Sunday, February 24, 2008

Part Thirty Five

Requiem for my mother.

Most of the major events in my story
happened many years, even decades ago,
but recently, our mother just died,
and what could feel more important than that ?

I suppose there had been a few premonitions.

When I visited last Spring, she told me that I would probably never see her again. I didn’t believe it, because she was in good health and as active as ever. And then there was the dream she had described to her maid earlier in the year. In that dream she saw my father and many other people who were no longer living.

On December 11th , I got the first text-message. It was from my youngest niece. “Grandma is sick, dad is at her apartment, and you should call my mother.” But it was so late at night, I thought I'd wait until the next day. But by the end of the next day, I had forgotten all about it.

Two days later, I got text messages from two different nieces -- and then I knew something really serious was going on. So I phoned my sister right away , and she told me to come to Beijing as soon as possible.

24 hours later I was in the Beijing hospital -- and how I got there so fast is a story in itself.

First -- we had to find a ticket -- and my husband and my boss finally found one for me on a Korean airline that was leaving Chicago at 1 am the very next morning. That was lucky -- because it was the only seat available on the plane -- it was very reasonably priced -- and the service on that airline is great -- and, shall we say -- colorful ? (the stewardesses wear funny tri-corner hats with a white feather in back). I also had to get a visa on very short notice -- so we raced downtown, and got an emergency visa in a matter of hours. Then -- I even managed to avoid the long layover in Seoul by trading my ticket there for an earlier flight to Beijing. The universe was definitely cooperating with me that day ! Even when I got Beijing -- and didn't have cash to buy a phonecard -- a passerby let me use his cellphone -- and soon my brother-in-law was picking me up at the airport. (he's not retired - but he's been a policeman so long - he pretty much gets to spend his day however he wishes)

So there I was -- the next morning after I got the call -- standing at the foot of my mother's hospital bed.

She looked terrible, her swollen face and labored breathing made me so sad, I was trying to hold back my tears, but how could I? I cleared my throat quietly, and tried my best to talk without crying out.

She knew I was there - but with the oxygen mask on her face, she couldn't speak to any of us – just mumblings that none of us could understand.

She was still alive - hooked up with all kinds of tubes -- and a monitor was hung above her bed. My sister and brothers were all there. They briefly described her condition, and showed me how to read the monitor. The blood-oxygen number up on the screen was not looking good.

Everything had gone down hill so quickly. At first, she had a low fever, My sister and brother-in-law took her to a hospital to have it checked out, and they dismissed her with some medication. But over the next couple of days, the fever would not go down – so my brother-in-law found this hospital through a physician whom he knew. She was admitted immediately to the emergency ward, and from there, her condition continued to get worse.

(and by the way – this was the first time Mom had been admitted to a hospital in 40 years)

The whole family was there -- and we had a consultation with our doctor friend -- who he told us that the chance of her recovery was zero.

Maybe this is a good time to describe care in the Chinese medical system – because it’s quite different from America – even in this special hospital that my sister’s husband got us into.

Everything is ala carte – so hospital staff solicits family approval for every procedure and medication. That’s because the family will have to pay for them – on a long itemized bill that is presented every other day. (insurance, if there is any, gets paid later to the patient) The cashier only accepts cash – and if the bill isn’t paid – the patient has to leave – and indeed – the patient can’t even get in until a deposit has been paid.

There’s no such thing as a “living will” – the extent of care is completely up to the family – so, for example, we were asked whether we wanted to put a breathing tube down my mother’s throat to extend her life a few more days. It’s not that we couldn’t afford it – and we would do EVERYTHING possible in the hope for a “miracle” to pull her through. But – we had done this with our father – it was very painful – and what had those few extra days of misery been worth to him ? We even asked the doctor “would you do this if she were your mother?” – and he said “off the record…. No”. So --- we opted out of this procedure.

(actually -- when she was still conscious at the beginning, Mom heard the doctor talking with us about this procedure, and she waved her hand to reject it – but her wish would not have counted had we wanted to go ahead with it)

We were also queried about the use of each expensive (and maybe useless) medication – and in every case – we agreed to it. But the curious thing was – in some cases – it was medication which the hospital did not stock

One medication was made from human blood, so it was in very short supply. Fortunately, my sister-in-law knew someone who knew someone – and the back-door connection served to locate a vendor and have it express mailed overnight to the hospital.

So the family must make the decisions – pay the daily expenses – locate some medications – and also is expected to provide some of the care. We stayed with mom 24/7 --- all of us during the day – and one of us all through the night – and we hired her maid to be there as well.

We not only had to take care of mom’s cleaning and diaper changing, but we also had to monitor her IV drip. We informed the nurses whenever the IV had ran out and sometimes had to adjust the intervals of the drips. Mom’s maid had never even been to grade school or learned to read and write, and I was not too happy about relying on her to make technical adjustments – but what could I do ? I could not change the situation.

And if a job were too unpleasant for the nurses – we were expected to do it – like placing an anal suppository or obtaining urine samples. I was so angry when the nurse wouldn’t even take the urine sample that I had collected –but told me to follow her down the hall until we reached the samples rack, where she pointed to the receptacle where I should leave it (so she wouldn’t have to touch it) I was so shocked and angry – but what could I do ? Mom was still under her care.

And so the family – with the occasional help of hospital staff – cared for mother during the last week of her life – carefully watching the numbers on the monitor above her bed – as they recorded her recovery or decline.

The second night I was in Beijing, I stayed the entire night with her at the hospital. Every two hours I fed her -- either freshly squeezed orange juice, milk, or water -- or a special drink that my niece brought on the recommendation of the doctor. Feeding was difficult – since we had to lift the Oxygen mask and let her suck through a straw. But I could tell she was really longing for food –and was using all her strength. She looked so weak -- but her desire to live was so strong.

I do not remember the last time I had hugged her.

Maybe I was 12 or 13 years old, as I was returning from school in the middle of winter. My cheeks were red from the cold , and my younger sister and I took turns letting mom warm our little hands under her arm pits, and our faces on her chest. That was the closest contact I ever remembered. We Chinese (especially my family ) simply do not hug each other.

Now, as I was at her side, -- I saw her hands trembling -- sometimes reaching out, as if she were looking for something. That’s when I would hold that hand -- so soft and tender – with beautiful long fingers (she had done a lot weaving with those hands back when she was a child) .

Mom was in high fever the entire day and night I was there – and I tried cooling her down a bit by massaging her legs with my cooler hands. Had I ever done this before ? I can’t remember.
I changed her and cleaned her, and each time, we tried to turn her body to the side, you could tell that she was in a lot of pain.

The 4th night, my second brother volunteered to be at hospital with his wife, even though it was my older sister’s turn – while I was sleeping at my younger sister’s apartment.

That’s when our brother at the hospital called us at 5 am to tell us that the end was near. The numbers on the monitor were dropping off the chart.

How can I ever forget entering that hospital room –and looking up at the life-signs monitor – which now had gone blank. I can’t remember how my siblings reacted – but I couldn’t even stand up – and someone helped me to a chair in a small adjoining room where I could weep.

Now it was time for the family to perform its final function – to dress our mother for the next world. We sent for her special funeral clothes -- which she had been preparing for several months.

She had chosen the hat, the shoes, and the gown – without buttons -- of black silk – beneath a pattern of a single, red Chinese character (the one that stands for “happiness-longevity”), That’s how she would be dressed for the visitation - and her traditional trip into the next world -- lying beneath a sheet of silver cloth, and above one of gold. Money is very important for this journey - and her ankles were supported by a special cushion that looked very much like a sack of gold cash.

The hospital staff offered to dress her (for a small additional charge) – but my second brother declared “we will dress our mother” – and so we did. Her body was still warm.

One last thing that’s different about Chinese hospitals – is that they also serve as funeral homes – i.e. there is no funeral industry in the People’s Republic. Bodies are sent to the hospital morgue – where they are kept in a large cooler until moved out into a small room where receptions are held continuously throughout the day – in one-hour increments. It’s customary to wait for 3-5-or 7 days before the reception – and we chose 5 days – to give us enough to time to notify the 50 or so people who would be attending the wake.

My younger brother-in-law turns out to be an excellent calligrapher – and he wrote the names of each guest on a banner – all of the banners being then attached to a large floral wreath. The body was prepared for display – the face looked very peaceful -- and when the hour was over, we drove in a long procession, the fifteen miles out to the crematorium on the west side of Beijing. (there’s no such thing as burial any more – that’s the law)

Under the advice of one of our rural cousins –we brought along all my mother’s favorite clothing (what she would want to wear in her next life) – and it was all burned – along with strings of phony-money -- in a separate furnace at the facility. (I thought I would take a piece of phony cash home as a memento – but then thought better of it).

Eventually – the ashes would be destined for a place next to our father in a special mausoleum dedicated to high officials – but that niche could not be unsealed and resealed until the temperature had risen several degrees above freezing.

And so – our mother’s life was over.

A new job had to be found for her maid – and she was no ordinary maid. Mother had been a difficult person in her final years – and this was the only maid who was willing – and was invited – to stay. Our well-connected brother-in-law found her a position with a wealthy family that needed three maids to begin working the following month. In the meantime, she was put up in a big hotel – but in the meantime – she had second thoughts about working with two other maids – and she walked out, never to be heard from again.

And a place had to be found for our mother’s beloved Pekinese (the one who had wept when mother told him that she was leaving)

My younger sister is the animal lover – so she adopted the little fellow – but problems soon followed. To begin with – the animal was shedding its long hair all over the apartment – so my sister had him shaved at a pet salon. Now the poor creature only had hair left on his neck – so he looked like a lion with a mane. Then – he got into trouble with my sister’s cat – many fights ensued – many messes were made – and my mother’s sad prediction eventually came true: “when I am gone, there will be nobody left to take care of you”

And so it was – the favorite pet was given away to owners unknown.

It’s a sad ending – but what ending isn’t ?

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