My brother, Dorion Sagan, has published the eulogy he gave at the private memorial service we had for the family when my mother died.
She was working upstairs on the third floor, in her attic, when she collapsed.
Earlier that day she had mailed me a package and bought tickets to come visit. A week before she’d been in Mexico speaking and doing scientific research.
It was so sudden, so unexpected, and so surprising.
At 73, my mother was very healthy. She had no risk factors for a stroke (except that her mother died of the same thing when she was 63 years old.) She bicycled to her laboratory at UMass, she swam across Puffer’s Pond, usually naked, on summer mornings before the birds were awake, and she walked a lot. She did not smoke. She was a little on the overweight side but she was not obese. She did not have diabetes.
I’m grateful when people ask me about what happened. When we were in Ithaca last month I talked to my best friend’s parents–who are the same age as my mom–about it. I want to talk about those last days with my mom, though I hardly ever do. But I won’t be able to tell you about how she looked when I finally got to the neurological ICU (we live 3,000 miles away. I took the first flight out Friday morning, my baby in my lap, but it took us until after 7 p.m. that night to finally arrive) without crying.
The doctors told us she would probably never walk or speak again, that if she made any kind of recovery it would be long and painstaking. My mother lay there in a medically induced coma, a huge bleed in her brain, a respirator breathing for her. The arm that was not paralyzed was tied to the bed. She kept lifting it feebly to try to pull the tube out of her lungs.
Get me out of here, Jenny, she told me as she lay there mute and paralyzed. Take me home. I don’t want to be in this hospital. I don’t want to die like this.
For twenty years my mother had been telling me she never wanted to be paralyzed, she wanted to work until the day she died, and she did not want to be resuscitated for any reason. She made me her health care proxy when I was 25 years old because she knew she could trust me to carry out her wishes. “My sister, the grim reaper,” Dorion joked.
Saturday morning, thanks to an angel of a hospital social worker who helped me fast track the paperwork to get hospice, my mom was strapped to a stretcher and put into another ambulance, like a loaf of bread being slid into the oven. I climbed in beside her and we sped towards home.
They told me she might not survive the ride. The EMTs, my other guardian angels that day, promised they would ignore the protocol that required them to take her to the nearest hospital and bring her to her house even if she died.
I held my mother’s hand during that hour and a half ambulance ride. I cried harder than I’ve ever cried in my life.
“I’m here,” I told you. “I’ll take care of you. I’ll take care of this. I’m so sorry this happened to you. I don’t want you to die.”
Thank you for taking me home, I heard her say in my head. Stop being so emotional, Jenny. Everything’s okay.
It hurts so much. I miss her every day. I lived far away but we talked often (My mom: “Honey, I love you, but I’m busy. Can I call you back after class?”). I still haven’t opened the package she sent me. I’m still not ready to say goodbye.