At 5:30 am on November 13, 2009, I removed an earbud from my mother’s ear with the gentlest care, as if I could rouse her from her seventh day in a coma. I stooped over the guardrails of the hospital bed and navigated the tubes keeping her alive to plant a kiss on her forehead. Her ICU nurse, I have long forgotten her name but not her kindness, hugged me and whispered, “She’ll pull through.” I held her longer than a customary hug of sympathy. She didn’t complain or pull away.
The walk from ICU room 218 to the family waiting area took one-hundred and sixty-eight steps. I counted and adjusted my steps to end at one-hundred and sixty-eight. That’s how many steps I needed to prepare myself for the difficult conversation my family was about to have. Two days prior, we had been told by our mother’s doctor that keeping her on life support more than seven days could cause other medical problems, like organ failure and her body becoming dependent on the ventilator.
The plan, then, was to continue to treat her total body septic infection, caused by the port implanted in her chest three years earlier during a mastectomy, with “Cadillac” antibiotics and hope to see improvement in her condition by day seven, which had arrived unchanged.
At 7:00 am on November 13, 2009, my six siblings and I filed into the ICU family bathroom, which was abnormally large and sterile, to discuss whether to remove our mother from life support. Our mother’s blood pressure continued to be dangerously low, despite the slew of drugs coursing through her veins, and the doctor’s concern about long term life support lingered. Yet her brain still registered activity. It was an impossible decision no child ever wants to make about a parent. We each had strong emotions and opinions on the matter, but without a medical directive, the impossible decision had to be made by us, her seven children.
The question was simple—should Mom be removed from the ventilator—but the answer was profoundly difficult. We weren’t doctors, we couldn’t predict the future, and we disagreed about what our mother would want. Fear of these unknowns filled my siblings’ eyes, which mirrored mine, as we leaned into the task before us. Ultimately, we made the decision that no, we would not remove her from the ventilator.
At 6:00 pm that day, after I was freshly showered and had slept in the waiting area as my siblings kept vigil at our mother’s side, the night nurse and I took up our posts on either side of my mother’s room.
I covered my mother, and then myself, with warmed hospital blankets. I reached under the blankets, lodged my fingers between her limp ones, and prayed. I prayed for healing—not only the healing of our mother’s body, but the healing of our hearts-rending from grappling with the decision to remove or leave her on life support. Then, I placed one earbud in my mother’s ear and the other earbud in my ear. We fell asleep to Al Green reminding us that everything’s gonna be alright. I hoped he was right.
After two nights, our mother came out of the coma. As the night nurse checked her vitals, I caught my mother's faint humming of that song. She made a full recovery and returned home. Ten years later, she has no lingering issues from the coma or infection; she now has an advance medical directive at the insistence of all of her children. Though my siblings and I rarely agree on anything, none of us ever want to have to make that decision again.
Recently at a family gathering, I was sitting across the table from my mother when Al Green’s soulful, raw voice filled the space between us. With eyes closed, she swayed and sang aloud that everything’s gonna be alright. My heart smiled.
Angelia Megahan is a writer and attorney living in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. She is a candidate for an MFA in Writing at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri. Angelia supports programs and organizations committed to equal rights and protection under the law. She encourages you to learn more about The American Civil Liberties Union, whose mission remains realizing the Bill of Rights for all of us. Visit www.aclu.org.