California Ashes Blowing in the Big Sur Wind

carmel river state beach, california, carmel, central coast, black & white
Carmel River State Beach photo © Nancy D. Brown

Grief is messy in so many ways. Like a thick layer of San Francisco fog enveloping the Golden Gate Bridge, my mind is slowing down to process what has happened in the last few weeks. Her downward spiral moved as fast as a time lapse camera capturing a flower from seed to blossom; only this video footage was playing in reverse. I watched as my 91 year old mother went from a spry and chipper active senior citizen to a slow and confused shadow of her former self. Wasting away to less than 100 pounds, she nodded off; propped up in her wheelchair, her filmy eyes looking out to the ocean and Point Lobos in the distance.

Flakes of ash from the Soberantes wild fire, wafted down from the heavens. As I dusted the ash from my husband’s shoulders, it looked like he had a serious case of dandruff. The unhealthy air quality reminded me of the first time I visited Portland, Oregon with the volcanic ash from Mount Saint Helens weighing heavy in the air. My college buddies and I donned surgical masks and pretended to gasp for air, clutching our throats as we mugged for the camera. Today, I see my mother gasping for air as her lungs fill with fluid from the pneumonia that has taken hold.

“Are you familiar with Hospice care?” the nurse asks me in a concerned and caring voice. “I am,” I replied confidently. “This is not my first rodeo.” In fact, the same doctor who wrote the admitting orders to transfer my mother from hospital to hospice, helped to usher my dad out of this world ten years earlier. While my father died from lung cancer, his death was not as messy as my mother’s. I say that with all due respect to my mother.

point lobos, california, sunset
Point Lobos sunset. Photo © Nancy D. Brown

My father’s death was textbook according to the hospice guide supplied to us. I consider it a sort of owner’s manual for those of us watching from the sidelines; instructions on what to anticipate with impending death. I distinctly remember asking my mother where my dad kept a particular credit card so that I could shut down his cell phone account. From the master bedroom I could hear my father’s reply that the card was in his desk; second drawer on the left, by the paperclips. I got up from the chair in his office, walked quietly into his room and whispered into his ear, “It’s okay Dad. You can let go now.” Later that evening he took his last breath.

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My mother, on the other hand, was afraid of death. Who can blame her? Not many people look forward to dying. I’ve often told my husband that I’d like to know my expiration date so that I could plan accordingly. I have no interest in living to 100 years of age like my grandfather; my funds can not support a lifetime of active adventure travel indefinitely. It wasn’t until my mom’s 90th birthday that she began to accept her mortality. Each time I visited we would chip away at one project; her advance health care directive or where the pink slip for her Honda was filed. On another occasion we visited senior citizen homes. It should be duly noted that she did not care for any of the housing options presented.

janet mooers, nancy brown, bixby bridge, big sur, california
Janet Mooers & Nancy Brown Bixby Bridge, Big Sur

“I have no interest in sitting around waiting to die,” scoffed my mother. I can’t relate to any of these people.” And indeed, she couldn’t. She was the life of the party at her 90th birthday. She rarely missed her senior exercise class or her women’s discussion group. She knew the starting line up on any given night of  the San Francisco Giant’s team and she could recall the Olympic medal count of the United States swimmers in 2016. She was an active participant in her own life, until she wasn’t.

That’s when my grief crept in; silently through the back door. Like a bucket of ice dumped over an unsuspecting football coach after a victorious win, I knew something was coming my way, but I couldn’t have anticipated what was to follow. We were told that she had MRSA, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, day two into her hospital stay. As I waltzed into her private hospital room with her coveted chocolate malt, I was caught off guard when I noticed her latest visitor all dolled up in protective mask, gown and latex gloves. “What’s that about?” I naively asked. “Didn’t you see the precautions sign outside of her room?” The sign, announcing her contagious condition, appeared as silently as the bacterial resistant infection itself. My mother’s game plan had to be adjusted – play by play. We had not anticipated implementing the hands off rule at this end stage of life.

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janet mooers, nala, carmel beach, california, labrador retriever
Janet Mooers & Nala in Carmel. Photo © Nancy D. Brown

Did you know that dogs are susceptible to a MRSA infection as well as humans? One of my mom’s last wishes was to pet our Labrador Retriever’s velvety soft ears. She wasn’t able to do that. Grief is messy. Thank you to Dr. John Hausdorff, oncologist and medical director of Community Hospital of Monterey Peninsula’s palliative care program, as well as the hospice team at Hospice of the Central Coast. Thanks also to Elder Care Manager Donna George R.N. and the care givers who thoughtfully attended to my mother during the last month of her life. Heartfelt thanks also to Diane Fearn Green, CPA and neighbor Barbara Rainer.

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