1/7/91 – Part Five

Again, we are told to wait. Incredibly scared, all of us keep up a good front. Others start voicing what I had continued to think, that because she is so youthful and in such good shape, she has a big advantage over others her age. I mean, she runs marathons, for Chrissakes. I cannot decide as I look into their faces whether they really believe this or they just don’t want to consider the other possibilities. We all react differently to the news that she’s in a coma, and no one knows what will happen. We all seem to drift apart from each other. Where before we were sitting together as a group, now we each drift off into separate little clusters, thinking about how she must feel, and maybe contemplating our own lives a little.

Mom ran religiously as I said, in snow or sleet and my years up to that point had been filled with reports of her mileage. In school or at work people would always come up to me and remark they had seen her running on the previous afternoon, usually somewhere in the vicinity of my house. As a result, her heart was in optimum condition. Her doctor told her often that she sounded, “as clear as a bell.”

Mom had also been a dedicated nutritionist, filling our bellies with wheat bread and carrot sticks as opposed to Twinkies and hot dogs. More than once since that night I have found myself grateful she took such care in making sure her children had healthy meals. It’s like I never noticed until that moment in the waiting room how much she cared for us and herself.

After what seems like days we are allowed to go in and see her briefly. It is like a movie unreeling, because she is placed in the very back of the intensive care unit. It secures my idea this is some sort of nightmare. As a result, my sister and I have to walk past every bed in the place and cannot help but see who is in what condition.

Medical College of Virginia Hospital is painted in very chemical, medicinal, green-gray and white. The color on the walls matches almost exactly the operating room greens on the doctors so that they seem to fade into the walls like ghosts. The building retains a detached feeling because of this, even though it’s supposed to be a place of caring and healing. Greenish-gray shadows give it a morgue-type feeling or a prison aura. The halls echo, so every step I take reverberates loudly in my ears. Again, I’m reminded of a nightmare.

Of course every surface is spotless, but I can still detect a smell of sick underneath all the ammonia and bleach. Underneath this, I smell death. No matter how much they clean, they cannot rub away the fact most of the people admitted to this part of the hospital probably have no chance of ever leaving alive. Death smells like cobwebs, a sickly-sweet mold, with a musty smell of decaying books. It’s horrible. On top of all this I smell rubber gloves, the dry acidy smell of gauze, plus bacterial soap and even urine.

As my sister and I walk into the unit holding hands, moving slowly past the patients, this mixture of smells hits us all at once. It makes me gag inwardly with the sense of foreboding it carries. Each patient we pass seem worse off than the one before. Most of them are geriatrics, lying limply, slack-jawed, tubes sprouting from them like a sci-fi movie. Most don’t even breathe on their own, and the hissing sound of the breathing apparatus makes a sickening kind of music – a sucking sound that makes my skin crawl. The rest of the patients are younger adults covered in bandages and more tubes.

Since this is the neurological intensive care unit, all the patients have some sort of bandage on their shaved heads, and the combination of this with their flimsy hospital robes gives me visions of Auschwitz. The scrawniness of the elderly does not alleviate this feeling at all, and another chill crawls its way up my spine. The ones who are unconscious lie like vegetables, unaware and unseeing. The worst patients have their curtains drawn, and I shudder to think of what condition could possibly be worse than what I was now seeing.

My mother lay at the very end of this long and harrowing journey of sickness and death. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many machines hooked up to one person, before or since. If everything else about that night remains a rushed blur of images, I will always remember the beeping sounds of the machines and the sickly smell of medicinal liquids, bandages, rubber gloves, and death hovering just over our heads. She too has bandages and breathing apparatus, but in addition to this she wears a neck brace and numerous other stitches and bandages appear on her face and arms. A large tube runs out of the top of her head and is attached to a monitor, meant to measure the amount of pressure on her brain.

Even with all of the machines, she looks peaceful, and miraculously, the only part of her face damaged is a small stitch above her lip. No wonder the doctor thought she was 25. In the midst of all this mayhem, all this mess, she still looks it. I smirk softly at the irony.

Clutching my sister, I begin praying that she gets her own room as soon as possible – I want her out of this room where the grim reaper seems to lurk in every corner. Unfortunately, this would not occur for many weeks, but as the days progressed and the number of machines attached to her dwindled away, I gained more and more molecules of hope. Even so, the hated brain monitor was one of the last to go, and its presence during our visits never ceased to be a source of discomfort. It taunted us with its presence, and served as a reminder that there was a very real possibility she would not make it through this.

I did not know this at the time of my first visit, but she would go through two more invasive brain surgeries to alleviate the pressure. Eventually, a small portion of the front part of her brain would be removed in order to save her life. The doctor repeatedly assured us the only effects would possibly be a very small change in personality and maybe a loss of memory, but I still cannot help but feel a portion of her died during those surgeries. It’s like they cut out a piece of Mom, and just threw her away with the sharps and other hazardous medical waste.

Of course, none of us, including the doctor, ever mentioned the word “lobotomy” but I can guarantee we were all thinking it. I can’t watch the movie “Frances” to this day without thinking of what had to happen to Mom. Today things have improved somewhat and they would’ve just removed part of her skull to let the brain swell and recede on its own. I wonder how her story would’ve been different had she had that kind of chance instead of what she got.

1/7/91 – Part Four

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.

1/7/91 – Part Three

The waiting room seems to have become our new home. Contemporary, overstuffed, yet extremely uncomfortable chairs in a sickening mauve color meet our backs as we wait, wait, and wait some more. The only things to look at are the tacky, assembly-line lithographs on the walls, and the occasional passer-by. These range from tired-looking doctors (probably residents) in medicinal operating room wear to patients wandering aimlessly, shuffling their feet and dragging their IV’s behind them. The squeak those wheels make gives me chills. I grab onto my friend’s arm like a vise. I don’t remember how he got to be in that waiting room – maybe I called him? I am just thankful he is there for me to lean on. I am numb all over, still asleep, and still reassuring myself it is all a bad dream.

Occasionally, one of us will go to the cafeteria for a cup of coffee, a thick, black, bitter tasting cup of mud that will keep us awake for a few more hours of waiting. My mom’s best friend Lynette leans on her boyfriend’s arm and stares. My sister and I stare at the floors, the walls, at Dad, and at each other. Mom’s friend Anne and her boyfriend glance anywhere but at us. She had gone out with Mom, and it seems she feels even more guilt than me. Had she let Mom drink and drive? Did Mom crash just because of slippery roads, or was it something else?

When the doctor finally comes down in his faded teal scrubs, I am struck by his youth. He cannot be more than thirty, and he is the neurosurgeon. He asks, “Are you the family of the young girl that has been brought in?” and youth again makes an appearance in my mind. My sister replies that he has the wrong family, but I know he is talking about Mom. People have always remarked on her youth, and when the doctor again states, “Well, the twenty-five-year-old, right?” I know he has made a common mistake. A snicker escapes me – I can’t help it. My first thought is, “Wow, Mom would kill to be hearing this right now.” She would eat it up like candy.

At an age when most women have settled down to the fact that they are middle-aged, my mother at that time seemed to be just beginning. She had always carried herself like a free spirit and it showed in her attitude, in the clothes she wore, in the way she carried herself. She dressed in clothes better suited to women much younger than she, but most of the time she could pull it off, never looking a day over 30, even though she was approaching 50. People used to compare her to Cher all the time, but she’s much prettier, and without all that ghastly plastic surgery. She was always just as outrageous as Cher though, and her outfits never ceased to amaze me. She was fearless in fashion. Wearing bright colors, mini-skirts, bikinis (when most women had given *that* particular swimwear up for good) and looking fabulous. People often mistook her for my sister. To this day, when I picture my Mom, she’s wearing a brown bikini – bandeau style, with a gold ring in the middle, huge gold hoops in her ears, her black hair in a bun and “Toast of New York” nail polish on her toes. Her signature outfit.

With all this youth going on, people used to mistake her for my sister. I can remember her visiting me in Connecticut (I was working at a lobster house as a bartender and living with a guy, but that’s for another blog) and all the kitchen staff kept telling me how hot my sister was and was she single?

Anyway, back in the waiting room, all through Doogie Howser’s speech, I keep coming back to youth, and how maybe this youth she possesses will be able to pull her through the biggest of all the traumas she’s ever had to face.

1/7/91 – Part One

Hearing the answering machine faintly kick in from the dining room late one night, I tune out the voice, husky and unrecognizable. My sleepy mind only recognizes the words “mother……..ice.” I drift off. Soon, the phone rings again and I let it ring. The machine once again clicks to life. This time I am a little more coherent. I hear my father say my mother has been in a serious accident. The police will tell him nothing because they are divorced, only that she is in intensive care at MCV Hospital. She may even have died, he doesn’t know.

As odd as it seems, my initial reaction is to think, God, what has she gotten herself into now? Has one of her dream dates gone and gotten himself into a fender-bender? Maybe she bumped into someone (literally) on the way home and now needs a lift because her car was towed from the scene. It can’t be as serious as Dad says, the Jordans always exaggerate. They’re known for it.

Stressed out from work, completely exhausted, and thinking I would lose the rest of the night’s sleep over a few bumps and bruises does not put me in good spirits I have helped her through scrapes of this sort before, so “serious” just doesn’t register. The only thing I’m thinking right now is, “Not again.”

This was my frame of mind on that night so long ago. It seemed in spite of our ages, and her “declaration of independence” (divorce), I was often more of a mother to her than a daughter. Usually, these personal traumas were not as catastrophic as they first seemed, including everything from boyfriend problems to not balancing her checkbook. We’d never had a great relationship, getting along dutifully at best, each of us never understanding the other’s choices in life. Recently, I came across a note Momma had written when I was fifteen. One of the lines read, “I wish you could act as maturely as your sister does, and I hate it when you lock the door to your room.” In the aftermath of all that was to come, I had forgotten her constant disappointment, her disapproval. I had forgotten the woman she was because everything that was to follow made it seem so trivial. What was to come was like scenery flying past in a rapidly moving car, and it called for more spiritual stamina than I ever thought I would have to rely on in this lifetime.

Everything in my life is sliced neatly in half; those occurring before that cold night in January, and the ones that have rolled on after. That icy night is the motionless center of an ever-rotating circle. Before my mother drove her car headlong into a tree, my world seemed to flow pretty evenly. Besides a broken relationship, and the numerous changes of direction I made in my work environment, my life was pretty steady. I distinctly remember wishing, in fact, for any kind of extreme in my life. I’ve always believed in the intensity of any kind of extreme, and I remember the time “before” as one of boredom in this sense. I was so desperate I didn’t even care if the extreme was good or bad. I just wanted to wake up from the doldrums of everyday existence. Thinking back now, this certainly seems naive.


I’ve already written extensively about my Momma here, but this time of year I always get to thinking more about her. On March 27, 2007, it will have been six years since she died of esophageal cancer.

This was after spending ten years as a head trauma victim – the result of a tragic car accident late on a Monday night, January 7, 1991, on an icy road. I have to admit during our own ice storm here last week I was brought back to that night. She had called me at work to say she was going out with some girlfriends even though the weatherman promised an ice storm. I tried to convince her to stay home but couldn’t. The next phone call I got was in the wee hours of Tuesday morning from my father saying she was in intensive care at MCV. She had hit a tree less than three minutes from her house.

I hate to belabor stuff, but it sure seems hard not to in this case. In my process of “letting go” through writing in this blog, these memories are the hardest.

Between January and March each year, I seem to relive all that stuff over and over again. She had her accident in January 1991, she was diagnosed with cancer in January 2001. She came out of her coma in March 1991, she died of her cancer in March 2001. Ten years of surviving with bookends of that one life-changing accident and her final death, and what I feel was a release of pain and holding on. When she died she was finally able to just quit trying so hard and rest.

So now, every time there is bad weather or it just happens to be January, February or March, I remember. I remember my sister knocking on my door with her husband and all her kids in tow making a face-to-face visit to tell me that Momma had cancer.

I remember driving in the ice storm down to the hospital at 3 in the morning. The whap-whap of the windshield wipers.

I remember the brightness in my mother’s eyes when she first came out of her coma, like the world was all shiny and new.

I remember seeing my Momma jogging down Woodman Road in the middle of winter through the snow and the slush – she ran marathons, and trained, no matter what the weather. I was usually on my way to high school and often passed her on the road, giving a little “toot” as I drove past, but wishing she wouldn’t run so close to home – I got embarrassed when my teachers and friends would point out they saw her running too. Now I’m damn proud.

I remember Momma telling me that if I wanted to kick my bad mood I should get off my butt and exercise, that it was the best thing for depression. I would just roll my eyes and eat another potato chip or go into my room and slam the door. But now I know she was right.

I remember the smell of the Neuro-ICU, a sick, sour, smell like turned milk. With an undertone of medicine and old, unwashed laundry. The first time I had to deliver something to the ICU when I temped there that smell hit me like a tsunami, and I was taken back to that night. It was so unsettling.

I remember the fear in my Momma’s eyes as she lay dying of this horrible cancer – she looked so frail, and small, and afraid. My sister and I climbed in the bed with her, one on either side, and held her, and talked to her in soft tones.

I remember how my Momma’s breath smelled when she lay dying – like death, the worst, most horrible smell ever. I wanted to rip it out of her. It made me so sad to think that she had to go through this on top of all the other indignities she had faced.

I remember how happy my Momma looked when we put on “Rod Stewart’s Greatest Hits” her old spark came back and she looked like she wanted to dance in her bed.

I remember the joy in her face when I took her hand and told her I’d be married that fall in Florence, Italy. We were running away, eloping. “Of course you are sweetie,” she said. “That’s wonderful.” When I told her I wish she could be there, she replied, “I will be.” And she was.