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How Thanksgiving Football Brightened My Mother's Last Months

It's not easy spending Thanksgiving in the hospital with a sick loved one. I’ve spent two that way. I was in my late-20s, my mom in her late-50s. She was first admitted to the Cleveland Clinic in September 2006, after a heart attack left her in a coma. Against all odds, and to the astonishment of more than a few doctors, she came out of it and recovered enough to have a double bypass, only to then suffer a series of complications: stomach paralysis, nausea and vomiting, aspiration, severe pneumonia, a tracheostomy, ventilator dependency, further pneumonias, and numerous other infections. On top of that, during all the tests and scans, she was found to have lung cancer. And so she remained in the Clinic through October 2007—receiving radiation, fighting to free herself from the ventilator, trying to regain enough strength to undergo chemotherapy. In the end, she ran out of time. About a month into her stay at a long-term care facility—where I proudly watched her walk, on the arm of a physical therapist, for the first time in 14 months—the cancer spread to her liver. She spent a week in hospice and died at dawn on a Wednesday morning in early December as I lay sleeping on a foldout armchair by her side.

Thanksgiving in the hospital was even worse than Christmas. At Christmas, we could at least decorate the room—the glassed-in bay in the cardiac intensive care unit where she spent the better part of two months. We taped Christmas cards to the wall, placed a miniature artificial tree on the cabinet in which was stored trach cleaning kits and red rubber suction tubes and an assortment of pads and gauze. Granted, she was out of it much of the time, either due to low blood pressure or sedation used along with wrist restraints to keep her from yanking at her trach, which she often did in her disoriented state; ICU psychosis, the nurses called it. But even if she wasn’t aware it was Christmas, we were. There was some slight semblance of normalcy. I even bought and wrapped her a present—a blanket I got at Target. I put her hands on the paper and bow so she could feel it, interlaced my fingers in hers and tore away the wrapping.
Plus, Christmas was only a week until the New Year, which came with the promise that things might turn around, that maybe her condition would improve enough that she could get the hell out of the ICU. Which is exactly what happened. A few days after Christmas, awake and lucid and temporarily infection-free, she was transferred to a wing in the Clinic that specialized in ventilator weaning. In the new room, we taped a “Happy New Year” banner to the wall.
But how do you decorate a hospital room for Thanksgiving? You don’t, not when gourds and maize are the options and the mere sight of food causes nausea for the room’s inhabitant. I was feeling queasy myself after eating lunch at the cafeteria that Thursday—the dry turkey and watery gravy and mealy stuffing. Thanksgiving? I should be thankful for my mother being put through this awful ordeal? For her being prodded day and night with IVs and catheters and suction tubes and blood sugar meters? For the coughing fits which would turn her face purple? Of course I should. At least she was in one of the best hospitals in the world. At least she had terrific insurance. At least she had such patient and understanding nurses, who let me stay past visiting hours and changed her dirty diapers and vomit-covered gowns without complaint. At least she had loving family and friends for support. I knew I should be thankful. Still, it was hard. That first Thanksgiving was really hard.
The only thing that got me through, that kept me breaking down, was football—watching the two NFL games on TV. They provided more than a bit of normalcy: They provided escape. Though I can’t remember what teams played, or if the games were at all close, I remember being sucked into the drama, remember standing there by the side of my mom’s bed riveted by the action, not taking my eyes off the screen except for when I’d refresh the ice-cold washcloth on her head every 20 minutes.
In addition, the players gave vicarious vent to my anger and frustration. These days, I don’t watch much football. Being a lifelong Browns fan is part of it—the older I get, the less masochistic, I suppose. But mainly it’s all the new studies on head injuries, learning of all the dementia and suicide among ex-NFL players, and especially having a cousin who played running back for a D-I college until suffering a concussion he’s still feeling the effect of nearly a year later. In light of all that, it’s hard to watch the game in good conscience, that whole Roman gladiator comparison. But that Thanksgiving in the Clinic, every time a quarterback got pile-driven to the turf or a receiver was knocked ass over ankles, I rejoiced. All those defensive tackles and linebackers and safetys were surrogates expressing my rage. More blitzes, more unnecessary roughness, more carnage—I couldn’t get enough.
The second Thanksgiving in the hospital was different. She was awake and we were able to watch the games together. But I was too distracted to fully enjoy it. Her physical therapy had fallen off—she only managed to walk that one day—and after more than a month free of the vent she was once again back on. Having already covered more than $2 million worth of care, the insurance company was denying further time at the long-term care facility—located within a Cleveland Clinic satellite hospital in nearby Lakewood, Ohio—and, after visiting a few nursing homes and refusing to subject her to that misery, I was trying to figure out a way to keep her where she was, maybe cash in her investments or sell the house and pay out of pocket.
Of course, had I known about the CT scan in the coming days and its results, the metastasis, I would’ve been even more preoccupied, wouldn’t have been able to enjoy the games at all, would’ve been too scared. So, while again I don’t remember the teams or the outcomes, the last Thanksgiving my mom and I spent watching football together is a good memory—and one I’ve thought of every Thanksgiving since.

We're urging our community to resist the urge to volunteer around the holidays—the time of year when food banks and soup kitchens have more helping hands than they need. Join us in volunteering smarter and commit to serving on a day when the need is far greater.

Illustration by Corinna Loo\n

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