THURSDAY: Dying Longer


Copyright is held by the author.

“PARDON, MOM? What did you just say?”

“I said,” she turned to look at me as I’m driving, “that we’re not living longer, we’re dying longer,” and she emphasized the living and dying parts.

“Did you just make that up, or did you read it somewhere?” I asked, turning into the clinic parking lot.

“I didn’t have to make it up. It’s the truth. Doctors keep us going forever, whether we want to live or not. All their magic pills and fancy do-dads keep us around way too long, if you want my opinion.”

I gently helped her out of the car into the heat of the day and slowly walked her into the clinic, holding her arm under her elbow for support. I was relieved to see a wheelchair in the reception and lowered Mom into it. “Wait here in the comfort of the air conditioning while I park the car. I’ll speak to reception in a minute after I find a parking spot.”

Every six months, I take Mom for her pacemaker checkup. It is a simple procedure, hooking her up to a computer and within minutes the technician can tell how her heart is functioning both with and without the pacemaker.

“Well, Frieda,” the pleasant technician addressed my Mom. “I can tell the summer heat is really bothering your heart and your breathing. How is your energy level?”

“Energy?” asked Mom. “I haven’t had any for years. I’m not sure what I’d do with energy if I ever found it!” She laughed, still sitting in the wheelchair with wires attached from her chest to the monitor.

The young technician adjusted a wire or two and quietly addressed me. “Looks like your Mom’s heart has failed. The pacemaker is doing all the work. That explains her shallow breathing and low energy.”

“Pardon?” Mom asks the technician. “I didn’t catch what you said.”

“Frieda, it looks like your pacemaker is keeping you alive. It’s doing all the work now. I’m afraid your own heart has failed.” She calmly explained to Mom what she told me.

“Well, then unplug it! I’m ready to go, right now, thanks.”

I burst out laughing looking at the shock on the technician’s face as she realized my Mom was serious.

“Frieda, we don’t do that. We just make sure your pacemaker is functioning.”

Mom looked up at her with her usual grin and stated, “You know we’re not living longer, we’re dying longer, and I’m tired of living.

I asked the technician if she had ever heard that expression.

“No.” She shook her head. “But I can empathize with your Mom. Many of the seniors I examine are not enjoying quality of life. They are just living, and there is a big difference. I often wonder how the next generation will age.”

Mom was helping her pull off the sticky tape that held the wires in place. “So you’re not going to unplug me today? Just show me where to unplug myself and I’ll do it later.”

We all laughed. I knew Mom was serious. If there was an off switch on her pacemaker, she would have turned it off.

Slowly we made our way back to the car. I suggested lunch, but Mom was exhausted and decided an early nap was more important than eating. I tucked her into bed and ordered a sandwich to be delivered later to her room. The retirement home was flexible that way. Guests had the option of room service and I appreciated the service when Mom was not well.

I’ve been really lucky with my Mom. She’s almost 92 years of age and we still enjoy relaxed, quality visits together. Her body is fading away, but her mind’s sharp and her sense of humour is always priceless.

Her latest trip to the hospital by ambulance was unforgettable. It all began with an innocent phone call.

“I’m out of the peach pills.”

“Oh! Hello Mom! You’re out of what?” It was usually cat food, milk, or cereal she requested I pick up.

“The peach pills. I threw out the bottle a few days ago. Do you remember what they’re for?”

“Mom, how often do I have to remind you to let me know when your pills are getting low?” My brain was trying to remember what the peach pill was for. I did the mental inventory and finally gave up and asked her to collect the five bottles of medication from her medicine cabinet, hoping I’d remember what the missing bottle was for.

“Well, I’ll have to call you back, as I’m exhausted today, absolutely no energy.”

“No, Mom, don’t hang up. You sound weak and I don’t like the shallow panting of your breathing. Are you sure you’re OK?”

“Ramaphril! That’s the bottle I’m out of. I just remembered. It’s Ramaphril.”

“Oh My God, Mom! That is the same medication that landed you in the hospital two months ago.” I sat down in disbelief, my own breathing effected by this news. “You need this drug every day, twice a day to keep you going.” I wanted to add, How could you be so damned irresponsible?, but held my frustration in check. After all this was the first time she finished a prescription, threw out the bottle and didn’t call me, her pharmacist, or her doctor for a renewal.

“Well,” she added weakly. “I just feel so crappy lately that I guess my mind isn’t working either.”

I looked at the clock and realized that at 6 pm I might have a problem getting that prescription filled. I prayed that the pharmacist had refills on file and it would be a simple matter of picking up the drug and delivering it Mom. I could easily drop it off on my way to my Book Club meeting that evening.

“OK Mom, you hang tight and I’ll see what we can do. I don’t like the sound of your breathing, Are you sure you’re OK?”

“Well, other than I can’t breath and feel like someone’s sitting on my chest, I’m fine, I’m fine.” She hung up on me.

I wasn’t really in panic mode but I knew I needed to get that prescription filled. I called Ken, our pharmacist and explained the situation of the “peach pills,” Mom’s shortness of breath and tightness of chest. His advice was to call TeleHealth and request a prescription for Ramaphril to be called into him. Ken assured me that all this could happen before he closed at 9 pm. I appreciated his suggestion that we switch Mom to cell packs and this rather stressful situation wouldn’t happen again. Cell packs contain a pill for each time of the day, and when empty, a new pack would be delivered. The pharmacist was responsible for filling each cell and ordering a new prescription when needed. It sounded like the perfect solution.

Minutes later I described everything over the phone to a very pleasant nurse. She explained that in respect for patient privacy she is required to speak directly to my Mom before filling the prescription. The call would be a three way call confirming my mother’s identity and my relationship to her, with a few questions the order could be filled, and my evening could continue, including my Book Club meeting.

The phone rang and rang. “She’s probably on the toilet,” I offered, as a way to explain how in 30 minutes Mom had disappeared.

TeleHealth is a very busy Centre. The nurse suggested I keep calling Mom and when we connected, ask her to sit by the phone, while I redial TeleHealth, and we’d try the three way call again.

So, every 10 minutes I called. After the third try, I was about to give up and drive over when Mom weakly answered.

“Hello” she whispered.
“Mom, what the Hell is going on? I’ve tried every 10 minutes to reach you. I have a nurse from TeleHealth that needs your permission for me to order your meds and get them to you. Sounds to me like you better not miss any more doses.”

“Well, I thought I’d have a nap waiting for you to deliver my pills, but the phone kept ringing so I finally gave up and answered it.”

“OK, Mom just sit there and I’ll have the nurse call you.” I knew explaining that I would also be on the line would be too confusing.

“I don’t need a nurse,” she replied. “I just need my medication.”

“Trust me Mom, I’ll be there with your meds after you chat to the nurse. Just answer the phone when it rings.”

I was surprised how quickly I was reconnected to the nurse and Mom answered her phone on the second ring. Such relief. I’d make that Book Club meeting after all.

“Hello,” Mom answered in a weak voice.

“Hello, Mrs Driscoll. I have your daughter also on the line.”

“Hi Mom. I’m here with the nurse,” I added cheerfully.

“I need your permission to have your daughter pick up a prescription I understand you need tonight.”

“Well, she’s my daughter. Of course she has my permission. She does everything for me.” At this point Mom could hardly speak as she was having terrible trouble breathing.

The nurse picked up on this immediately. “Mrs Driscoll, do you normally have trouble breathing?”

“No”, answered Mom weakly, “Just the past couple of days, my chest is heavy, no energy. I’m probably coming down with a cold.”

The TeleHealth professional continued to ask Mom questions and eventually addressed me: “Your Mom is not well.”

I’m thinking: That’s why I called you. I know my Mom is not well. Let’s stop chatting, get the prescription called in, so I can pick it up, drop it off and head out to a wonderful relaxed Book Club meeting with great wine and hor d’oeuvres.

But, I didn’t say that. I agreed with the nurse, and then politely asked what she recommended.

“Mrs. Driscoll, I am calling an ambulance as I believe you are having a heart attack. All of your symptoms indicate that you need immediate medical attention. In the 30 minutes we have spent on the phone I am convinced you need much more than Ramaphril.”

“I’m not going to the hospital,” Mom responded. “I hate those places. They leave you for hours and hours on some uncomfortable bed and send you home totally exhausted. No, I’m not going to the hospital!” I think the nurse and I were both shocked at how strong Mom’s voice could be with her laboured breathing.

“What if I promised you would be seen right away?” Telenurse was almost begging.

“Yes,” I added, “and after they give you the all clear, I’ll bring you right home and tuck you into your own bed.” I tried to sound optimistic, knowing that my relaxing evening was now slipping away.

She finally agreed, Telenurse called 911. I headed over to Mom’s following an ambulance for several blocks, knowing we were headed to her retirement home. At some point the firefighters were also dispatched, all of us pulling into the driveway at the same time. Thankfully there were no screeching sirens announcing our arrival just their flashing lights.

Six of us, loads of equipment and a stretcher crowded into Mom’s elegant living room. She was tottering out of the bathroom, faced flushed, but seeing all the commotion brought the Irish sparkle into her eyes.

“Look at all these handsome men to rescue me! Had I known I was having a party tonight I’d would have dressed up.” She tightened the belt on her housecoat.

We all had a good laugh as they lifted Mom onto the stretcher and within seconds had her wired up. The firefighters left as one of the ambulance attendants checked Mom’s pulse while he read the printout from the computer.

“Mrs. Driscoll, you are experiencing heart failure and we need to get you to the hospital immediately. You are a very lucky lady that your daughter called TeleHealth tonight. This situation could have been very serious.” They were already out the door heading down the hall suggesting I meet them at the local hospital.

I’m pretty sure I heard Mom giving them the “Well you know we’re not living longer…” spiel as they wheeled her to the ambulance.

Into a small overnight bag, I packed her nightgown, slippers, clean underwear, and her medication as I anticipated she would not be coming home that night. I sat uncomfortably in the waiting room entertained by the coming and going of emergency patients. Every 10 minutes or so I would ask the attendant if there was any news regarding the emergency arrival of a Mrs Driscoll. He would politely head through the “No Admittance” doors and return minutes later with no information. I explained that her retirement home was a quick 10 minutes away, and even if the crew stopped at Tim Horton’s they should have arrived in the Emergency department ages ago. Finally an attendant escorted me to Mom’s bed. She looked flushed, tiny, and exhausted as I reached over to stroke her hand.

You promised I could die at home,” She whispered, too tired to speak any louder.

“You’re not dying, Mom,” I lied. “You’re heart is acting up and once they complete all the tests I’ll take you home.” I decided to change the subject. “Why did you take so long to get here? I was worried. I thought they may have taken you to the heart centre in Kitchener. You were en route for over 40 minutes!”

She brightened up. “They kept stopping to check me and give me oxygen as they were sure I was dying, even after I assured them I’d planned on dying at home in my own bed.”

I laughed. That was totally like my Mom to reassure us all that she was “Just fine,” even while having heart failure!

“Remember, you promised I could die at home,” She added weakly.

“I promise to take you home, Mom, just as soon as they get you stabilized.”

Mom survived that trip in an ambulance to the hospital. She was home in two days with her medication adjusted. It was wonderful how 48 hours of critical care improved her overall health.

The cell packs are on order. Mom’s pacemaker is still ticking and she continues to inform total strangers that seniors are all dying longer.

  1. Again with the pesky details: Besides reading more like a diary entry than a short story, something didn’t ring true: Wouldn’t the retirement home that “Mum” lived in have medical care?

  2. So true. Except for a lucky few who drop dead wearing clean underwear, most of us take a long time departing this life, with many of us regretting that we spent too little time really living. Hang in there, Mrs. Driscoll.

    And, by the way, well written, clear, concise and without pathos. Keep fiddling and find time for more writing.

  3. Joanne, I remember seeing this story of yours in a Brian Henry class and I was glad to read it again. I feel for your mom, dying longer — such a clever phrase she came up with, and so true.

  4. Jazz,

    Nancy posted this as ‘memoir’. I don’t think it was intended as short fiction.

  5. OOPS….!!!

  6. Having spent a career in health care, I can only echo Joanne’s mother’s statement about dying longer. It is true. And regarding retirement homes, Jazz, there are different levels of care with each retirement home built and available, from full care down to assisted or minimal care down to no medical care. As long as the resident is ambulatory, stable and of sound mind they could live in such places until death. I have visited such places — outside help is contracted as needed. Enjoyed the story, felt like my own mom was directing traffic, Joanne.

  7. Hey Jazz, no need for an ‘OOPS.’ Even a memoir must follow the rules of storytelling. We tell our life stories for a reason, to enlighten, to entertain, to keep our readers ‘wanting to find out what’s next,’ to engage, inform, to teach, and for all the reasons we write fiction. (This comment doesn’t reflect my view of ‘Dying Longer.’ Just a general comment. So, no OOPs required.)

  8. Thanks, my friend….!!

  9. In our unique way, Joanne, you draw us in.

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