Running Realizations.

I hate running. Really hate it. It feels alien to my body and I’m always short of breath. At the same time I love it. I forget how great it makes me feel afterward. Like my husband says it feels so good when you stop. I also forget the realizations you have while running. Your body, your breath is struggling, your mind is focused on the struggle so it frees itself and all these realizations come rushing in.

I love those realizations, but fear them too, because usually they pick me up out of my complacent little slot in the world and throw me somewhere else. Inevitably after a run I’ll have to actually DO some major life-altering thing because while I was chuffing along I realized no, I actually didn’t want to have kids. So what now?

I’ll never forget that cold, foggy morning in Pittsburgh running around the reservoir near the zoo, listening to the lions roar their disapproval in the dawn and realizing that no, I didn’t want to be a teacher anymore. That Vietnam-humid summer morning when I realized I hated my job in fundraising. I wanted to write. That other morning when the first warm breath of Spring was in the air and the first green buds appeared when I realized how very much I loved my husband, my dog, my life. Tears rolled down in gratitude when I also realized I didn’t have to do anything with that realization. I just had to feel it for awhile. Then remember what it felt like when times were bad.

This afternoon as the sun set and the last of the trees hit their fire-red peak while others gently let go of their leaves without a sound, I realized much to my horror that I was living my mother’s life. All my life I’ve fought against it. When she wanted me to be a ballerina I balked. When she wanted me to keep studying violin I yelled. I hated cooking. And I absolutly HATED……….running. She ran marathons. I cheered her on from the sidelines. She urged me to run and I complained. I would NEVER run. I’m fifteen dammit! I know everything!

Now at 43, I’m learning to love running. And I’m a freelance food writer which means I cook a great deal. I bake a great deal. And I love it. The realization, the irony of it all was not lost as I tried in vain to make it up our neighborhood’s giant hill. But as I ran down the other side I also realized, if I was living Momma’s life, did that also mean I had to live all of it?

While I’ve been struggling with my identity the past year, what it means to be a writer, to finally do what I’m supposed to do, what it means to not have kids, what it means to be this person I find myself to be, I’ve also been struggling with an unknown, un-named fear. It lurks off to the side and I find myself preparing for it. I don’t know what it is, but I’ll be ready for it when it gets here. I lift weights, I run. I meditate. I pray. I write. All in an effort to get strong for whatever this fear could be.

My mother, in her 40’s, was violently attacked in her home. They never found the guy and even though we all urged her to get counseling she never did. She insisted she was strong enough. She kept running. But she also started drinking. And at 49 she crashed her car into a tree. Ten years of brain trauma followed, until at 59 she died within 3 months of being diagnosed with esophageal cancer.

Now certainly there were happy memories in those years, and I don’t mean to come off all Anne Sexton-confessional, but this was my realization today. I don’t fear living my mother’s life. But I do fear that part of it. If I’m living my mother’s life, does it mean I have to live it all? Facing that kind of mountain makes me very afraid indeed.

I can hear my mother insisting that I’m silly, this is my life. Not hers. Of course I can make different choices. All I know is this running realization rushing in to my brain today stopped me cold. It made me cry. And I swear to God if I make it to 50 with all my body parts and my mental faculties intact I’ll be very grateful indeed. Hell, I’m grateful right now. For a lot of things. But today mostly for running. Because with every step I’m letting shit go.

Running to me is “selah” meaning I stop. And I listen.

I’m a Writer.

In high school, I was on the editorial committee that decided which poems and stories would make it into our literary magazine. Every submission was anonymous, and the committee would first have someone read the piece aloud, then the rest would comment. My junior year I submitted a poem, one I was proud of because it stated my deepest longings, my most deep-seated fears, my hopes, my wishes. It was angst-ridden. My cry for help. After it was read aloud, the committee frowned. “It’s pretty obscure,” someone commented – the nicest comment of the ones that followed. For what seemed like an eternity the group tore apart my poem, line by line. The criticism was not constructive, but cruel. They gorged like lions at a fresh kill while our teacher looked on, silent. I never submitted another piece again, and from that point on, I kept my writing hidden from the world.

Writing was my life, my reason for living, but I pushed it down, pushed it away, because obviously I sucked at it. It didn’t help my parents never encouraged my writing, but instead pushed me into music, art, dance, anything else. After high school, I pursued a degree in illustration, which pleased my mother to no end. When that didn’t work out, I tried every other job imaginable: store manager, barista, bartender, receptionist, typist, copy editor, proposal writer, newsletter editor, English teacher. You’ll notice those last few jobs incorporate writing. I like to think of them as “writing adjacent”. Even though I feared writing, my gut couldn’t get away from it, and so I took jobs to get NEXT to writing without actually touching it.

Even if the job didn’t involve actual writing, I made damn sure it involved my time. I said yes to every project, forged ahead with every new plan and proposal and development at whatever job I happened to have. I wanted my entire day (and sometimes night) FULL, so unconsciously I didn’t have to think about the fact I wasn’t writing. For a time, I even worked two jobs, 16-hour days, which only left me enough time to come home and drink myself into a blackout stupor before starting the whole merry-go-round of denial once again.

But recently, I endured what I like to think of as an existential crisis of conscience. My last job involved some writing, so it was “writing adjacent” but it took up so much of my time. Not only that, the circumstances of the job were so stress-inducing I often found myself lying awake at night – ALL NIGHT – trying to think of ways to make the job better. How could I get up in the morning, go to this job, and not go into the bathroom stall and cry every day? How could I make it more endurable? When you’re describing your job as “endurable” it’s probably not a good thing. Not at all. I had buried my fear, my desire to write so deeply that here I was trying to figure out how to turn a job I hated into one I could at least endure another day. It was a breaking point for me.

I quit. I had to. I was so deep within it, I couldn’t see I was pushing my desire to write away, allowing my fear to act as a wall against it. I would rather die of stress at this job, constantly fighting to make it better, constantly denying my love of writing to sneak into my psyche, rather than just letting it all go. It took a good friend to show me what was going on – to take me by the hand, pull me outside of myself, and show me the scene as it was playing out. She was like the Ghost of Christmas Present in that Dickens tale, her hand around my shoulder, showing me the scene. “Do you see what you’re doing to yourself? Why are you fighting so hard?” Isn’t it funny how someone outside can see the solution so easily when you’ve been banging your head against the wall for years? I remain grateful for her insight, and her swift kick in my ass.

So I cut all ties to that job. Now I was unemployed, untethered, like a balloon set aloft except there’s no wind to carry it anywhere. It’s just there, floating, waiting for someone to blow on it. Waiting for direction. It’s incredibly frightening to feel like that, but exciting-frightening. The anticipation, the faith you have in yourself while you’re untethered is what keeps you aloft.

Elizabeth Gilbert said when you begin a major life journey, when you finally let go and do things differently for the first time, heading into a direction you’ve never been in, you have to have faith the truth will be revealed. And everyone you meet on your journey is a possible teacher.*

This is the truth I keep coming back to. My truth. I have no idea where to go or what to do next. But I keep reminding myself the truth will be revealed. I have been listening to “Eat, Pray, Love” again on audio. It’s amazing how her journey for balance parallels mine for purpose. Because that’s what I’m looking for – purpose. What am I supposed to do? Who am I supposed to be? In Chapter 30, when Liz finally decides not to become a mother she asks herself, “Okay, so who am I now?” It was like an arrow of light went right into my heart. Because that is me. That is so me it hurts. I say “arrow of light” because it was so validating to HEAR another woman state what I was feeling. I had read these words two years ago, but hearing them now, it really sunk in. I heard it with my heart, not my head.

My husband and I tried to have children, and then when it didn’t work out easily, we decided not to pursue it. We are happy as we are. And even though we didn’t really talk about why, now I know. Both of us, having had happy childhoods, also still possess a huge amount of painful memories and demons we’re still working through. It would be so unfair to bring up a child, the hardest job of all, without having worked through this. Without letting this go. While I might not know my purpose, I do know we were brought together to take care of each other in this life. And that’s more than enough purpose. Except it isn’t, is it? Taking care of my husband is so easy, and my greatest joy. I’m still left with the question, “What now?”

Recently, someone asked me what I did for a living. “I’m a writer,” I replied. The words felt awful in my mouth, like I had just decided to find out what rocks taste like. They rolled around on my tongue like maggots and it took all my force of will to get the words out. I wear a bite guard at night, and frequently I have dreams where I’m trying to speak, but because the guard is blocking my talk the only thing that comes out are squeaks and inhuman noises. This felt just like that. I was like Helen Keller discovering water, except I heard the words and I didn’t believe them.

For the longest time I was a quiet mousy girl, but because of all the shit I’ve gone through in my life I blossomed into a mouthy broad. You can’t shut me up now, and you better not even try unless you want your ass kicked. Now I just need to learn to open my mouth on the page. To get to the point where writing is as easy as talking. So for the time being I’m an untethered balloon. Floating and silent, but emitting a squeak here and there. And that’s fine for now. I have faith.

*I’m paraphrasing, can anyone find this quote for me? I gave my copy of the book to a friend who really needed it.

Fear of Frying.

I have a phobia about cooking, Any and all cooking coming from my own two hands. I just know from the moment I start pulling down pots and pans it’s going to turn out TERRIBLE. It’s going to SUCK. It’s going to taste like crap, the people I serve it to are going to get sick. People are going to give me a look that says, “You’re kidding, right?” So why do I write a food blog? Why am I writing right this very minute about appetizer anxiety? Because lately I have found two cures for my food fear. Two REAL cures that appear to be ridding me of a life-long phobia I have about cooking. Two cures that once I realized were there, seemed so very simple.

I’ve always had this fear. Creating a meal gets my heart racing, my hands clammy. The very thought of bringing out the chopping board fills me with a dread much like getting a root canal. Don’t even get me started about planning full-0n dinner parties, or barbecues or Thanksgiving get-togethers. I’ve had full blown anxiety attacks from even opening my old cookbooks to look for recipes. The act of even LOOKING at an ingredient list for Herb Stuffing gives me stomach cramps because even though it looks scrumptious on the page, I know it’s going to taste like cat litter.

Last Christmas was supposed to be a simple affair – a small brunch with just my husband, my sister, her boys, and my Dad. All I had to do was make some eggs and make sure the house was clean. Hubby was even available to help. But two hours before they were scheduled to arrive I was crumpled on my bathroom floor, paralyzed with anxiety and stomach cramps. They arrived to find me in my bathrobe, prone on the couch. I feigned flu – and I guess it wasn’t all feigning. I really was sick. All because I had to cook.

What am I so afraid of? Failure obviously. But why? One reason is my mother. I always preface stories about her with the phrase, “She was Martha Stewart before there was one,” or “She made Julia Child look like a rank amateur.” Because she did. Growing up in the 1950’s, and MAJORING IN HOME ECONOMICS (yes, you heard right) at Longwood College gave her a step up onto the Betty Draper platform of housewifery. Yep, she had to major in Home Economics to land a husband (instead of Art, her first choice), because everyone knows a woman can’t make a living as a painter. So cooking was her art which she practiced almost as much as her painting. Tuesday night dinners were exotic affairs often served by candlelight (for mood), and much to the chagrin of my Dad, who always complained he could never see his food.

She experimented with Hawaiian, Chinese, Mexican, Japanese, and Indian when all you could buy at your local A&P was LaChoy (“Makes Chinese food……..SWING American! Think of it!). Pretty exotic stuff in the early to mid 70’s. When your Mom is making Baked Alaska from scratch on a Thursday night and the rest of your friends are eating Nilla wafers for dessert you sort of get ingrained in your head that you just MIGHT be set to a higher standard.

I tried. She pulled me into the kitchen, showing me the basics like greasing and flouring a pan, or cutting a carrot for your mise en place. But Mom always saved the fancy stuff for herself, like arranging the whipped egg white on the mound of mint chocolate chip ice cream (with a brownie base) for the Baked Alaska. So maybe I got it in my head that I was never good enough. I could never BE good enough. When she arranged the 12 different kinds of made-from-scratch cookies on her cookie tree – I could eat them (when she said so). But could never ARRANGE them. That was her job.

From all this I learned dinner parties were EVENTS. The lighting, the music (usually Sinatra), the food, the linens, all of it was so important. One detail left out could ruin an entire month’s preparation. It’s no wonder I become apoplectic at Thanksgiving! I can remember freaking out the first time Hubby and I presented Thanksgiving to my in-laws. I had forgotten to buy potato rolls, and of course, EVERYONE knows it cannot be perfect Thanksgiving without potato rolls! Hubby tried to help, but I was inconsolable. Dinner was ruined.

When I spent weeks planning a Tex-Mex barbecue, buying multicolored pitchers to serve sangria, festive tablecloths, tumblers, party bowls, and then TWO people showed up I freaked out. I was a failure, a waste. Why did I even bother? No one likes me that’s why they didn’t come. They knew the food would suck and it probably did anyway.

As you can probably tell, the other reason for my cooking fear is I have some sort of sick notion if the meal isn’t good, my character isn’t good. A failure in cooking is a reflection of my very self. Yeah pretty messed up, but that’s my head. I can’t help it. At least I’m AWARE of it, right?

I wasn’t always like this. For many years I was single, and out of pure boredom I would cook. I loved scones and so decided to learn to make them. If they didn’t turn out, that’s okay, I’ll just feed them to the birds. Got bored by prepared processed meals which tasted like cardboard and so learned to make simple pasta sauce. From there I started improvising – cooking the pasta and mixing it with different things depending on my mood – pesto one night, sauteed vegetables (Provencale style) another night. Just plain with garlic and feta a third night. I ate a lot of pasta – because it was easy to make, forgiving if it turned out wrong. And if it turned out wrong the only person seeing it was me. Eventually got so adventurous I was making curries – first from a recipe, but then eventually improvising on my own. Buying fish sauce and making authentic Vietnamese shrimp and chicken soup was a Sunday afternoon adventure – a way to kill time and entertain myself when I wasn’t dating anyone. No stress, no anxiety. If it didn’t turn out, I’d just dump it and make some mac and cheese. Try again next weekend.

So what happened? Somewhere along the way I got married – to a guy who cooks WAY WAY WAY better than me. So of course I transferred my Mom thing onto him. Poor Hubby. Without even knowing it, he had become the object of all my childhood “not good enoughs.” Somehow I got into my subconscious I had to prove my cook-worthiness (and self worth) to Hubby, just as I had to do with my mother. Being successful at Thanksgiving would prove this. Creating a magical Tuesday night dinner would also. The anxiety was crippling, but I didn’t know where it was coming from. Poor Hubby. It wasn’t as if he was doing anything to make me think this sort of thing was expected of me. He loves to cook and will do so at the drop of a hat! And he’d love me even if I couldn’t boil water.

Realizing all this was coming from my own twisted experience was liberating. A huge weight just lifted right off. Sure, you have that first moment of, “Oh my GAWD, I can’t believe my subconscious is doing this,” but once again, when you’re aware, you can fix it. Or at least try. So what did I do? Simple. I just pretended I was single again.

Every time I cooked, I pretended Hubby wasn’t in the picture. I pretended the only person who would be eating this meal would be me. So if it was a failure, it was okay. I could just throw it away and eat mac and cheese. Just me. And you know what? It worked. By tricking my mind, my soul calmed down. My anxiety eased. Not all at once, but in steps. And every time I cooked, it got just a little better. Baby steps. But better each time.

Having a CSA was the other cure that helped baby-step it along. When you’ve got 16 tomatoes just on this side of too ripe and might be covered in mold tomorrow – you HAVE to figure out something to do with them real quick. Pasta sauce? Ratatouille? It forces your mind into creative cooking real fast like a smoke alarm runs you out of a burning house. Tomatoes. Rotting. Must. Cook. NOW!

Eventually all this forced creativity got me into small acts of regular food improvisation. I could look at a recipe and think, “That would taste better with a little acid, like lime juice,” or “That cobbler would be WAY better with pumpkin spice instead of just cinnamon.” And it was. Another baby step of confidence. Stepping away from all that fear.

Recently I’ve discovered not only am I as good a cook as my mother was – in some respects I am better. When I pull a homemade peach cobbler out of the oven that looks like it should grace the cover of Gourmet magazine, I still pick apart its flaws. I’m still way too hypercritical. But inside, deep, deep inside, I’m thinking, “You know, Mom never made cobbler.” She BOUGHT plenty of pies, maybe even made refrigerator pies, but never a true, homemade peach cobbler. One that looks great, and I admit with much reluctance, tastes incredible. Credit goes to the CSA peaches, but also to my willingness to take a recipe and tweak it without fear. To actually NOT follow it to the letter, is a pretty big step. And to not sink into a heap of anxiety on the floor is leaps and bounds beyond anything I ever thought possible…

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 Two

The helicopter has taken her from the scene to the Medical College of Virginia Hospital. Riding down there with my father and sister, all I can do is stare out the window. It is freezing cold, the kind of cold that hurts your lungs if you breathe too deeply. The mixture of sleet and snow coating the cars and the trees and every building is wet and ugly, definitely not the pretty snow everyone loves to see fall. The ride is unbearably quiet, the only sounds in the car the swish of windshield wipers and my sister sniffling in the back seat. None of us knows how bad it is, or what to expect.

All kinds of thoughts run through my head as the car pulls much too slowly into the dingy parking deck adjoining the hospital. What is wrong with me? Why do I always feel the need to be so argumentative with her? It still all seems like some sort of anxiety dream, brought on by fatigue or stress.

I had just talked with her that afternoon, and I distinctly told her she had better drive carefully if she was planning to go out. Mom had spent the past half hour telling me how excited she was because her friends were planning a girls’ night out that particular Monday. With my “mother’s cap” firmly in place, I suggested she make it another night because of the foul weather, but Mom is as stubborn as I am. She could not be deterred from her early week adventure out with the girls to have margaritas and chips with salsa, her favorite. I remember thinking, “On a Monday? Why does she feel the need to go out on a Monday? With bad weather predicted?” Now I wish I had been even more angry with her than I was but in the end I gave up the argument and told her I hoped she had a good time. I was at work, it was busy, and I needed to finish up some things before heading for home. It was 4:30 in the afternoon, close to quitting time and I didn’t want to have to stay late and drive through sleet.

When we arrive at the hospital waiting room, friends of Mom’s had already gotten there and we could finally begin to piece the plot together. From Lynette we learn that Mom had gone around a curve just a little too quickly, careened off the road because of the icy conditions, and hit a tree. Her car came to rest only 12 inches off the road. I’ve since noticed that most trees on roads are set far away from the actual road, but this one touched the edge of the asphalt. She hit it head-on, going who knows how fast. And she was less than 5 minutes from home. I hear this and immediately imagine her digging in her purse for her house keys as she’s driving (she always kept two sets, always had) distracted, not really paying attention to this stretch of road because she knows it so well, just thinking about getting to bed. It’s 2a.m. now, and this all happened at approximately 11:30p.m. or so. We still have no prognosis, but learn an ambulance had appeared 10 minutes after the accident, so at least she had gotten to the hospital quickly. This gives us some hope.

[On a side note, my father called me six months after this accident happened to say that he had contacted the county and the tree was cut down. They stated that in fact a number of car accidents had happened with this particular tree, Mom’s being the worst. I listen quietly as he tells me, the haze of summer smothering me. I brood over the fact of this action being a case of “too little, too late.”]

As the tenuous pieces of the night’s events come together, my thoughts are swimming. Every so often a new one pops up, runs across my mind, then sinks into the depths of thought only to be replaced by another. Had she been drinking and driving? If she had, what kind of friends did she hang around with who would let her drive in this kind of weather after a bunch of margaritas? In any kind of weather for that matter? Mom has never been the best driver anyway. Again, I have visions of her speeding down the rural route where she lived, digging for her house keys and looking in the rear view mirror at the same time. What is a tree doing that close to the road anyway? I am filled with despair, anger, frustration, and anxiety all at once.