The year of things lost — and found

What more can one learn after a layoff, a breakup, and the death of both parents? Cue the pandemic.

BRATTLEBORO — The word came a year ago this Labor Day weekend: My mother, suddenly hospitalized, was about to die.

I should have been shocked, as just two weeks earlier a doctor's visit for back pain revealed a diagnosis of sepsis and discovery of a lump believed to be lymphoma.

But my life, a relatively smooth ride from childhood to college to career, had turned into one jolt after another, taking my longtime job, relationship, father, and, on Sept. 2, 2019, last parent.

With the dawn of 2020, I found solace in the fact I didn't have much else to give up or grieve.

Cue the pandemic.

After six months of sheltering in place, I've learned what more can be lost - and found.

* * *

Growing up, I wasn't taught how to surf the waves of change. My parents, Timothy and Martha O'Connor, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary the same year my father retired after a half-century practicing law. They still lived in the Brattleboro home where they raised their three children, vacationing every summer along the Atlantic coast until, as adults, we flew across the ocean to our ancestral Ireland.

Boarding an overnight flight to Dublin, we'd find ourselves blanketed by darkness and white noise, unable to do anything but wonder how swiftly or slowly it all would pass.

And so it went last Labor Day weekend as my two sisters and I walked into a hospital room that, with closed curtains and whirring air circulator, felt more like a plane cabin far from the rest of the world.

* * *

When my father went from a nursing home to a hospital in 2018, the end was as surprisingly simple as weighing hospice options at 11 a.m. and witnessing his last breath shortly after noon. So when nurses withdrew my mother from medications and machines last September, my sisters and I surmised the rest.

The day before, my mother - exhausted from poking and prodding that had flooded her body with fluid yet seemingly drained her veins dry - had made peace with her prognosis.

And so our eyes darted between her breath and the clock. Soon it was 10. Then midnight. Then 2.

I woke sometime before sunrise. With the curtains still closed, we sat figuratively and literally in the dark.

As a reporter, I know health care as the stuff of paperwork and public hearings. Here, the questions became personal: What should we look and listen for? What can we do?

In response, a nurse simply nodded before turning to my mother with a gentle word or touch.

Little things. Big things. I recalled the 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Wit, in which a woman who lives for intellect and order lies dying in a hospital. A nurse, offering a Popsicle between rounds of burning chemotherapy, unwittingly shares a profound lesson: In the end, only kindness matters.

I felt the truth of that in the theater two decades ago, at my mother's bedside last September, and at the arrival of the coronavirus this winter. Since then, the sickness and death haven't stopped, but amid fights about masks and related “pandemic fatigue,” much of the compassion has.

* * *

This Labor Day, I'll remember where I was a year ago, when, waiting all night then all morning then all afternoon, I watched as the woman who had made peace with her prognosis fought to keep breathing.

The doctors couldn't explain why.

Recognizing this could go on for hours if not for days, one sister left the room while the other began talking as if she believed we were on a plane.

Concerned, I sprinted out for a nurse. A minute later, I returned to find my sleep-deprived sibling nearly passed out on a nearby bed.

I eyed my mother. She wasn't breathing.

The realization hit like a burst of light: She wouldn't let go until we did.

I was the last to leave 15 minutes later. My mother, similar to the woman in the play, wasn't one to openly express emotion. She'd squash my attempts to talk about feelings with a look as if I was about to track mud on the kitchen floor.

This time, I forged forward.

“Thank you,” I said through a flood of tears. “Love you.”

Little things. Big things. If only we didn't wait to live them.

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