“Did I believe that I had a clear mind?
It was like the water of a river
flowing shallow over the ice. And now
that the rising water has broken
the ice, I see what I thought
was the light is part of the darkness.” ~ Wendell Berry, from “Breaking”
Sunday afternoon. Much warmer, 50 degrees.
I have no idea how far I will get with this post, but I feel a need to at least try.
The last five days have run together into a very strange loop, one from which I fear I may never emerge. Last Tuesday morning (January 28), my mother called me at 6 a.m. in a panic; she had gone out to the garage fridge to get some milk, and she heard water running. It turns out the faucet on the back porch was leaking, not a flood, but not a drip. I told her I would be over in ten minutes.
Now first, the really odd thing: I was wide awake. I had awakened at 5:30 and was fully alert. This is not a normal state of being for me. Anyway, I drove over to her house and tried to shut off the valve but couldn’t. As I was working, my mother was standing there rubbing her chest with her fist, which is something that she does when she is stressed.
I made her a cup of chamomile tea and sat her down on the couch while I looked up the number for a plumbing company that we had both used. I left her sitting on her couch watching television and sipping her tea.
“I draw in a ragged breath, the kind you take when the pain is too deep to cry, when you can’t cry because all you are is pain, and if you let some of it out, you might cease to exist.” ~ Ally Condie, from Reached
I got back home and made myself a cup of tea and opened the book I was reading. Around 7:30 I was picking up the phone to call my mother to see when the plumbers were coming, but the phone rang first. My mother was on the other end, and she said that she thought that she was having a heart attack. I will admit that I did not believe her because she has been saying that she’s dying for the last four or five months, but I told her to hang up, open her front door if she could, and I would call 911, which I did immediately.
By the time I put some clothes back on, brushed my teeth, and raced back over to my mother’s house, which is only two miles away, the ambulance was gone, which I knew wasn’t a good sign. I went into her house briefly to make sure the cat hadn’t gotten out, and just as I was going to call 911 again to see where they had taken her, the phone rang again; it was the rescue squad. They were taking her to Leigh ER.
I got back in the car, turned on the emergency flashers, and tried to make record time. Let me pause here to say that people are genuinely assholes. Each time I tried to pass someone, another person would deliberately block me in. One guy in a van next to me even laughed. It is truly a good thing that I do not own a weapon.
Somewhere in between all of this my mother had called the water company, and they came out and shut off her water until we could get the faucet taken care of.
“And so does my life tremble,
and when I turn from the window
and from the sea’s grief, the room
fills with a dark
lushness and foliage nobody
will ever be plucked from,
and the feelings I have
must never be given speech.” ~ Denis Johnson, from “Now”
I got to the hospital and was sent back to the ER. The cardiologist told me that they were taking my mom to the cardiac catheter lab to see exactly what was going on. I was sent to another waiting room where I began to text everyone to let them know what was going on. Eamonn showed up, and we waited together for some word.
The cardiologist came out and said that they were setting up transport for my mother to the Heart Hospital in Norfolk. He was unable to do any angioplasty as she had too many arterial blockages. They inserted a balloon to try to relieve some of the pain. At this point, I was completely on autopilot, taking in information and disseminating it to everyone as clearly as possible.
I got back in the car, realized I had no gas, and went to Costco to get gas. Another pause here: This was the day that the massive winter storm was supposed to hit, and in this area, any talk of snow immediately sends everyone into a panic, so I waited fifteen minutes to get gas, then drove to the Heart Hospital only to find that my mother still hadn’t arrived.
Another waiting room, another wait. Luckily, they had a canteen where I could get coffee that looked like it was pure bitterness, or use the hot water dispenser to make tea. I chose the latter, found an empty computer, and played spider solitaire.
“Melancholy, being a kind of vacatio, separation of soul from body, bestowed the gift of clairvoyance and premonition. In the classifications of the Middle Ages, melancholy was included among the seven forms of vacatio, along with sleep, fainting, and solitude.” ~ Ioan P. Couliano, from Eros and Magic in the Renaissance
At some point during all of this I was finally able to talk to Corey, who then had the decision to make as to whether or not to cancel his training and come home early. We put that decision on hold until we knew more about the situation.
I spent the day in the hospital room with my mother, who was obviously exhausted, waiting for one of the heart surgeons to come and talk to us about options. Around 5, one of them showed up. He had an Eastern European accent, and I could tell that my mother didn’t understand him. He told us that mom was not a candidate for bypass surgery because the damage to her heart was too extensive; also, that she had an aneurysm sitting on top of her heart.
When he left, my mother was extremely upset. She wanted to talk to other surgeons because she was certain someone else would operate. In all, we spoke with three different surgeons, and they all said the same thing: she would not survive the surgery—mitigating factors included her age, how very damaged her heart was, and the location of the aneurysm.
That evening, Alexis, Brett, and Olivia came to visit, and that really made my mom’s day. She told everyone within hearing distance that her great-granddaughter danced, and Olivia obliged. Brett rode home with me, and we stopped by my mother’s house on the way to take care of the cat. Another aside: I locked the keys in the car, which contained my phone, my purse, and the fast food we had gotten at Wendy’s.
Brett has no spare key to his Honda. Two hours later roadside service finally arrived to unlock the car. I decided to drive my mother’s Honda home because it was higher than Brett’s old one. Turns out it drives really, really well on snow and ice.
What else could possibly go wrong? I should not have asked. By the time I got home that night I was emotionally and physically spent. I fell asleep with the television on.
“Because we are not the owners of anything,
not even of our own pain
at which we have looked with awe so many times.
We are the owners of wishing everything: what sadness.
We are the owners of fear, dust, smoke, the wind. ~ Francisca Aguirre, from “The Owners”
The storm hit as we were leaving the hospital, and it did indeed snow for more than 12 hours. When I awoke, I called Mom, who was resting comfortably. I told her I would be there as soon as I could. That turned out to be hours later.
When I tried to back the car out of the driveway, I immediately got stuck. Brett did some digging, but it was really deep. I took Corey’s truck, which has two bald tires and no brakes and skated to the nearby Taylor’s to get a snow shovel and some salt. I skated back on the icy roads, and Brett got me unstuck. I made it to the hospital around four, and by that time, there were no doctors available for me to talk to. Mom said that they had told her she would be going home on the weekend. I left word that I really needed to speak to the doctors about her treatment plan, and I left around six.
It was a helluva of a day, but Mom seemed better. I mean, she felt well enough to criticize me over some minor things, so that was a good sign, and I was really starting to believe that this was yet another in a long line of her being really sick but then getting back to her old self. Part of me now thinks that she really did know that something inside was very wrong.
On Thursday, I met Mike over at Mom’s house because he was going to fix the faucet. He did that and shoveled her sidewalk and said that he would clear the driveway before she came home. Then Brett and I went to the hospital. When we arrived, Mom was wide awake and alert. She had gotten out of bed, and they had disconnected everything except for the oxygen cannula. Mom sniped at me about everything, and I could tell that she was getting antsy and wanted to come home. She was talking about just living her life, going to bingo, doing what she wanted to do.
I spoke with her cardiologist, who said that she would probably be released on Saturday. I spoke with the home health coordinator, and mom got mad over that as she didn’t want anyone coming into her home. She insisted that she took her medicine just as she was supposed to and didn’t need anyone’s help. When we left, she was talking the ear off a nurse. I felt more relaxed than I had in days. On the way home Alexis and I made plans to clean mom’s house on Friday so that she would stop worrying about it.
Thursday night Corey came home.
“I’ve become someone’s idea of me.
You can no longer read the wax seal of the sun.
The trees no longer mention anything about the wind.
I don’t see who could play me later on.
It turns out I am buried myself.
It turns out we are all buried alive
in the chamber of someone else’s heart.” ~ Richard Jackson, from “Antigone Today”
I should have known, but I didn’t, didn’t have a clue. It really did not cross my mind after Thursday’s visit that she wouldn’t be coming home. I mean, when she first went into the hospital, while she was till in CICU, I had that talk with the doctors, you know the one: to call a code or not to, a DNR order, morphine for comfort. That talk.
But by Thursday night I told Corey that I was almost sorry that I had asked him to come home because she was doing so well.
I should have known. But I didn’t.
Friday morning at 9:15 a nurse from the hospital called. My mother had died.
They had taken in her breakfast tray. She was fine. Then a short time later alerts went off. She had just died. They think it might have been the aneurysm. She was gone and now I am left to pick up the pieces, to try to keep the family together, to find a home for her cat, to cull through over 46 years of stuff. I’m trying to plan an informal memorial service. She didn’t want to be buried, didn’t want a viewing, didn’t want a funeral, so she’s being cremated.
That last day, when we got to the hospital, I sat on her bed and looked at her, really looked at her. That saying, “looks just like she’s sleeping”? Bullshit. She didn’t look like she was sleeping. Then I did something odd: I opened her eyelids and looked into her eyes. They weren’t cloudy. It was the first time I had looked into my mother’s eyes in years and years and years. It was the closest the two of us had been physically since I don’t even remember when. I held her hand, touched her cheek, and apologized for not being who she wanted me to be.
And then I left.
Music by Rose Cousins, “Go First”
You have gone once more to the seashore
and this time you have looked at the horizon
with a fugitive’s lust.
You have asked yourself with sadness
who in Ithaca would notice your absence:
the sea toward which you always look,
the heavens you never question,
the land that waits for you assuredly.
Your bonds are of an impassive nature.
Are you thinking of destroying them,
are you thinking of escaping by denying
that pathway your feet have made?
You feel it, you don’t think about it;
one cannot ponder devastation.
You look at the water with haste:
with tired haste.
You are like an oracle that does not believe in the future.
~ Francisca Aguirre