Last month I listened to my mom die, nearly four years after her death. It was on a 911 audiotape played over video footage of my mom’s house burning down. One of the many lawyers at the mediation played this as part of his presentation. My attorney warned me ahead of time that the footage and audiotape would be played and that I could step out of the room if I wanted. I decided to stay. There were two things that compelled me to stay: the first is that I didn’t think that what was on the tape would be any worse than what I was already imagining. And the second reason I wanted to stay is because I wanted to be present for those last moments of my mom’s life in the only way I could be.
And it turned out to be an experience I was grateful for.
I mentioned before that my mom had advanced multiple sclerosis and that she needed 24 hour care. She was very fortunate to be able to stay in her home and hire personal caretakers, some of whom became her best friends for nearly 20 years. On the night of the fire, her caretaker, L, was staying with her. My mom’s best friend’s son, R, was staying in the garage apartment. When the alarm sounded L had to come downstairs and pass by the front door to get to my mom’s bedroom. She called 911 while she was helping my mom into her wheelchair. I could hear my mom’s voice in the background but I couldn’t make out the words. And there was a man’s voice even farther in the background but, again, I couldn’t make out any words. I believe that voice belonged to R, the caretaker’s son who struggled to get into the house to rescue the women. He was unable to break through the door, however. L couldn’t say very much to the 911 operator because she was quickly overcome by the smoke. There were a few seconds of coughing and then silence. It was very fast.
Right after my mom died an arson investigator explained to me that fire sucks all of the oxygen out of a home very quickly. So, for the next two years I assumed that my mom had died in her sleep. I was horrified to learn that she and L had been conscious before they died. I can’t even imagine how they felt. I still can’t. It makes my heart hurt to think about it.
As I was listening to the tape for the first time during the mediation I was sitting right next to L’s adult daughters, one of whom quietly sobbed throughout the presentation. After all parties went to separate rooms so that negotiations could begin, the daughters’ attorney invited me in to meet them. I had long wanted to do this. I started crying right away as I said how sorry I was for their loss. I told them that I felt deeply indebted and humbled by their mom’s actions that night. And equally important to me was this: my mom died knowing that not one, but two (R was trying to get in also) people cared enough about her to come to her rescue at the risk of their own lives.
That is a hero.
All my gratitude and love to L. and R. And to those who cared for my mom for so many years. You are forever in my heart.