What the neurosurgeon tells us next is another speeding blur in my mind. My mother has sustained a severe blow to the front of her head, some cuts to her face, and a minor tear to her liver. The technical phrases keep rushing past me, and I keep picking up on one particular phrase, “We don’t know.” Every other phrase out of his mouth seems to be, “We don’t know.” Yes, she is in a coma. Will she come out? “We don’t know.” Yes, her brain has swelled and there is dangerous pressure building up even as we speak. Will this cause any damaging effects? “We don’t know.” Will her personality or motor skills be changed? “We don’t know.” Will she live? “We don’t know.”
I make a point of asking about her artistic ability – at the time of the accident, Mom was earning her Master of fine arts in painting and printmaking. Can she still paint? But I get his same, mundane, three-word response. At this point, my hope falters. With all of the uncertainty surrounding him and his non-answers, the pressure is building up within me at the same rate as the stress to her brain.
The doctor leaves, and my mind rushes back to a day three months ago. It is autumn, and the air has just turned chilly, smelling faintly like burning wood. Mom and I are in her huge, empty studio classroom at the university. She is pulling out some of her canvases. I am immediately taken by one abstract picture, a work in dazzling purples and stunning golds. Then she holds up a perfume bottle and I realize something amazing. The picture is an exact replica of the bottle, except it is from an “ant’s eye view”. It’s as if she shrunk herself down to the size of an insect, walked under the bottle, and then painted this enormous 4-foot canvas of what she saw. Just looking at the painting all you see is a beautiful abstract, but by her showing me her vision, it has become something else entirely. I flood her with praise, telling her how beautiful this is, and how proud I am of her. She then shows me some of the other student’s work and I’m astounded at how far advanced she is compared to the other students. It seems after many years of searching for her own time to paint and create, she has finally found her space. And her vision. The love for her work shows so clearly in the incredible detail and the realness of the brilliant colors.
Thinking back on this scene so many years later, all I can wonder is where that painting is now. Where did it go, and why didn’t somebody claim it when we finally found out what we would be dealing with in the months and years to come? Also, I am struck by this moment because I actually took the time to tell her how proud I was of her and her accomplishments. Instead of criticizing, complaining, whining, being a general pain in the ass, I was sincere in the pride I felt. I remember it as the first time in my adult life to actually feel that way toward her. We had spent so many years resenting one another, fighting against each other, but in that moment it felt like we were on the same ground, talking as adults, not arguing as mother and child. To this day I wish I had had more moments like that one.