Millie Harris (Courtesy of Richard Harris)

A son’s view on the evil and essential role tech played in her final days

By Richard Harris for Next Avenue

A year ago this week, right around Mother’s Day, the caller ID on my cell phone lit up. It was the calI I had been dreading. My 94-year-old mother was losing her battle with esophageal cancer. Her home health aide said Mom’s breathing had become labored and that I’d better get to Boston if I had any hope of seeing Millie one last time.

When I got the news, I was in a television control room, taping a weekly broadcast. So I raced home from downtown Washington, D.C., threw clothes in a suitcase and headed for the airport. On the way, I learned that Southwest’s 4 p.m. and 7:50 flights were sold out, but I had a firm reservation for its 9:40. The airline advised me to get on the standby list as soon as I got to the airport in hopes of catching one of the earlier flights.

When I arrived at the terminal, I buttonholed an airline official and quickly explained my personal issue. He couldn’t have been more understanding or responsive and ushered me to the counter, ahead of others in line, to get a boarding pass. Then, like Moses parting the Red Sea, he maneuvered me to the front of the TSA lines and past security.

Computer Glitches Lead to Sorrow

At the gate, I ran headlong into a crowd surrounding the desk for the 4 p.m. flight. There, the employees were unhelpful, distracted and seemingly heartless. I managed to speak to a woman behind the desk who wouldn’t put me on a standby list and said that since there was no chance of getting me a seat for the 4 p.m., I should go to another gate for the 7:50 p.m.

When I got there, I again explained my extraordinary circumstances, but when the flight was ready to board, my name wasn’t on the standby list. By the time I got to speak to a supervisor, the plane had pulled out. When I told him I needed to get to Boston to see my mom before she died, he empathized, adding he “lost his mother at 12,” as though that would somehow bond us.

Then he explained the reason for the chaos I’d witnessed: days earlier, Southwest had revamped its reservation computer system for the first time in 30-odd years and was experiencing glitches. But he conceded that the airline could have risen above the computer issues and put a human touch on my efforts to get on one of the earlier flights.

I got on the 9:40, but it was delayed until 10:20. After landing, I raced to Mom’s and got there at 12:45 a.m. From the look on her caretaker’s face when she met me at the entrance to her apartment building, I instantly knew I was too late. She told me Mom had passed less than half an hour earlier, at 12:18 a.m. It was two days before Mother’s Day.

You Only Have One Mother

As I rode the elevator up to my mom’s apartment, I couldn’t help but think I might have made it on time had someone put human contact ahead of the computer confusion. You only have one mother. No matter how many airline apologies, you can never get that moment back.

For me, the moment that will stay imprinted on my brain is when I walked into Mom’s apartment, steeled myself and opened her bedroom door. I came to the side of the bed she was facing and told her some things I had hoped to say while she was still alive.

I’ve had a year to think about the computer technology that may have cheated me of a chance to see my mother before she drew her last breath. Now, I weigh it against the wondrous technology that allowed mom’s hospice team to keep her comfortable — precisely calibrating the magic zone between pain and overmedication, no easy task. Mom had been told by her oncologist, five months after her diagnosis, that her radiation and two chemotherapy sessions hadn’t stopped the disease and she should seek out hospice.

The technology of successful pain management dwarfs any inconvenience I experienced because of airline computers. Until the last 10 days of her life, Mom was still getting dressed, putting on lipstick and going to dinner with her friends — living as normal a life as she could, even with death closing in. That’s a marvel of science.

Unforgettable Conversations With Mom

Further, there was the useful technology that allowed us to record a four-generation conversation on my smartphone between Mom and her offspring days before her 93rd birthday. Hearing my Mom’s voice now brings her back as though she’s still with us. It’s a gift that will outlive me and my children.

Mom told stories about my dad’s World War II experience in the Pacific, surviving a kamikaze attack on his boat, and her earliest memories as a three-year-old in New York City “looking out the window and seeing a car run over a cat.”

She also offered a revelation to her then 8-year-old great-grandson Eli’s question: “What kind of miracles did you have in your life?” After a long pause, coming just days after the 2016 presidential election, my diehard Democrat mother said: “The most recent miracle was that we had a president-elect named Trump. It’s not a very happy miracle to me.”

Buried in nearly two hours of recordings we did with my Mom that November weekend, was my brother-in-law Jack’s question to Mom — born in 1922 —about the greatest invention or the biggest change in technology during her lifetime. “Everything changed so fast, but it changed recently, not when I was young — everything from computers to printers to iPads and all that technology happened very fast. Too much at once,” she said.

True enough, my mom would get easily frustrated with remote controls, computers and printers. She hadn’t grown up with these electronic companions the way children today have.

It’s Time for Millie’s Rule

But listening to my mom’s take on technology doesn’t change my view that its upside far outweighs the dark side.

Indulge me this one plea to the airlines: Could you please adopt what I’d call Millie’s Rule and do whatever is humanly possible to accommodate a passenger who gets the kind of call I got a year ago? Can’t passengers who are routinely asked if they’d give up their seats for cash or free tickets due to overbooking also be asked if they would relinquish their seats for a passenger trying to see a family member one last time?

This goes beyond technology or good business practice. It’s simply the right thing to do.

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