Bacon, a random highway, and the last day I spent with my mom

Last month was my Mom’s 89th birthday. And the three-month anniversary of her death. 

I have written about Mom’s death, but I haven’t yet written about Mom. I have wanted to somehow pay tribute to the incredible, amazing person that she was. But for some reason, the idea well was dry. 

And then I remembered the story of the last day I spent with her, and the amazing gift it turned out to be.  And I thought I would share it here with you here. 

[WARNING: THIS STORY IS LONG. AND IT INVOLVES DISCUSSION OF BODILY FLUIDS] 

Last October Mom had a doctor’s appointment, so I got to spring her from her memory care lockdown for a few hours. Which turned into a lot more hours . . .  

I picked her up well before her appointment, and drove her straight to a local parish. My dear priest friend came out to the car, we rolled down the passenger window, and Mom received the Eucharist she had so been missing, along with the sacraments of reconciliation (with her dementia, it must’ve been a fascinating confession) and last rites. I figured with the lockdowns, it might be her last opportunity. And indeed it was. I will forever be SO grateful for that. 

After the appointment, I stopped to get her some food, since she hated the meals at the facility. I got her a bacon burger, because she LOVED bacon. We ate it in the car.  

Mom had a stricture in her esophagus that would occasionally catch food, creating a fun little medical emergency. She could still breathe. But she secreted TONS of mucus. Which she had to spit out, because otherwise she would aspirate it into her lungs, risking pneumonia.  

Which was what happened that day, with the first bite of bacon. She started coughing and spitting and spewing snot. So I ran back into the restaurant to get her a cup to spit into, and a big pile of napkins to wipe her mouth. But she wouldn’t spit into the cup. Instead she’d spit into a napkin, and then stuff it into the cup. So we had this gigantic pile of soggy napkins spilled out all over my car. I was trying to convince her to spit into the cup when saw that she was rooting around the burger, picking out the remaining bacon to pop it into her mouth. 

“STOP THAT!! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” 

“I just want some bacon.” 

So we’re sitting in my car. She is trying to eat more bacon, and I’m trying to stop her while also trying to get her to relax so that perhaps the existing bacon will slide down her gullet. Which it will not. I called my doctor brother at work, and put him on the car speaker. Together we tried to get her relaxed and distracted so the bacon would dislodge. It didn’t work. Finally, we decided to bring her in to his hospital. Which was an hour away. 

I asked her if she needed more napkins for the trip. She declined. But as soon as I started driving, she started spitting, and she quickly ran out of napkins. So she was grabbing anything she could find — spitting into my mask, my sweater, her sleeve. Whatever. 

And then she said “I have to go to the bathroom.”  

Are you kidding me??? What am I supposed to do? I’ve got an elderly, wheelchair-bound woman with dementia, who has a big wad of bacon lodged in her esophagus, and who has been quarantined for the past six months, because we’re at the height of a worldwide pandemic. What am I going to do, wheel her into a gas station bathroom somewhere? 

“We’re not stopping. You’re wearing a Depends, right?” 

“It’s full.” 

“Well, it’s gonna get fuller.” 

So now my car is festooned with even more bodily fluids. 

We drove. And drove. She kept asking “Where are you taking me?” She probably thought I was kidnapping her.  

And I kept asking “Is it still stuck?” Which it was. It always was. 

We finally arrived at the emergency room, where they told me that if my brother was going to be seeing her, I couldn’t go in.  I wasn’t about to send her in there alone, so I had words with the intake person. Which set Mom off. The ER waiting room was full, and probably crawling with COVID. I found a corner where we were sort of isolated. And we waited. And waited. By this time Mom had enough. She started yelling at people. Anybody. People who worked there. People who didn’t.   

“Mom, STOP THAT!!!”  

So then she started apologizing. Again, to anybody. Not the same people she yelled at. Just whomever happened to walk by. 

Finally they brought her back to the ER. They got her out of her wet clothes and into a clean Depends and some oversized scrubs. The doctor came in and asked what was going on. She held her hand to her throat and said “Hey! I think it’s gone!” 

Of course it was. 

So  I loaded her back into the car and we headed home. It was after 10 p.m., and she’d had a LONG day. She was none too happy to go back to “that place.” But she was too tired to put up a fight. 

I got home, made a mental note to have the car detailed, and fell into bed. Still stressed. And yet thinking “What a great day . . .” 

The amazing thing about that day was that, despite the dementia and the medical emergency and the spit and the pee, we actually had fun. In the midst of all of the craziness, we were laughing. Just like we used to laugh. And in those moments, I saw flashes of “her”, as I knew her. It really did feel like I was with my Mom again.  

I got to spend the day with my Mom. My crazy, funny, “laugh even though you’re wetting your pants while going God-knows-where on a highway you don’t recognize with a wad of bacon stuck in your throat” Mom. 

We even said the rosary together in the car. And she remembered every word. 

Of course, I had no idea that would the last real time I would spend with her. I thought we had more time. I thought the quarantine would end and we could go back to family dinners and hanging out at my house. 

It was not to be. But I do think that God, in His infinite wisdom and humor, gave us that stressful, funny, crazy last day together. And I wouldn’t trade it for the world. 

Happy Birthday, Mom. Thanks for giving me an amazing life. And thank you for always laughing, even when life got crazy and you had bacon caught in your gullet. 

Pray for me. I’m praying for you. 


Featured Photo by Jake Blucker on Unsplash

COMING UP: Facing the fear of guilt

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First of all, I want to thank you all for the tremendous outpouring of support we have received in the wake of my mother’s death. It has been so touching to receive your condolences, prayer pledges and Mass cards. My family and I are so grateful. 

For any of you who may have missed last month’s column, my mother was found frozen to death in the back yard of her memory care facility. In the weeks since her death, friends have asked if I have struggled with guilt over what happened. After all, I’m the one who placed her there. Do I blame myself for her demise? Am I haunted by regrets?  Am I wracked with “Catholic guilt”? 

The question got me thinking about guilt, “Catholic” and otherwise, and our oft-dysfunctional relationship with that emotion. 

First of all, to answer the question: yes and no. When it first happened, of course, guilt was one of the many emotions swirling around in my head. I did place her there. Then she wanted to leave, and I didn’t move her. So yes, on a visceral level, I felt guilt. For a few nights, early on, I would lie in my bed sobbing and just repeating, over and over, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” 

But that was pure, irrational emotion. Then I began to think it through. Did I place her there to be neglected and frozen to death? Of course not. Quite the opposite, it was done specifically so that this would not happen. Was I careless in choosing the facility? Again, no. I did research on top of research. We paid extra for what seemed to be the “best” facility, specifically so that she would have the best care. Did I overlook any red flags? No, there were none. And yes, she wanted to leave. But I asked her constantly “Why do you want to leave? Is anybody mistreating you?” She always said that no, they weren’t. She had dementia, but she was still functioning highly enough to know that. When something DID happen that she didn’t like, she let me know. And it always came back that she had reported it accurately. 

No, she wanted to leave because she wanted to go “home.” Only she didn’t know where home was. 

I had no crystal ball to see what was going to happen. I prayed for guidance, I did my absolute best, and I did it out of love for her.  No reason to feel guilty.  

And so I let it go. 

I think guilt has received a bad rap in the past few generations. I speak in particular of the phenomenon of “Catholic Guilt.” People complain that their Catholic upbringing has caused them to feel guilty over anything and everything. I have never experienced this, and I have never understood it. To me, it seems simple. If you haven’t done anything wrong, there is no reason to feel guilty. And if you have, repent and quit doing it. Problem solved!  

The emotion of guilt, working as it should, is a good thing. It was given to us by God to alert us that something in our lives needs to change. Of course, emotions are not infallible, so we need to follow a process to engage the intellect and “guide” our guilt. 

I realized in hindsight that my experience followed that process pretty perfectly. 

When we first encounter guilt, it is pure emotion. It may be correct, it may not. In my case, it was not. So, the first step is always to examine our conscience, to see if we actually should feel guilty about the thing that’s making us feel guilty. So we pray to the Holy Spirit for enlightenment, and we look at the situation. Did I do anything wrong? Was it a sin? An error in judgment? Sometimes it’s clear cut. Sometimes it’s not. We may have to examine Scripture or Church teaching. We may have to take it to prayer repeat, to “work it out” with God. 

The goal here is to arrive at some certainty as to whether our guilt is based in reality. If it is — if we have been wrong or careless or sinful on any level — the solution is simply to repent, to confess if necessary, and then resolve to do better. And if we haven’t, we release the guilt. 

I think what happens in so-called “Catholic” guilt is a sort of short-circuiting of the process. The person, for whatever reason, doesn’t want to believe that they have done anything wrong. So, instead of taking a clear-eyed look at the situation, they turn and run. They become afraid of the very sensation of guilt. They avoid anything that reminds them of it.  They tell themselves they have done nothing wrong. But they never take a really good, objective look at it. They never invite God into it. And so, because the emotion is never resolved, it goes “underground.” It’s still active, but they continue to try to suppress it. 

And that isn’t healthy. 

I learned long ago that “the best way out of a feeling is through it.” The best way to deal with guilty feelings is to face them head on, with the God who loves us even in the midst of the deepest sin. There is surely nothing on the other side of that guilt that He hasn’t seen before or forgiven before. He loves us madly — all the time. 

It’s not the sin that will separate you from his love — it’s the refusal to acknowledge it, to go to him with it. He is always waiting with his love and mercy. 

I’m so thankful to everyone who was concerned I might be struggling with unhealthy guilt. I was not. But some of you, for whatever reason, may be.  

All I can say to you is that, with the God who loves you, guilty feelings are nothing to fear.  


Featured image by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash