My mother died of heart disease two years ago. A blood clot led to a heart attack, and she died in her sleep. She was 62.
She had some aches and pains, which she tended to ignore like so many strong women do. She had some intestinal/digestive issues which had affected her for many years, so when she said she described her heartburn, we all thought it was par for the course (and it may have been — we don’t really even know if it could have been something more — a symptom of the heart disease that would take her life? We will never know).
What was a clear sign was the fatigue. She would sometimes be totally and inexplicably exhausted, going to bed at 8 pm after a day that wasn’t even very active. It was debilitating exhaustion, which she sometimes described as flu-like. I now know that the fatigue of the past few years was most likely her body trying to tell her something was wrong. Yet her cholesterol was just slightly above normal range — 106. She was pretty active, walking at a brisk pace several times a week and swimming as well. She had decided to start being even more active, which is what her doctor recommended.
She did have an irregular heart beat, which was never properly diagnosed. It had landed her in the hospital a couple of times over the course of several decades, when she couldn’t control her racing heart. Usually she could — by breathing into a paper bag. Looking back on that now, I don’t know why I ever allowed that explanation to suffice. But I had only seen it happen to her maybe twice in my entire memory, and she was always fine. Little did I know that those with irregular heart beats are more at risk for a heart event to occur — that the irregular beat, even when off by a millisecond, can have a huge impact on the heart which is pumping such massive quantities of blood. Little did I know that women, when they hit menopause, are suddenly at great risk for heart disease, no longer protected by the hormones of their child-bearing years.
Little did I know that in 2002 a doctor had recommended ablation for her, but she had worried about the anesthesia, I think because she had had a bad reaction to anesthesia when she was younger. Kaiser never followed up with her to talk about her concerns. I don’t think her primary physician even know about the recommendation. I only learned this when I got her whole medical history, searching for some unknown truth behind the unfathomable reality of my mother’s premature death.
She had just begun practicing with a master’s swim team several months before. Up until then, she had just swum here and there. But swimming was and is my passion, from the time I was a child, and I think she decided she would do this for herself and to make me proud as well. Two days before she died, she was not feeling well but she still went to swim practice, not wanting to miss the opportunity to improve and to learn how to do a flip turn. I had told her I would teach her and I planned to, having only learned a month or two before that she was swimming with the master’s team. I was living abroad, though, and on that last trip home, I didn’t make the time to teach her. Next time I would.
We had had a rocky relationship, but the last year and a half of her life she had found happiness for the first time in a long time, and our relationship had improved. She was no longer lonely. The last time I saw her, five days before she died, she hugged me and said, “Next time you see me, I might just be married.” She was going to go to City Hall with her fiance to take care of the civil ceremony so she could get on his health insurance, and they would have the bigger celebration with the whole family later, once I was back in the U.S.
I never saw her again. I got the news that she had died two days after returning to South America. I was on a plane back home the next day.
She thought she was having an allergic reaction after attending a pottery firing. She was with my grandmother. My grandmother drove her home, where she was alone. She left a note for her fiance: “Having an allergic reaction. Sleeping.” She didn’t have allergies.
My grandmother was filled with guilt and still is, for not insisting that she drive my mother to the hospital. It’s possible it wouldn’t have changed anything. We will never know. But it was not my grandmother’s fault. Women ignore their symptoms. We think we are strong. We are human like everyone else. We must listen to our bodies and to each other. We must take care of each other.
I still can’t believe I will never see her again. I don’t think it will ever sink in. My children will never know their grandmother. She will never have that joy of being a grandmother. She will never see her children as they advance in their careers, loving and living the life she created. My heart aches thinking of the things she will never know and experience, the things I wish I could share with her, ask her, learn from her. I want to start a family of my own this year. She would have been so proud, and so excited.
I love you, Mom. I miss you everyday.