The Hardest Thing I Have Ever Done

“Mr. Culotta, your mother is non-responsive and I need to know if you want me to perform CPR?”

“No doctor, I don’t want you pounding on her chest, she has suffered enough and it is time for her to finally have some peace.”

And with those few words, I had to prepare myself to do the hardest thing I have ever done, to tell my father that his bride of 61+ years was gone and would not be coming home.

I got down on my knees and actually thanked God for finally ending my mother’s suffering that she had endured since a stroke two years prior in 2001 had paralyzed her on one side of her body. She had been unable to take any solid food or drink for over two years and had been kept alive by a feeding tube in her stomach. I could write an entire article about what I learned about feeding tubes and how they can be misused (and were).

My mother only a few months before her stroke in 2001.

It was about 9:00 on Friday morning, June 20, 2003, and my mother had been in the hospital for about a week. Ironically she was supposed to be discharged later that day.

The doctor called me to tell me that while the nurses were preparing the paperwork to discharge my mother, they turned around and just that quickly, she was gone. He wanted to know if I wanted them to try and resuscitate her, but she had a DNR order and she was already so frail and weak that I could not bear the images of them pounding on her chest, breaking ribs to force blood circulation and try and get her heart to start again. Even now, I can’t bear the images in my mind of what she had wasted away to become, from the beautiful, vibrant woman who loved life and enjoyed people and socializing to an invalid who could barely speak and whose main method of communication was by banging her wedding band on the railing of the hospital bed that we had bought for her.

Thankfully my parents had the resources to afford the 24/7 care that she needed with nursing assistants, the electrical pump for the feeding tube that was inserted in her stomach and other numerous medical supplies, including that hospital bed.

The master suite of my parents home was large enough to accommodate the hospital bed and the medical supplies and a sitting area for the caregivers who so lovingly took care of my mother over those two years.

I don’t remember how many times she had been in and out of the hospital over those two years because of pneumonia, infections or her heart problems (she also had atrial fibrillation) but it was hard transporting her because she needed a wheelchair and we had only recently bought a mini-van that was fitted for a handicap ramp and chair-lift. She never got to use that van.

I also prayed that God would give me the strength to say the right words to my dad and to be able to comfort him because he had Alzheimer’s and although he still was physically strong and healthy at 89, his mental faculties were not what they used to be. The nurse assistants/caregivers that we had for my mother at home were doing double duty helping to take care of my dad in helping prepare his meals, driving him around and making sure he took his meds.

I called my sister, Richelle, and we agreed to meet at our dad’s home to deliver the news around 11:00. It was almost an hour drive from my apartment in Kenner to Treasure Isle and almost 40 minutes from my sister’s home in Metairie to Treasure Isle.

Next, I called my dad’s house to inform Staci, the nursing assistant, of the news of my mother’s passing and to make sure she did not tell my dad or drive him to Northshore Regional Medical Center until Richelle and I got there and told him the news ourselves.

As I drove over the I-10 twin span over Lake Pontchartrain, I could just picture my dad breaking down when he heard the news and that would be harder than anything to witness. My parents had grown much closer later in life since they sold the house in Old Metairie and moved permanently to the summer home at 45 Treasure Isle and then later built the dream home at 27 Treasure Isle, my parents’ pride and joy. My dad was a workaholic for most of his life until he “retired” in the mid-90s and stopped commuting every day to the office in Metairie.

Richelle and I drove up at just about the same time and as I put my key in the heavy, leaded-glass door and opened it, I was filled with dread once again. I stepped onto the marble floor and closed the door behind me and we began to walk up the winding stairs. The foyer almost always had this musty smell to it because there was not much circulation and that day was no exception. Even though it has been almost 15 years, I can still feel the sights and smells as if they were happening right now.

I stepped off the last step onto the wooden floor and there was my dad in what seemed an unusually good mood. “Good morning, son. What are you and Richelle doing here? I was just about to leave to go visit your mama at the hospital. She’s supposed to come home today.”

“Daddy, Richelle and I need to talk to you. Let’s go sit on the sofa.”

“Can’t it wait? I slept late today and I want to get to the hospital before it gets any later.”

“Let’s go sit down and talk first.” So we all went over to the large sofa and I sat on one side and Richelle on the other side of him.

I took some deep breaths and prayed I would not break down before getting out what I needed to say. “Daddy, we have some bad news. The doctor called me earlier to tell me that Mother passed away this morning. She just did not have any more strength in her to keep fighting these infections.”

“Oh no, what am I going to do without my mama! My mama!”

My mother’s name was Jeanne but in the later years, my dad had called her “my mama” and it was not because of his Alzheimer’s. It was his term of endearment for her.

Richelle and I just held him while we all wept and I don’t remember for how long, but surprisingly he recovered rather quickly. I think he knew it was her time to go and that she was resting peacefully now.

I was praying silently and thanking God that it had not turned out as badly as I had imagined it would and that she was no longer suffering from the stroke that had reduced her to a pale, frail, bed-ridden invalid two years earlier and that now she was free.

We sat and talked, reminisced and occasionally broke down for about a half hour after that and then we all drove to the hospital to see my mother for the final time before the funeral four days later.

I can’t imagine what it was like to suddenly know that you would never again see someone you had loved for over 61 years. I couldn’t bear to let my dad be alone with his memories in that big house either at night, so I stayed with him for almost two weeks, sleeping on the sofa in the great room, which was right next to the master suite.

Even though there were plenty of beds on the third floor, I didn’t want to be too far away from his bedroom if he needed me in the middle of the night. The house was so big that I might never hear him while I was sleeping in one of the 3½ bedrooms on the third floor. Even though he slept like a log once he went to sleep, I was also nervous that he might hear a noise in the middle of the night and go downstairs to investigate and possibly fall down the stairs.

Your mind can play all kinds of nasty tricks on you at times like this, so I felt it better to play it safe and I was glad I did. It gave us time to spend together, to talk, and even though I don’t remember many specifics about our conversations, I do remember that they were enjoyable and that I learned things I didn’t know before about how my parents met, more about how many times my dad had asked my mother to marry him before she finally said yes (over a dozen!) and the story about the meatballs, that I had heard dozens of times and still never got tired of hearing.

Mother did not know how to cook when they first got married and my dad did. After all, he was an Italian with a Sicilian mama and three sisters. So he did his best to teach her how to cook and one of the first things he taught her, naturally, was to cook meatballs.

One weekend they went on a picnic in City Park and my mother was thrilled to show off her new cooking skills. They spread out the blanket, sat down and my dad couldn’t wait to sink his teeth into one of those tasty meatballs.

The garlic, onions and anise aroma was so inviting, so he grabbed one and pulled it up to his mouth to take a bite. But when he did, it was so tough that he couldn’t bite into it and that’s when his Italian temper took over. He took that meatball and threw it like a baseball and when it hit the ground instead of exploding into a bunch of little meaty pieces, it just bounced and bounced and bounced …

But the lessons were not in vain as my mother did turn out to be a fantastic cook and the hundreds of people who attended my parents’ annual 4th of July party on Treasure Isle over the years will attest to that.

I was so glad to have had that time with him because shortly afterward, my dad’s Alzheimer’s began progressing at an increased rate and he had some behavioral changes that were not pleasant.

But maybe that is for a future installment of The Joyful Christian’s Journey.



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