.

Her mother was losing her battle. Slowly. Steadily. Most recently her mother had lost the ability to swallow, so no food or water for her. She couldn’t breathe on her own, either. The doctors said there was no hope for recovery, that her m other was too far gone to come back. But her dad had refused to let her mother go gracefully, and so the medical staff complied by keeping the ventilator, monitors, and feeding tubes in place. It was a sad way to go.

Sharon stepped out into the hallway, just in time to see her mother’s doctor arrive at the central desk. She quietly moved to his side, and asked, “Dr. Nguyen, is there any change?”

“No, Mrs. Chalmers, there is not.”

“Have you spoken to my father recently?”

“Yesterday. Still no change in his feelings, however,” Dr. Nguyen replied as he replaced the chart on the rack. “Let’s see how your mother is doing today.” He held the chart loosely in his hands as he took the steps to her mother’s room.

Sharon hesitantly followed, not wanting to witness the daily poking and prodding performed on her helpless mother, yet at the same time feeling a need to be there to witness any reaction that might signal some small degree of improvement.

“Hello, Mrs. Holmes,” Dr. Nguyen cheerfully said as he touched Sharon’s mother on the forehead. “How are you feeling today?” Getting no response, Dr. Nguyen began his examination anyway. Sharon stepped out into the hall to give her mother some privacy and sat in a chair just outside the door.

Over the past few months, Sharon had spent many hours of each day sitting and waiting with her father while one of many different specialists tried to bring her mother back to life. Over and over, she tried to discuss the effects of dementia with her father, explaining how the illness takes the mind first, then slowly the functioning of the body. He didn’t want to hear the truth, always believing that there was a pill or procedure that would revitalize the woman he loved.

While Sharon respected his eternal optimism, she didn’t share his feelings. There was no way to reconnect the pieces of the brain that were gone, no way to restore the bodily functions damaged. Optimism has its place, but only where there is hope. There was none here.

Sharon wanted her mother to die in peace. To live the rest of her days with some degree of dignity. Her father wanted full recovery and so they were at odds. This was not an unexpected state. She had grown up feeling like a pawn in her parent’s never ending war.

Her father was a strict taskmaster who saw in Sharon someone whose only goal should be the running of house and family. Her mother saw her as a house maid, someone to take care of laundry and cleaning. Someone who should learn how to cook for a husband.

This made for a difficult situation, as Susan dreamed of escape. Of college and job and independence.

As a young girl, Sharon feared her parent’s wrath, her father with his explosive, irrational temper and her mother with a jealous streak that she deployed whenever she wanted to control loyalties. Things only worsened as both of them aged, for they become more and more demanding of Sharon’s time. To the point that her parents believed that Friday nights were to be spent with them, in their home. No options allowed.

Sharon quietly rebelled. Calls were infrequent and visits occurred only when Sharon felt she couldn’t get out of it.

But when her mother fell ill, her father called on her more and more as an equal. He needed Sharon’s calmness that he had never before respected. Someone to help him pass through the difficult days of watching his wife disappear. Someone to share the burden of sitting by the bedside, talking and holding hands as if there was someone still actively alive in there, and that Sharon could do.

When Dr. Nguyen left the room, shaking his head to indicate no change, Sharon settled into the chair next to her mother’s bed. The ventilator continued its rhythmic hiss, forcing air into her mother’s lungs. Her mother’s chest rose and fell, rose and fell, never changing in rhythm.

While Sharon did not come every day, she came as often as she could. She read books aloud or articles from the newspaper. She talked about her son and daughter-in-law, what they were doing and places they had gone. It was tiring, always trying to think of something new to say, knowing that there would never be a response.

There were questions that plagued Sharon, that had plagued her for many years. Like why her mother never loved her, why she never had a kind word to say, why there was never a hug or a kiss on the cheek. She wanted to know why her mother never whispered a word of thanks for all the gifts, and lunches, and time spent together over the years. Why nothing Sharon did pleased her mother. All the things Sharon never had the strength to ask when there was still a mother to ask.

Later this afternoon the respiratory therapist was going to remove the ventilator to see if her mother could resume breathing on her own. It had been tried twice before, and failed both times. Sharon’s father had agreed to one more attempt, and then he claimed that he would allow her mother to pass away in peace.

That’s why Sharon was here this day. That this was to be her mother’s last day on earth. Sharon’s feelings rocketed from one extreme to another. Guilt for hoping that the end would come. Relief for being freed from the chore of sitting by the bedside. Worry about how her father will react. Sadness at the loss of the mother she wanted but never had. Knowing that there were only hours left, and that the relationship could never be repaired, tears flowed down her cheeks.

“Well, Mother,” Sharon whispered, “I guess this is it. This is the last chance we have to be together,” she said. “I guess you could say that we loved each other, in our own way. Even if it wasn’t enough for me, it seemed to have been enough for you.”

Sharon pushed her large body out of the chair to look out the window. Behind her the whoosh of the ventilator continued its easy rhythm and the clicking of the monitors never skipped a beat. She watched a young family of four walk toward the hospital doors, hand in hand, followed by an elderly couple shuffling at snail’s pace pushing an oxygen tank between them. A gust of wind blew some loose papers out of the gutter and across the parking lot, lodging under the tires of a small blue car. Wispy clouds dotted the sky, and off in the distance, a lone hawk circled around and around as if searching for a lost loved one.

Her reverie was broken by a series of loud alarms erupting behind her. When she turned, she saw that the monitors showed straight red lines. She watched dispassionately as the medical team rushed in and attempted to resuscitate her mother by adjusting this machine and that and even using the defibrillation paddles to restart her mother’s heart.

Nothing worked. The dementia had taken its final steps, shutting down one more organ, the most vital for life. Her mother’s heart. The one thing Sharon had yearned to touch was gone forever. She walked out of the room, out of the hospital, out into the brisk afternoon, and watched the hawk circle alone.

About Terry Connelly

Terry Connelly is a retired high school English teacher. She earned her BA and Single Subject Teaching credential from California State University of the East Bay, in Hayward, California. She taught for 18 years at Newark Memorial High School in Newark, California. She was gifted to work with both College Prep students and those with learning disabilities.
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