Nurse, a memoir

About the unanswerable.

“Should I get married?” T asked as we stepped outside the room at the skilled nursing facility. “Should I? Should I do it now? Should I wait?”

“Ermmmm,” I faltered, feeling utterly and completely unprepared to answer this question. “Well, that’s up to you….” A lame answer for a really heartfelt and heartbreaking question. I had no idea what to tell her. As a hospice nurse this was not my question. I was far more comfortable being asked questions about death and dying, not about whether or not to get married and when.  

T’s wedding was scheduled for tomorrow. Her mother, M, had been in a skilled nursing facility for the past year for a variety of health issues and overall decline. T, the woman standing across from me in the busy hallway, was middle aged and getting married for the first time. Family had been coming into town for the previous five days. Getting ready for T’s wedding. Coming to say hello to M, T’s mother. Say goodbye too, as it turned out. It was not supposed to be this way. It never is. But sometimes, that is life, in its raw-ness.

M was young to be in a skilled nursing facility. A perfect storm of diagnoses that all hit at the same time leading to an inability to care for herself or fully remember herself or thrive. M had wrestled and struggled and fought against it, T told me. But after losing M for 24 hours, to be found wandering in a canyon by joggers the next day, the decision was made for a 24-hour managed care facility. And M had slowly declined there for the past year.

About the same time, as her heart was breaking, life gave T an olive branch of sorts. Love and an engagement and a wedding to plan. Sun and clouds. Rainbows and rain. Dark and light and everything in between. M had been so happy for T. She had been so happy when she remembered who T was and what she was supposed to be happy about.

“What’s a wedding?” M asked me a few days before when I stopped by to check on her. “Everyone keeps asking me about the wedding,” she confided, “but I don’t know what that is….” She whispered this to me as I leaned in to listen to her breathing with the stethoscope.

“Oh gosh,” was all I could think to say at that moment, to the mother of the bride.

And now, after seeing all the family and friends over the past five days, M had stopped waking up and stopped eating. She smiled at voices but never responded otherwise. She was breathing. She had a pulse.  But no food and no water for two days.

And now this question, from T, “should I get married? Tomorrow? All these people are here. Everything planned. Planned for the past year…”

And so we stood in the hallway, her looking at me with her unanswerable question and some sort of hope I would have an answer. But the real question was, will my mom die tomorrow? Will my mom die on my wedding day? And what do I do?

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