“What’s wrong?” I asked rushing into my mother’s room.
She placed a finger over the tracheotomy tube that had been inserted into her neck a few months before and struggled to form words, “It’s…” She began to fiddle with the trach tube moving it around.
I tried to move her hand away to get a better look. “Don’t touch it. Let me see.”
Mom didn’t listen. She kept her finger where it was, forcing her breath to make the words. “Feels crooked.”
“Your trach is crooked?” I asked.
She rested her head back on the pillow and nodded having used up what little energy she had.
I took a closer look. “It doesn’t look crooked.”
Mom glared at me and covered the hole once again. “Crooked.”
“It feels crooked on the inside, like in your throat?”
She nodded, her eyes indicating with frustration, how many times do I have to repeat myself?
“Do you think I should replace it?” I asked, hoping she would shake her head no.
Instead, Mom shrugged, as if to say, “Beats the hell out of me.”
The hospital had sent us home with boxes of new, sterile tracheostomy tubes. The problem was I had never actually switched one out before. A nurse spent five minutes talking me through it before they released Mom into my care. That was my training. I took a deep breath and told myself, I can do this. What can be so hard—just take one out and put another back in, right?
I pulled on a pair of gloves and carefully undid the ties that kept the trach securely in place. I wiggled it a little; it seemed loose enough. Just give it a soft tug, it would slip right out; pop a new one in, tie it off, and I’d be done. Simple.
Mom shrugged. Go for it.
I pulled gently on the tracheotomy tube; just as I’d hoped, it slid out easily.
“Oh. That was easy,” I said feeling quite proud of myself while tossing the old trach into the trashcan.
Relieved, Mom inhaled deeply.
And then I watched in horror as flaps of skin growing around the edges of the incision were quickly sucked into the hole blocking her airway. Mom’s eyes grew huge as she realized no air was entering her lungs. I froze, staring at her and thinking, Oh Dear Lord, I’ve just killed my mother. Mom stared back, no doubt thinking, my stupid kid is trying to kill me.
I panicked and did the only thing that came to mind: I stuck my index finger into the hole. In all my life I never imagined that my finger would be in my mother’s throat. There had been numerous fantasies throughout the years involving my foot up her ass, but never once did I imagine finger in throat.
As I removed my finger the skin flaps followed, clearing her airway. As long as I held the skin pulled back she could breathe.
I looked down at her “It’s OK. We’re cool,” I said, trying to convince myself as much as her.
Unable to let go, I stretched out my free hand, blindly searching for anything that might help. On table near the bed, the tips of my fingers were able to reach a small, clear, plastic tube that was meant to go inside the larger tracheostomy tube. I inserted it into the hole; as I did, the skin flaps disappeared back into her neck. Fortunately, she was still able to get air through the tube. Unfortunately, the tube was the diameter of a drinking straw. The hole in my mother’s neck was the diameter of a dime. If I let go it would slide down her throat.
My mother had taken care of me my entire life; now she needed me to step up and return the favor and I was failing miserably. I didn’t trust myself to go back to the original plan of inserting the new tracheotomy. As calmly as I could, I called to my boyfriend in the other room. “Adam? Hey, Adam. Could you do me a favor,” I said, “and call 911?”
It wasn’t long before eight huge firefighters crowded into my mother’s small bedroom and gathered around her hospital bed.
The Captain stepped forward asking, “What seems to be the trouble?”
“I took out her tracheotomy.”
“Why would you do that?” he asked in a very deliberate tone.
“I was trying to change it, but when I took it out these two flaps of skin sucked into the hole, so I grabbed this tube and I stuck that in the hole. But now if I let go, it will slide down her throat.”
The firemen exchanged glances then looked at me. Mom and I looked at each other then back at them. I guess they were expecting me to elaborate, but that’s all I had.
The Captain spoke directly to my mother, “Ma’am are you OK?”
She smiled and nodded. I got the feeling she was enjoying the attention.
“Do you have the other trach?”
“Yes,” I said pointing to a box out of my reach.
Another fireman pulled a tracheostomy out of the box and handed it to the Captain.
“So what do you need me to do?” the Captain asked.
“Um… put it in?” I replied.
He shoved the package at me, “Oh, I can’t do that.”
I pushed it back, “Of course you can.”
“No. I can’t.”
Mom’s eyes followed the box like a tennis match.
“You’re the fireman.” I reminded him.
“I don’t know anything about trachs. Are you her caregiver?”
“Then you know more than we do.”
Clearly,” I said, indicating the situation, “I’m not qualified.”
“We can take her to the emergency room. You can ride along and hold the tube.”
I was petrified of making the situation worse, but felt backed into a corner. I screwed it up so I had to fix it. “Fine. I’ll do it.”
The captain put on gloves, asking “What do you need me to do?”
“When I pull this tube out, you to poke your finger in the hole and…”
“How about if I just hold the tube?” He said, cutting me off with a smile.
I nervously joked in return, “Fine, ya big chicken, I’ll do the hard part.”
I shifted to the other side so he could hold the tube.
“Take it out slowly,” I said as the other firemen crowded around to get a better look. My hands shook but I was able to work the sides of the hole and ease the skin out along with it.
“Okay… um… hold the skin back.” I mentally said a quick prayer: Please dear God, don’t let me fuck this up; then asked Mom, “You ready?”
If she was scared she didn’t show it. I tried to be as brave as she was, but my trembling hands gave me away. Slowly, I slid the curved end of the trach into the hole and down her throat. When I felt it was all the way in, I held up my hands, stepped back, and asked Mom, “Does that feel OK?”
The entire room exhaled with relief as Mom answered, “You did good.”
Later when the house was quiet. I sat by my mother’s bed. I could see she was tired. We both were. She looked into my eyes and I couldn’t hold back the tears as I whispered, “I am so sorry.”
I covered my face with my hands and pressed my forehead to the edge of her bed. Then I felt her hand gently rubbing the top of my head, telling me everything was OK. It was a lie, of course. Nothing was OK. She was dying and we both knew it. But no matter how sick she was, or what little time she had left, she was still the mother and I was the daughter that needed comforting.
Jonna Ivin Bio: Jonna Ivin is the author of the crime thriller 8th Amendment and Will Love For Crumbs – A Memoir
Sonia Marsh Says: You have a skill at injecting humor into a dramatic situation and made me smile several times, even when you said, “Oh Dear Lord, I’ve just killed my mother.” I also felt all the emotions you must have gone through while trying to help your mother “breathe” again.
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