It is not yet six a.m. when the phone rings. I grab it and hold it close because I know she is also gripping that phone, as if it and I together are the hand that can pull her back from drowning. “I’ll call 9-1-1,” I tell her. “Just hold on – I’m coming.”
When I arrive, Mom is doubled over in pain. I take her hand as the paramedics begin their required litany of questions. I can feel frustration and fear emanating from her clenched fingers, wrapped tightly around mine. I answer for her, to save her each precious breath, protecting against the relentless, buffeting waves of pain - as if holding her close keeps the reality of what we’re facing at bay.
Reluctantly she releases me as they load her into the ambulance. Now in the front seat, I hold my own hands instead of hers, weaving shaking fingers together as the ambulance driver takes us – too slowly it seems - through the thick, inhospitable air.
Once in the emergency room, I clasp my mother’s bone-thin hand gently, the one that doesn’t have the IV in it - the IV that is threaded through yet another collapsing vein, in her onionskin arm already purpled with dark bruises. I watch as slowly the clear, life-sustaining fluid drips into the tube, into her hand - and we wait.
This hand, so delicate now, is surprisingly strong. We are holding hands when the doctor comes in. Mom grips my hand tightly in anger. He has only known her for a few hours but is making judgments about her life, predictions about her remaining future.
Later, when we talk about questions regarding her transfer to nursing care, my mind is caught by that strength I felt. I suddenly remember the way she drove with her thumbs spread out along the underside of the steering wheel; how she played flute beautifully, graceful fingers hitting every key right. Now, her struggles for breath create a macabre music as the air whistles in her throat, in her chest.
Finally, at the nursing home, a tube in her mouth misting medicine, she reaches again for my hand and strokes it. She pets me like a kitten, and I don’t know who she wants to soothe more – me, or herself. I stay holding her hand until her treatment is done and she is resting peacefully once more.
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