Story based on a family's experience. It took place in a small town hospital.
THE CLOCK OF LIFE MUST STOP ON TIME
In her hospital bed, Mom's world was limited. She was lying amidst plastic tubes, wires, flashing lights, the sounds of monitors. The machines breathed for her and dulled any pain that may have surged through her body. She saw nothing. She heard nothing.
"Hank, Mom's been this way for three days without voluntarily moving a muscle, not even her little finger. That's her body, but Mom is not in there. Her beautiful spirit is trapped somewhere between her riddled body and the Other Side, wherever that is." Tears again filled my eyes. "Bro, she needs to be free. We both know that," Hank was holding one of her hands and I, the other.
"I know, Hanna, I know. I just hope Harriett and Hal feel the same way." He bent to kiss Mom's hand then he laid his head on the kiss. His shoulders shook as the sounds of his broken heart filled the room.
Together, we sat with Mom through the night, listening to the sounds that she could not hear, and whispering to the nurse who came in from time to time. In our minds and hearts, we knew her time had come and we must let it come naturally and peacefully. Mom often told me that "the clock of life must stop on time" and, we had just read those words in her Living Will.
The next day Harriet arrived from upstate New York where she was a Judge after 10 years of practice as a Family Law attorney; and, Hal flew in from Alaska. He worked in the interior oil fields and it had been difficult for him to find earlier transportation.
The following morning, the four of us arrived on time to keep our appointment with Neurosurgeon Phillip Toner, M.D., Intensive Care Unit Director Katrina King, R.N., and Emergency Room Physician Karl Donahue, M.D.
Ms. King spoke first and I knew immediately that she was a nurse with courage and compassion. It took courage for any nurse to question or meet head-on with any physician. I respected the firmness in her voice as she spoke to the neurosurgeon. Her tone was firm and her words clear.
"Dr. Toner, I asked you to meet today with Mrs. Holden's family because I do not believe they have been given adequate and truthful information about their mother's condition. They have not seen the MRI's so they can't fully understand what her life might be like because of the damage to her brain."
Katrina King, R.N., opened her computer, and then turned it so that all of us could see the MRI pictures of Mom's brain. By comparing the before and after MRI's, I immediately saw the significant damage the accident and the surgery had caused. Her brain had shrunken until more than a third of it had disappeared.
I turned to the renowned neurosurgeon. "Dr. Toner, You've led us to believe Mom would survive, but, from what I see, if something is still there that just keeps her body pumping air and blood, that's not living; it's just being a machine. It's not life. Mom wrote her Living Will. Now, we need adequate information to be sure of what to do for her. I'm glad Mrs. King has made it possible for us to come together so that you could give us the information which we need to clearly understand what's happening to our mother's body."
I turned to Hank, perhaps to seek approval of what I had said.
"I know that's why I'm here. Thank you, Nurse King. And, you too, Dr. Donahue, for coming." They nodded, and then he looked at Dr. Toner. "What I want to know is whether Mom will ever wake up. Will she?"
Dr. Toner rubbed his hand through his wavy black hair; and then he clasped his hands together and looked at them, as he answered, "We cannot know at this time."
Harriet asked, "Will she walk or talk or know who she is? I need to know."
Still looking at his clasped hands as if holding onto the truth, Dr. Toner said, "We just can't know at this time."
Tears falling from her eyes, Harriet pressed him for more information. "But you have to tell us something."
He shook his head, averted his eyes toward the computer, "I did all I could to repair the damage, and now it's up to God."
"That's not good enough," Hal told him. "We're not blaming you for anything, Doctor, because we know you have done all you could. Yes, God may heal her, or He may not. You know something more, so please give us a full prognosis. Even without medical training, I can tell a lot from these pictures. At least, that Mom will not have any quality of life."
Dr. Toner looked toward Hal, but did not respond, so Hal turned toward the Emergency Room Physician who was looking at the MRI's and could see the devastation the accident had caused to Mom's head.
"Dr. Donahue, You saw Mom first and you see these pictures now. Tell us your thoughts, please. What if it was your mother?"
I saw tears in Dr. Donahue's eyes. "Sitting here with all of you brings my mother to mind. After she had a serious aneurysm, my brothers and I had to decide whether to keep the machines working. I was in a position to learn from both the minds and the hearts of my colleagues. I think, Dr. Toner, this family wants to hear from your heart, not just your mind."
By then, Harriet had gained a remnant of control over her tears, "Thank you, Dr. Donahue. In my Court every day, I hear experts speak only from their knowledge, their minds. Please, Dr. Turner, we must hear from your heart. What if that was your mother across the hall? How would you describe the life she would have three months from now?"
"What my heart says is that if my mother were in that condition, I would continue to do everything medically possible to continue her care. I don't know what your mother's life will be like in three months, but I do know that there are some things we can try, which may bring improvement, maybe significant improvement."
Dr. Toner reached across the table, closed the computer, stood up and went to the door. As he opened it to leave, he turned and added, "Your mother came through the surgery, now let us do more for her."
Stunned by his sudden departure, we just sat there. My mind was whirling in many different directions. Finally, I spoke my thoughts, "Mom may never see nor hear or speak again. She may just lie in her bed day after day for months or years. I don't believe there is anything anyone can do to change that. She wouldn't want us to leave her body alive when in every important way, she is dead. I want to set her spirit free. She asked for that. We must do it."
I could tell Dr. Donahue wanted to say something at that moment. I was glad when Hal turned to him again, "Dr. Donahue, you know what we are feeling right now. What would you do? How did you and your family cope with everything?"
"I felt and thought exactly as Hanna just said. Perhaps the medical community could have prolonged Mother's physical existence, but it was impossible for them or anyone to give her a life. The most difficult thing I have ever had to do in my life was to watch as my brothers turned the machines off. Yet, the most blessed moment in my life was to watch my Mother's face relax and a near smile appear. It was as if her spirit purposely left the smile to say thank you to her sons. There was love in that room. Lots of it. I have never regretted what we did that morning."
Harriet asked Ms. King, "What would you do? Would it make any difference if we put our decision off for a couple of days? Help us, please."
"If you're going to set her free from her dying body, you need to know that each day while the machines do their work, her body will get stronger. So, if you wait, she may hold on for several days, or much longer."
She paused to take a sip of her coffee, and then she said, "If it were me, I would go in there right now and pull the plugs on those machines."
"You mean that we could just do that? Isn't there some procedure we have to go through, or papers to sign, or something?" Hank always tends to details. I was glad he asked that.
"Yes. You have to sign some papers. I have them with me because I thought you might want them. Here, I'll leave them with you."
Ms. King was so wonderful to us. We needed her at that moment. I thanked her and each of us hugged her before she left the room.
While Harriet and Hank studied the papers, I telephoned Mom's minister and asked him to come to the hospital.
Beautiful flowers filled Mom's room. Some of them were from the four of us, and our own children---someday they might be standing in our shoes. There were many bouquets from Mom's neighbors and friends, including those from the members of her Sunday school class.
Mom taught the women's adult class at the church where she had been a member for 56 years. When I was twelve years old, we moved from Oklahoma to California and she became a member there the following Sunday.
Hal sat quietly holding Mom's hand. I walked around the room, looked closely at the bouquets, and let my mind recall a familiar scene that I had seen so many times. I could see Mom carefully tending her flower gardens, bending to pull a weed one moment, using her hoe to break up the soil the next.
She loved flowers all of her life. She was carrying flowers to her church when the car struck her. She had gathered Baby's Breath and roses of many colors for the church altar. Each day after that horrible morning, I had kept all of her flower gardens watered---half of her front yard was filled with roses and an array of colors and varieties flowers almost covered the back yard.
Mom's minister, Rev. J.B. Bartlett, came into her room at the same time that Harriet asked Hal and me to sign the papers. In a whispered conversation, Hank told the Reverend about our meeting and our decision. Kindly, he acknowledged his assent and asked if he could pray with Mom once more.
After Rev. Bartlett finished his ministry to Mom; we encircled her bed, and held hands. Harriet and Hal held onto hers.
"Mommy," Hal said, "You know that I've called you Mommy when I was alone with you, or we were talking on the telephone. That may have seemed juvenile for a grown man to do, I did it because it always sparked my memories of my childhood when you were there for me.
"Remember when I asked you to pray that God would take the wart off my toe. You prayed right then, and I noticed a few days later that it was gone. I love you, Mommy. And, I know that you will keep praying for me when you're there with God."
Harriett smiled at Hal, and then she said, "Mom, gosh, you were independent. When you knew what you wanted and it was important, you made it happen. I guess that was why I became such an independent, stubborn, bull-headed woman, then a lawyer, and a judge. I'm sorry, Mom, for those times that I spoke unkindly to you when I thought that it was so important to be more independent than you were. You may have understood, but I want you to know that I truly am sorry.
"And, Mom, I believe that we've been very aware of your independent nature today, and we've paid attention; so we're here to say our goodbyes and let you fly free. Be sure to fly to New York often. I love you, Mom."
Tears were rolling down the cheeks of all four of us as we listened to the wonderful, loving words that messages that were being given to the precious, beautiful woman holding hands with us. She gave us birth. We were giving her body its death on her terms.
Hank cleared his throat then grinned at her. "Mom, you and Dad teased me a lot about staying home so long. You always called me the baby of the family. Heck, I didn't cut those apron strings until Mary swept me off my feet after I turned 22.
"I always felt safe and comfortable being with you and Dad. Thank you for that. I've tried to give Tom and Mark that same sense of home, and now I'm counting on your help from the Other Side. Thank you for being my mother. I love you."
My words choked in my throat. I wiped my tears, coughed, and then said, "My sweet mother, I miss you. You were always with me when I needed a shoulder to lean on. You listened when I felt mad at the world, and you said just the right words to get me back on track. I need you right now more than ever in my 46 years. These few days, I have tried to hear the words that you might have said if you could have said them. One thing I do remember is the poem that you read at Dad's graveside.
"It was about the clock of time; that it is wound just once and that no one knows when it will stop, but it will stop at just the right time. Mom, I believe that if you could tell us now, you would say that this is the right time. I love you, Mom."
Harriet's lovely voice softly began the song, "There Will Be Peace in the Valley for Me" and we joined in while Hal and Hank unplugged the machines. Other voices joined us---Ms. King, Dr. Donahue, Dr. Toner and others were in the hallway just outside the door.
When the song ended, the room was quiet and I could almost see Mom's spirit rise beyond the ceiling to join with Dad and Donald, her baby son who died in her arms 40 years earlier.
I knew that the clock had stopped right on time.