“People act weird when they’re dying,” said a tall male nurse named Bob with a grey Mohawk and icy blue eyes.
He leaned back against the hallway, propping a black clog against the wall.
“We all have coping mechanisms to deal with living, and dying is no different. I’ve seen it a thousand times,” he explained, with the full force of his palliative-care-nurse empathy. So I hugged him, and wept onto his shoulder in the hallway of the comfort care wing of UCSF.
My mom’s last act on planet earth was to binge-watch “Portlandia.”
When you’ve seen as many buckets kicked as Bob has, nothing throws you, I guess.
Someone who was uncommunicative in life, someone who sought distractions, will do just that in death, maybe even more intensely. That’s what Bob said, grabbing my shoulders, shifting his weight to the other clog.
“Was she good at emotional things before?” he asked, raising his eyebrows, knowing the answer.
When social workers from the hospital called me and told me to get on a plane the day before, that my mom’s C-Diff infection was probably going to be fatal, they said she was asking for me. I pictured a death scene from the movies. When I first walked into her small corner room on the comfort care wing, I stood awkwardly by her bedside. I told her I loved her and she told me the same. I said, “I hope you’re proud.”
She said, “I have been and I am.”
She said, “It hurts.”
I said, “I know. It will be over soon.”
Then it was curtains on me, and lights up on Carrie Brownstein, Fred Armisen, artisanal knot stores, locally sourced beets, woven beanies and a punk rock band with a cat.
Her viewing was frequently interrupted by all the business of dying, hospital and hospice staff coming in, questions, mini-meetings, repositioning the oxygen tubes up her nose, adjusting her medication.
But when things got quiet, “Portlandia” again took center stage in my mom’s final act.
She was getting too high and too tired to figure out Netflix toward the end, so I’m pretty sure she watched the same scenes over and over, which for her, was better than nothing, the nothingness of sitting with me, making sense of her last few conscious hours here on earth. Sometimes, I offered her a lick of the See’s chocolate lollipop I was keeping for her in a Styrofoam cup on her tray table. Mostly, I sat and waited. I waited for her to take me on a morphine-fueled walk down memory lane, the ballet recital where I elbowed a girl who was getting out of line, the birthday parties in Dolores Park, the time we plastered our Noe Valley neighborhood with signs looking for our cat Asti Spumante and paid a stranger a $50 reward, only to realize later that we had an entirely different cat, a Siamese we named Ginger. She would be our pet for a decade, and introduce us to the concept of “senior feline howling syndrome” in her final months.
My mom didn’t howl. And she didn’t even much talk.
She took Netflix and Chill to a new level, tuning in and tuning out. Bob wasn’t going to let me hold it against her. So I willed myself to stop crying in the hallway. I went back into her room, staring briefly out the window at Parnassus Avenue, students rushing to class, impossibly young looking doctors in scrubs and sneakers, life going on in San Francisco, the city my mom chose for herself as a single mom. The place she raised me with a combination of overwrought concern and benign neglect. I plopped down in the oversized vinyl chair.
It wasn’t the most moving death scene, a daughter sits reading the sports section of the USA Today she bought at the airport the day before, while a mother watches a cable series about life in the Pacific Northwest and they mostly ignore each other. But Bob made me turn back and face the acoustic indie hipster music.
“I’m going to stay here tonight, mom. I’m just going to stay here until you go to sleep,” I told her.
She looked at me with terror, not about death, but about having to converse. “But I don’t have anything to say,” she said, her lower lip quivering.
“Don’t worry. You don’t have to talk. I’ll just sit here.”
And that was the single most loving thing I ever did for my mom.
Every cell in my body wanted to yell at her to close her computer and tell me the secret to life, or tell me I would be okay here without her, or tell me all the ways she was happy to have had me as a daughter, but even Bob knew she couldn’t do that.
The next day she drifted off to sleep and never woke up.
Now, a year after her semi-sudden death, I think of my mom and her last days as I sprawl out on the floor of my closet in the dark, her ashes above me on a high shelf in a box from the Neptune Society.
There’s no way back now.
Still, a couple of times a week, I turn out the lights in the closet and I commune with my mom, in her cardboard box. I think of Bob, and “Portlandia,” and all the things I wish she had said to me in that hospital room. And I know she could no sooner say those things than rise from the ashes in that box. The best she could do was hold tight and wait for the next episode.