It was dark when I landed in New York on the morning of February 26, 2012. I vaguely remember the car ride over to the hospital, a passing early-morning landscape of traffic through my window and condolences from a driver who had seen his own share of misery.
When I arrived, the main lobby was empty, save for the laconic guard half standing at the point between the lobby and the elevators, a sleepy sentinel between life and death.
"I'm here to see my mom. The doctors said it was okay to come now," I had said, wanting to add "because she's dying and I will never see her again and whatever you do don't make me wait the two hours until visiting hours."
Did he ask if I knew the room number? I don't remember. I only recall the phlegmatic nod directing me toward the elevators, the noise from the wheels of my suitcase filling the hollow hallway.
Riding up, I felt as if I was in a ziploc bag of water, floating and suffocating and seeing everything through an aqueous lens.
My mother was in a new room on a new floor from the prior week. In the seven days or so since I had returned home, my mother did what I didn't have the guts to do. In her weakened state, she had inexplicably managed to rip out her own endotracheal tube in the middle of the night. My brother, not being able to reach me, had to make the painstaking decision, the right decision, that I couldn't make before I left: to keep the tube out and let her die.
Except she didn't die right away. Instead, she waited until I was able to get on a plane, in a car, through a lonely lobby and to her to come say my final goodbyes.
When I got to the respiratory floor, the sound of labored breathing and coughing that bounced off the walls went silent as I entered my mother's reticent room. She lay there, all four feet eleven inches of her, in the middle of a white room so oddly large and barren of any other furniture except one metal chair.
I sat next to her on that chair, leaning over the hard rail to her bed stroking her motionless hand. I untangled her glossy, brown hair with the little plastic comb that I saved from the ICU. I awkwardly lied next to her still body in her hospital bed. Hours went by until the nurse finally came in.
I don't remember if I complained of being tired or that she saw my fatigue. In either case, she explained that my mother's oxygen level was high enough that there were many hours before "it was time". It was decided that if I wanted to grab a cab back to my nearby hotel room to rest, that she would call me when we were close.
"At 40%, you will have at least an hour to get back here," she said.
Like a weatherman reading the barometric pressure and determining the chance of rain, this nurse was letting me know that she'd warn me when the storm was approaching.
"Ma, I'm so tired, so very tired. I'm going to the hotel but I will be back at six, " I said, still unsure to this day why I picked such a specific time.
It seemed within seconds of my head hitting the pillow that I was awoken from a deep, turbulent sleep by my cell phone ringing. It was the nurse. My mother's oxygen level was at 40 percent. I looked at the clock on my phone. It was 5:45. The taxi dispatcher said the car would be downstairs in ten minutes. The storm was coming.
When I got back to the respiratory floor at 6:04 pm, I could see the weatherman nurse down the hall give an imperceptible shake of her head.
"I'm so sorry. I thought there would be time for you to get here. She died at six."
I will never know if she waited for me in the middle of that large white room to come back at six as promised. Or is it -- as I've convinced myself each time the pangs of sadness well within me -- that my child-like, gentle mother left this earth seconds before six in an effort to spare me the pain of seeing her draw her last breath?
In either case, I suppose it doesn't matter. What matters is that even though the storm has passed, a residual cloudiness will always remain.