Elaine Stritch Has a Drinking Buddy


This post will be filled with raw, unedited emotion. Proceed at your own risk.

The old Broad died this morning. Note, I did not say passed away, transitioned, went to heaven or any other feel-good term. She did not just pass away. She died. And she fought it hard to the bitter end.

I have never witnessed someone die. I suppose I’m very lucky in that respect. I rarely go to funerals. I never go to a viewing. Until this morning I had never sat by someone as they struggled to stay alive while their body punched and counter-punched. I’ve never witnessed that moment when a loved one’s eyes fly open in terror as they gasp for air, finally realizing that Fuck!, this is it. But it’s not it. No. You get to struggle a little while longer. You get to gasp and struggle and rattle and moan a little while longer. I had shielded myself from all of that. Until this morning.

I am a caring person. I CARE. But I wouldn’t call myself compassionate. And certainly I’m not all that emotional. My heart, which was three-sizes-too-small, I turned into a tiny, fashionable diamond I wear around my neck. In its place, in the previously filled, titanium-lined cavity is where I keep my Chapstick. I’m dramatic with a flair for emotion.

Today fucked me up. Hard. Shirley Maclaine in “Terms of Endearment” fucked up. But there was no nurse to rail against. No outlet for my rage. I could just sit there and watch. Waiting for some comfort. Hoping it would be speedy.

I went over to the house earlier than normal. No premonition, no sense of Doom. It was hot and I had a lot of errands I wanted to tackle before it got too warm. I walked into the house and almost knocked over the caregiver. She was standing over my mom talking in a quiet sing-song, and something was very wrong. My mom was gasping, struggling, FIGHTING to breathe. Not little breaths. Huge, gulping gasps of air. Each exhale was a moan, each inhale a struggle. It was something out of a fucking horror movie. It was unbearable. The caregiver (I am going to call her Guadalupe because she is a goddamn saint) was trying to calm her down, but nothing was working. She explained that she had just moved my mom (she needs to be turned to prevent bedsores) and given her some morphine to help with the pain. And then it started. Guadalupe is not a nurse. She is part of a team of 24-hour-a-day caregivers that come in to make sure my mom is bathed, eats, takes her medicine. But she is not a nurse. But when push comes to shove, she rises to the occasion.

My mom has a DNR. I do not consider what happened next resuscitation – it was compassionate care. Guadalupe looked at me and without a beat or a word between us we went full-on Grey’s Anatomy/Chicago Hope/MASH/pick your medical drama. We turned on the oxygen and got it on her. We found some mistakenly delivered liquid anti-anxiety medication, figured out a dosage and got that in her, we propped up her chest to help with breathing. We did everything we could, as fast as we could, as calmly as we could, without really knowing what we were doing. At one point I thought we had killed her as she went silent. If THAT won’t send me to therapy, nothing will. But Guadalupe, patron saint of Mexico and not nurses but caregivers nodded towards my mom with a little smile. She was breathing, not gasping, and was calm. We both collapsed.

For another hour she would breathe normally and then struggle to take a breath. She would stop breathing and then violently convulse. Three times Guadalupe and I thought my mom had passed, and three times she moaned and gasped for air. It was tortuous to experience. I can’t imagine what if felt to live through.

They say at this point the dying really don’t feel anything. How  do “they” really know? My mom was definitely suffering. I’m fairly certain she had gone blind yesterday. I remember the moment when I saw it on her face. She can barely breathe. She can’t move, or speak, or cry out. Every time she is turned over by the caregivers her face clearly registers pain. It must have been terrifying. It is my worst nightmare – you’re alive and entombed. In this instance, in a failing body. No wonder she was struggling. She was fighting tooth and nail to survive.

I do not believe in heaven. But I definitely believe there are Guardian Angels here on Earth to watch over us. I think Guadalupe was sent here to make sure I was OK. Yes, she helped my mom with so much compassion and care that it makes my heart hurt. But she could see I was not prepared for this. And she helped me through it. She explained to me what was happening – every gasp, every gurgle, every breath. She took my mind off of things by telling stories about her other clients (one woman is 100 years old and goes to the gym three times a week!). She loves and cares for these people. She loved and cared for my mom. She loved and cared for me and I had only known her an hour.

I was expecting a “movie” death, a perfectly Vaseline-lens shot of a beige room made bright with flowers, a patient, in full makeup and with her hair done, radiantly glowing, a steady beep of that machine-thing. One beautiful last breath, a flutter of the eyelids. And then gone.

Instead, I got my mom’s version of death. A fucking 10-round battle of will – which was ONLY lost because she decided it wasn’t worth fighting anymore. It would be easier to let Death get the last sucker punch and then maybe she could finally get a fucking cigarette in heaven. The final moment will be forever burned in my mind – it was not peaceful, it was not subtle. Her eyes flew open, slammed shut, she made her “I’m pissed” face…and then everything stopped. She died like she lived, hard and tough. The old broad was scrappy to the end.

A final note. This is the one “you’re a good son” I will allow myself. She died at home. She was where she wanted to be. It went against every fiber of my being not to place her, against her will, into a facility that could properly take care of her. She did not want a hospital or rehab or a hospice. She wanted to die at home, smoking and drinking. She died at home. It kicked the shit out of Guadalupe and me. But I made sure she got her wish.

That’s all for now. I’m spent. I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me in closing up the “house.” I have to meet with lawyers tomorrow. I have to withdraw enough cash to “buy” 25 original death certificates. There are many more stories about great neighbors, and the other caregivers, and those who comforted me, and the one where I broke down in a Yuma Chili’s while drinking watermelon margaritas and writing this post. I’m sure my server has his own blog about THAT. A lot more stories to tell. I’ll also get around to that one moment when I realized my mom worshipped me without me ever knowing. And I’ll post photos. But for now (safely in my motel room), a shower, a couple more tears, then bed. By the way I want a fucking refund on my heart replacement.

Please remember – this is my therapy. I’m writing for me and then putting it out there to make it real. I appreciate the replies, but I’m not seeking praise or validation. I DO very much appreciate those stories from all of you who have gone through this. It does feel like a solo sport and it helps to know this gets easier.

The Elaine Stritch reference is because I have always described my mom as Elaine Stritch without any of the class or charm. A chain-smoking, boozy, old broad who didn’t give a fuck. Literally 180 degrees from her only child. I once referred to her as Jack Donaghy’s Mom + Mac’s Mom = My Mom. Do some Googling.