Passages: My Mom, Beverly Lefkowitz
At 4:00 this morning, I held my mother’s hand while she died.
The last year was a tough one for her. Regular readers will remember how a year ago she underwent surgery to remove a cancer on her lung, and how that surgery ended up spawning complications that nearly killed her then — what was supposed to be a not-too-complicated procedure ended up with them completely removing one of her lungs and having her teetering on the brink of death.
When I flew out to be with her that night, the doctors told us not to expect her to see the morning. But, in a kind of miracle, she did. She held on and survived more than two months unconscious on a ventilator.
Then, once she came back to consciousness, the next challenge came: learning to live on one lung. She had to go through rehabilitation to learn to walk again with the decreased lung capacity. She took on the rehab like a champion, blowing away their expectations for how quickly she’d be up and on her feet again.
And then she came back home, but the problems weren’t over. She had a portable oxygen machine that gave her additional air when she needed it; it was useful and important, but it annoyed her no end. And her voice had changed — the doctors, when trying to remove the cancer, had nicked one of her vocal cords, making her voice a throaty rasp. My mom loved to talk and she hated her new voice.
To understand my mom, though, you need to know that she took on each and every one of these challenges — challenges that would have broken a lesser person, like, say, me — head on. Twice the doctors told us that she wouldn’t survive, and twice she battled back and spit in their eye. She turned months of rehab into weeks just through determination. And she did it all with a never-failing supply of good humor; she always had a joke or a funny face at hand.
This time, though, it was too much. The doctors had been giving her chemotherapy to prevent the remnants of the lung cancer from spreading, and it apparently weakened her immune system to such a degree that an infection she caught sometime in the last few days ran riot through her body. When it got into the blood, it poisoned her faster than the doctors could keep up.
I came home on Tuesday to be with her in case anything happened. She was conscious then, and aware of who I was. They had her on a ventilator again, so she couldn’t talk — tube down the throat — but when I stood there by her bed and put my hand in hers, she squeezed it tight. She was even making funny annoyed faces as the nurses adjusted things.
By yesterday all that was gone. She didn’t respond to stimuli, didn’t look at you when you called her name, didn’t squeeze your hand anymore. One by one her vital signs failed and were propped up only through artificial life support. And at 4:00 this morning, at the too-young age of 56, she died.
Beverly Lefkowitz wasn’t a famous woman and no songs or stories will be written about her. But she will always live in the hearts of those of us who loved her. And the memory of her combination of wit and will is going to be my inspiration for all the rest of my days.
I miss you already, Mom.