5 days after I left my mother, she passed away at age 84.
I received a phone call from my brother on Saturday night, the day after I came back to the States, saying my mother was back in the hospital. She had severe pain in her stomach and woke up my father. He called the home-visit nurse and the doctor and they accompanied her to the hospital. The pain was so terrible my mother, who never complains and can endure a lot, was near tears. They administered a strong dose of pain killer to make her comfortable, which eventually helped her to sleep. I called and talked to my dad who said she was actually doing pretty well yesterday--ate all three meals and even took a short walk outside with him. He sounded exhausted and concerned in a way that he was not previously.
The next 4 days were hell. I talked to my dad and my brother everyday to hear updates, but it did not seem like things were moving in a direction we wanted. In one phone conversation my father said, "I don't know she will be able to come home." I had no words. My brother was still optimistic and we agreed that he should see the doctor with my dad and ask some questions including about going to a larger research hospital. I couldn't shake the bad feeling and every time I got in my car, I broke down crying. I wanted to be there. But at that moment, it seemed better to sit and see if things would improve especially because I had just returned from being away from my daughter for 10 days.
Her condition was not improving but my mother's pain got under control enough for her to talk and visit with my dad and my brother. On Tuesday, my dad spent all afternoon with her, chatting and visiting, and my brother was able to stop by for about 15 minutes before visiting hours were over. On Wednesday morning, the doctor called my dad and asked if they could meet and my dad called my brother to see if he could join them. I got my first phone call of that day that my brother was headed there and when he found out what was going on, he was going to call me back. I spent the next two hours in complete stress. They went in and had a talk with the doctor who explained that they had exhausted their resources and her condition was deteriorating. She was facing brand new issues this time around and the blockage in her intestines, which they were able to remove in her previous visits, was not moving at all. They suspected it was starting to fall apart inside her and putting a lot of pressure on other organs. My dad requested that they do everything they can to make her comfortable and asked how long she had. The doctor said hard to say but the way things are going, she could last for a few days. maybe a week, but she could go as early as that night.
After that meeting, they pondered going into my mom's room--and this is the decision they are still regretting--but they decided if the two of them went together in the middle of the day on a week day, my mom would suspect the worst so they went to grab a quick lunch at nearby place and my dad was going back to see Mom, and my brother was going to go back to his office and stop by later--their normal visiting times. But as they were eating, the phone rang. The nurse said my mother's heart was weakening and they should rush over.
They went in and were stunned to see that my mom was no longer conscious, though her eyes were slightly open. My brother said it was as if all other parts of her body had failed except for her heart, which was working so hard to keep pumping. The second phone call came in from my brother then. He told me to make arrangements to come if possible. Neither one of us thought I'd make it but it was important to make the effort just in case. My brother told two of my nieces (19 and 15) who were home to come right over (the hospital is only about 20 minutes away). He could not get a hold of his wife who was at work and my youngest niece was at school, but the 4 of them gathered. My dad and my brother each took my mother's hands and within an hour, she drew her last breath. And that was my third phone call.
I hang up the phone and cried so hard that my daughter was startled. I don't remember how I packed, but I did with assistance from my husband and I got on the computer to take care of some work related emails--mostly to give myself something to do. I climbed into bed at 3:00 am, but did not sleep a wink. We went to the airport one more time, and though my husband and daughter were following me the next day, it was difficult to part from them. I had no control over my tears while waiting to get on the flight and my entire body hurt from crying all night.
I had minor anxiety attacks during the ten hour flight, which I never had before. I couldn't concentrate and it the flight took forever. I got to Tokyo and my brother greeted me at the airport. We had a long good talk on the way in. Though the day I arrived was warm and sunny, my brother said it was cold and pouring rain the day before. He said it was "Namida Ame," rain of tears.
In Japan, when people die, they come home first, if you have the space to accommodate. My nieces ran home to grab some clothes for my mother and the hospital nurse dressed her and put a little make up on her. As she was being wheeled out, the entire third floor nursing staff (about twenty five of them) who had taken care of my mother all year came out to bid her farewell. My mother got to know them well and knew every single one of their names. The home visit nurses came to help her body into the vehicle and she was brought home that afternoon. She was laid in the guest room.
Because we don't embalm, the body is laid on a futon with dry ice around the it under the blanket and you crank the air conditioning in the room. Once the body is in a casket, they hide some more dry ice. There is a window that you can open to view her face, but it has a clear cover to keep the cold in to preserve the body. It may sound creepy, but it's actually very tastefully done.
When I got there, she had been there only for about 24 hours. My brother took me to her and said, "Look Mom, Mimi came back for you." I held my breath and saw her face. She looked peaceful. Like she was sleeping, with absolutely no pain. And she looked young. And though she was so cold, I gave her a kiss on her forehead.
The next several days were busy. The funeral director and two of his staff came to meet with us to talk logistics and while we did that, a young lady took care of cleaning my mother's body one last time and dressed her in more formal and appropriate clothes, which my brother requested I choose. My mother worked in a wide variety of very high-profile international women's volunteer organizations that raised funds for various causes. She always wore suits in her official duties so her closet was full of them. I went through each and every one and pulled out one that was my favorite, the one we bought together a long time ago at Lord & Taylor in Boston. She always looked good in it. I felt she should look her best for her departure.
The young woman came in to ask how she should tie the scarf so I went in and helped. Then she asked if there was a lipstick she should use so I went and grabbed one from my mother's makeup. I grabbed a blush as well. I sat next to her as she applied my mother's make up and she asked at every step if Mom looked right. She was very gentle and kind in her demeanor and I felt like this was my last daughterly duty I could do for my mom. The woman said, "She had such beautiful skin."
When it was done, she looked good. They then lifted her up with a white cloth and placed her in the casket and made an altar with a large photo (which my brother and father chose the night she died), a cross, and candles. Then the flower arranger came and arranged about 25 of the flower arrangements (including ones from royalty--but more on that another time) that had already arrived around the casket. The room looked beautiful.
Then the visitors started pouring in. Before the wake and the funeral (especially because we decided not to rush the process), people who wish to spend a private moment with my mother paid visits to come view her. We serve tea to each party and sit and chat for a bit. Some really good childhood friends of mine came, some of her students (she also taught English privately for about 60 years), family and old friends. While conversation often repeated, it was comforting to be with people who loved my mother and to have them cry with us.
My brother and I decided to put a CD player in the room to pipe in some music, as she was a great lover of classical and liturgical music. There was a funny side conversation about whether we should keep the music playing through the night but we decided to let her sleep (?!). We also changed up the music every now and then. Every time my brother walked by, he would peek in to say "hi" to my mom which I thought was sweet. I said my good morning and good nights.
This is a time in which it helps you to grasp the concept that she is gone. It still makes it horribly difficult because we are still surrounded by her things to which she intended to come back, but there is also that physical evidence that she is gone, right there in that room. I am appreciating my culture right now.
Her wake is this evening and her funeral tomorrow. She was a devout Catholic so the ceremonies will be more western than traditional Japanese, but there seem to be some Japaneseness peppered throughout. The attire pretty much is black suit or dress, in a modest conservative style with single strand of pearls (apparently if you double it, you double your misfortune). I will be wearing my mother's pearls. While I miss her in this house, I am also anxious to send her off now.
The soup I made was left in the freezer, by the way. One of many things she didn't get to. But rather than collapsing and sobbing in front of the freezer like I felt like doing, we defrosted the soup and ate it as a family. It was good.