Heartrates and Lifelines (and Everything In Between)
When I was a child, my mother used to hold my right hand reverently. She would trace the dark life line on my palm as if she were trying to carve it into my bones, and she would say proudly, “You’re going to live a long life.”
So, I would take her hands, warm and brown and smooth, and I would stare at her life line—which cut off abruptly in the middle—and ask her, “Will you live long too?” She would always pause before reassuring me that it didn’t mean anything. Then I would ask if her mother, who had died when my mother was 18, had had a long life line. My mother would pause, before saying no and reassuring me again that it really didn’t mean anything. But she always paused.
I always suggested that maybe if I kept tracing a longer line over it, it would grow. And my mother—who, more than anything else in the world, wanted to see her children grow old—would always let me.
I woke up in Georgetown Hospital at 5:03 AM the day my mother died.
I looked around: my sister was huddled against the wall, my brother was stretched out on three small chairs that had been pushed together, and my dad was lying just behind the monitor. Everyone else was still asleep.
My mother’s breathing had calmed down, absent of the rasp that had plagued it all afternoon, but she didn’t look peaceful. Her neck was slanted to the right to prop up her head and her eyes were swollen, only half-closed, and black with broken blood vessels.
The nurses had been especially kind since we received the news that my mother would die. If a family member is on their deathbed, the hospital provides you with all these cushy supplements, like dessert platters and unlimited coffee pots on easily transportable carts—which I’ve termed “grief carts”—because what says “Sorry for your loss,” better than an assortment of Danish pastries.
Her blood pressure had fallen to 39/24, but her BPM (breaths per minute) had increased from a gasping three to numbers closer to 10. The morphine seemed to have calmed everything down, lulling her into a deep sleep.
Five days before my mother died, I took a bus home from college. I was exhausted from the bus ride—a suffocating seven-hour trip spent inhaling residual cigarette smoke from the passenger next to me—but was anxious to see my mother. When I arrived at the hospital, true to her nature (her role as an academic was only ever superseded by her role as my mother), the first thing my mother asked me was, “Why aren’t you at school? Do your professors know you’re here?”
“Yes,” I said, exasperated. “They do.”
Four days before my mother died, I wrote her informal will. It was never called a will; no one wanted to surrender to the gravity of the situation, especially not my mother. My mother and father frequently played an odd game of cat-and-mouse when he tried to extract information. My father would ask for certain particulars, like the password of my mother’s work email, and my mother would ask why he would need it in the first place. But we all knew.
I remember being glad that my mother wasn’t looking my way because hot tears had spilled out of my eyes and fallen on the paper. I didn’t want my mother to think I had given up. She had asked me, specifically, to write it for her, so I did. But I didn’t want her to know that writing it made me feel as if I was drafting an obituary—that it felt like I was writing her death sentence.
When my mother asked me to write the list, a question burned at the back of my throat. The list had instructions to go on a 10-day family vacation once a year, buy dad a black and white checkered shirt once a year (because “he looks very handsome in black and white”), and split her jewelry equally among all three children. So, out of fear that she would fall asleep before the end of the list, I asked her hastily, “What should I title it?”
Her eyes had closed, swollen shut with fluids. “What a wonderful question,” she said.
I had qualms about my father’s decision not to tell her all the details of her medical situation at the time. I feared she wasn’t aware of her time left, her time with us. But with that, I knew that she knew she was dying. And that was comforting in a strange way.
She titled it “My Beautiful Diamonds,” and joked that she feared I would hoard all her jewelry for myself and sell it for money. Everyone laughed loudly, but even this moment of respite was strained.
“I’m still fighting,” she said, her voice becoming thick. “I’m still fighting because you all mean everything to me.”
Three days before my mother died, my sister and I spent time with her in the ICU. My sister was reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to her, adopting different voices for all the characters. My mother’s and my favorite was the African accent she had affected for the narrator. It was refined and melodic, and just how I remembered the author to have sounded in some online video I had seen.
My mother was a voracious reader. She frequently checked out books from the New York Times Bestseller list to keep au courant with the contemporary literary scene. But she no longer had the strength to hold a book and had become listless in the hospital. She hadn’t eaten for three weeks, after all.
Although I didn’t know at the time, the cancer was choking her stomach, and had spread to her liver and bladder. Food consumption was limited to gargles of water and a few small sips of coffee despite the stomach tube they had to insert a few days prior. She contracted an infection from the stomach tube, which accelerated the progression of her illness. That was ultimately why she needed to be transported to the ICU. She would have passed eventually, under similar circumstances, but the infection undoubtedly expedited the whole thing. She simply couldn’t fight it all.
My mother fell asleep after a few pages. My father and sister quietly packed up all the things they had brought with them for that day, gently kissed my mother goodnight, and vacated the room. I lingered for a few moments. I had wanted to sing to my mother again that day, before we left. I knew all her favorite songs, and she was always delighted when I sang—a mother’s pride, I suppose.
I sang “What A Wonderful World” in the afternoon for her when she was awake, but she told me that she hadn’t been able to hear me.
Two days before my mother died, I played some of her favorite songs for her: “Unchained Melody,” “Hey There Delilah,” “What A Wonderful World,” and the theme from Love Story (a romance film from the 1970s; the song was her mother’s favorite).
She was very tired that day. My interactions with her largely consisted of these fleeting moments of eye contact when she roused, before she went back to sleep. She always looked slightly alarmed when she woke up; I don’t know if this stemmed from the surprise that she did wake up or the fear that no one would be here if she didn’t. I still played the songs for her, putting the phone especially close to her ear to ensure that she could hear it this time.
She asked me to repeat the theme from Love Story a couple of times.
The day before my mother died, the nurses delivered the morphine to help her breathing. She slept.
I didn’t get to speak with her that day, but I found something when I was sifting through some of the books she had brought to the hospital. It was her Gratitude Journal. Many cancer patients are recommended to keep one so they can focus on the positive things in their life.
Her entries were extensive and carefully penned down—ranging from academic achievements (“I’m so thankful I submitted my manuscript to Mark & Allen in a timely manner. Yay!” ) to personal victories ( “I am thankful I DID NOT throw up during the night”) to appreciation for family and friends (“Thank you for giving me such a nice husband”).
They became more infrequent as time went on; some entries only had one or two things jotted down. My favorite passage was from December 2nd (only three months before she died) and was dedicated, as many were, to my father: “I am so thankful for having such a GOLDEN HUSBAND. Nobody has cared and loved me so much. How I wish I can be HEALTHY for him? How I wish my cancer disappears and we both live HAPPILY EVER AFTER.”
The day my mother died, minutes after I had woken up, her heart rate began to slow; I quickly woke my father and siblings up as well. The room was dark, only lit by the greens and reds of the monitors that had long since been silenced in preparation for the inevitable.
I sat next to my mother and traced her life line over and over.
It’s hard to rationalize a loss of this magnitude. People always say, “Remember the good times.” And, honestly, it’s such a hackneyed phrase that even referencing the fact that people say it has become a cliché. But it’s just so difficult. All I could think about were the lost times: the missed weddings and birthdays and graduations, the grandmother-less children, and the empty houses. The good times were secure in the comfortable past, but the future was cold and aching and void.
I’m not going to tell you what an amazing woman my mother was. I’m not going to tell you about how she got her PhD or how beautiful she looked with a red sari draped over her plump frame, but I want you to know that she lived a vivacious life. She loved to swim and play tennis and read in the sun and take care of her children—and she loved to eat. The pure exuberance of her life is precisely what made her death so disarming.
We all sat around her as if we were waiting for some kind of twisted fireworks show—as if we were waiting for the moment when all the heart rate and blood pressure lines would crash together and burst; as if we were waiting for sparks to fly out of the machine signaling loudly, gaudily, finally that she had passed. However, it was silent and unremarkable.
The way people quietly recede into death is disturbing to me. You would think, with how loud and over-the-top birth is, that death would compare—just on a scale of sheer theatricality. You would think that there would be some requirement of showmanship on the other end. You would think there was some injustice done to a woman who lived such a radiant life, who traveled to 18 countries, who knew six languages, who gave birth to three screaming, kicking children, who held onto so much love—you would think there was some injustice to a life like that ending unexceptionally.
But death is silent and undiscerning and unremarkable. Just another mundane breath inhaled and never pushed out. You might even miss it if you don’t watch closely.