Day Fifteen: My Sister Liza

Fabian Family, 1971.

One month ago, my Mom died at the Robert Wood Johnson Hospital in New Jersey.

My sisters and I stayed up all night in my Mom's hospital room, talking and crying, huddled in a triangle of hard plastic chairs and blankets someone gave us. There were light moments, especially when we reminisced of the old days in Brooklyn, growing up in a house filled with too many relatives and too little room. The last time the three of us slept in the same room was almost thirty years ago, and so the early morning hours took on the air of a pilgrimage. We were there to say goodbye to our Mom.

The day before, her brother--my uncle--had just stepped off an airplane from the Philippines and was driven directly to the hospital. I am not sure what he was told but he entered the room with a pleading look. The sight of his confusion and then his realization of her certain death was heartbreaking, and this strong man who survived multiple tours of duty in the army had to be held together by his wife and kids. He came back the next day, as did a stream of other relatives and friends.

This last day, my sister Liza tried her best to manage the steady flow of doctors, nurses, and visitors. She and I had been awake for 72 hours or more, and I felt her exhaustion more than anyone. I had witnessed her discussions with every single doctor who had the unfortunate task of delivering bad news, and she was forced to be the only grown-up in the room that sometimes included my Dad, my Mom's siblings, my other sister Elle, and me.

Liza was the one who stayed in the room while the doctors and nurses shooed us out, and she was the one who watched as they tried to determine "brain death." It was supposed to go like clockwork, the various tests taken one after the other. And with every test, we were one step closer to the end of my Mom's life. Once the doctors agreed that she was brain dead, they would take her off the ventilator as per my Mom's DNR directive.

But some things don't go like clockwork, and dying is certainly one of them. Because of her irregular heartbeat, the doctors could not finish the tests that determined brain death. And because they couldn't determine brain death, the doctors could not take my Mom off the ventilator. That had to be our decision. We were forced into a corner: turn it off and she would stop breathing in an hour or less; keep it on and she would stay "alive" until her heart stopped beating on its own, which could last a week.

We fought in her room, passionately for and against the idea. Were we ending her life or allowing her to finally rest?

In the end, we agreed to let her go and turn off the ventilator in the evening, after everyone could say their goodbyes. But some of us did so reluctantly, begrudgingly. There would still be guilt and shame from this decision, and my sister Liza said that she hoped this decision wouldn't tear us apart. My sister Liza, the least sentimental of us, the one least likely to cry, was heartbroken and beaten up and exhausted beyond all human limitations.

And my Mom sensed this. So in the late afternoon, before the doctors had a chance to turn off the machines, she let her heart stop beating and passed away on her own. We were all in her room and holding some part of her, and felt our love for her instead guilt or shame. She wanted Liza to have a little peace in this whole ordeal, and not be saddled with responsibility of making such an awful decision. And she wanted to show that she loved Liza. Loved her for being the strong one, the one that now was taking care of everyone else.

Like my Mom used to do. Before she died.