Since the pandemic started in March 2020, I’ve flip-flopped working from home, then going back in the office, and now back at home until I am full vaccinated. I felt too anxious with co-workers who in a vulnerable building, were not wearing masks, or at least not enough of the time. Some didn’t think COVID-19 was real or that the virus could “happen” to them or their loved ones.
Well, COVID-19 did happen to us. Sean’s mom, Sandy, 74, was living in a small and seemingly very COVID-careful convalescent home of 55 beds. For the longest time they had stayed COVID-free. Precautions were such that we could only visit Sandy while sitting six feet away from her, sitting outside on a porch, wearing our masks. Then the last time I saw her, right before Thanksgiving, the convalescent center was even more stringent. Sandy was sitting indoors, six feet from the open window leading to the porch. She was in her wheel chair, behind a wall of Plexiglas-glass, wearing a mask. Sean and I were outside on the porch looking in the open window, wearing masks. A little much, we thought.
That last visit, Sandy seemed the best I’d seen her in a while. Bright, joking, looking forward. I remember telling her to stay well so when things calmed down she could come and stay more weekends with us like she had before COVID hit. We had hoped that after COVID-19, she and Sean could resume looking into Sandy getting into her own apartment with visiting nurse assistance.
Then we hit a wall. A few weeks before Christmas Sandy and a few others had come down with COVID-19. Rumor was that someone (a doctor?) had come in to the building who was infected, without symptoms. At first it seemed Sandy, who was moved into an isolated area, only had a mild case. We prayed she would be OK, but COVID attacked. Her lungs were in such rough shape; she had COPD, emphysema, and was already on oxygen at times. Her blood oxygen dangerously low, Sandy was sent to the intensive care unit at the hospital. She and Sean, who is her conservator came to the anxious conclusion that she would need to be put on a ventilator. Sandy told Sean she was scared, and Sean did his best to assure her that the doctors said she really needed it.
For 17 days we prayed that the medicines they were treating her with would pull her through. At times it looked like she was improving, ever so slightly, but then Sandy’s regular pulmonologist would worn us. If she didn’t turn around soon, she’d have to come off the ventilator. Being on it too long was causing pneumonia and infection.
We kept praying and tip-toed through very low-key, half-hearted Christmas. My daughter and her son were down from VT after testing negative for COVID. Sean, my son and I were negative, too. We did NOT see any other relatives.
On December 27th, Sean made a hard and heart-wrenching decision, after consulting many times with his aunts and uncles and with the doctor, to have Sandy removed from the ventilator. She was getting worse, not better. She would need to be let go. Sean had found a priest who would give his mom last rites, a priest who was subbing in for the hospital’s chaplain who had contracted COVID-19! We were told by the attending pulmonologist that once taken off of the ventilator, Sandy would pass in about ten minutes. Poor Sean was with his mom and the priest when last rites were given. He said his goodbyes and then he and the priest waited in the family room for her to pass so they could go in and offer “prayers for the dead,” in a half hour or so.
In that time, I reached out to my prayer warrior mamas and some family via text that Sandy was off the ventilator and assumed that she passed around four p.m. That’s what I had been told would happen. NEVER AGAIN will I make that kind of assumption. About an hour and half later I text Sean asking where he was thinking his mom had passed and if he was alright. I could picture him in his truck, distraught, crying. He might have gone for a beer, but where? No bars were open. After another half hour with no response from my text, I called him.
“Where are you?”
“I’m with my mother.”
“Oh, honey, will you be home soon?”
“I am with my mother! She’s is looking around the room. Do you want to talk to her?”
What? At first I thought he was SO distraught that he had lost it. “What? How?”
“She’s here. She’s stubborn.”
“Do you want to talk to my mother?”
“Yes. Hi Sandy. I love you.”
“I love you.” She sounded so weak. So far away.
“It’s OK, Sandy. I will take care of Sean. I love you.”
Sean said he’d call me a little later.
From the waiting room, Sean told me the attending nurse said this it going to be a slow death. That Sandy could live on a few more days. “The nurse said the other pulmonologist never should have told us she’d pass in a few minutes after they took her off the ventilator. They just don’t know.”
“Could she still turn around from this?”
“It’s not likely, but you know my mother! She has always done it her way!”
All I could think was, Oh, my God. Please. Not that I wanted her to die, but I didn’t want her to struggle. For Sean to be in this agony, too.
After I got off the phone I freaked out. I video called my good friends Bobbi and Jops and just blared, “She’s still alive! She didn’t pass yet like I thought, like I told you …and other people. Oh, My God! I feel so—crazy!”
For the next three days we prayed for God’s Will Be Done, and hopefully meaning a complete recovery for Sandy. She had been on the brink more than once over the past four years or so with extreme pneumonias and infections. It astounded us at first how she rallied in the past. My son had said, “I’ve said goodbye to Grandma Sandy at least three times. ” But here she was, off the ventilator, and still with us. She had always been such a headstrong woman, a fighter. I could just imagine her thinking, “The doctor said I’d die after ten minutes? I’ll show him! I’ll go when I’m damn good and ready!” In the past 37 years of knowing her and all of the hard times she’d endured and survived, I was thinking that she might just overcome this!
For the next 48 hours, Sean kept vigil as the ever-dutify son. He explored every option of medicines that might help that hadn’t already been tried. The doctor explained that his mother was dying and all that could be done was to keep her comfortable, any other medicines would just prolong the inevitable. Sean, in spite of COVID-19 restrictions that originally allowed just one “compassion visit” to loved-one who was terminally ill, was able to suit up head to toe and visit his mom two times. He said they were able to talk, but very little. Mostly I Loves Yous. He told me he asked his mom to say hello to his sister (who passed in January 2020).
At home and every time Sean’s phone rang, my heart raced and I froze waiting for news. Sandy was comfortable, but fading. On December 30th around 3 p.m were were sitting in our living room when Sean received a call from a nurse. She said that she had just gone in with the pulmonologist to check on Sandy. They were in the room when she passed, peacefully. Sean thanked her for the call and then got up and walked down the hall to our bedroom where he made the calls to relatives.
I stared out the window at the subdued afternoon light and felt numb. It was surreal as it is always surreal when someone you love dies. I knew and loved Sandy and all of our crazy ups and downs for 37 years. She never ceased to amaze me. Even up until her passing.
That evening, Sean, Chris and I ended up in our rec room with a fire going in the wood stove, toasting Sandy with Guiness as we listened to albums. The very next day Sean retrieved Sandy’s belongings the convalescent home left outside in bags on their front porch.
He spoke with his aunts and uncles and decided we would hold a celebration of Sandy’s life in the late spring 2021 due to COVID. Maybe by then, it would be safer for his elderly relatives to travel to Connecticut, they’d have their vaccines by then.
Speaking of vaccinations? Two weeks after Sandy’s passing, residents at her convalescent home began receiving the first of their two COVID-19 shots.