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.

Bookends.

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.

Bartleby.

All these gray, gloomy, cold days make me think of all the things I *haven’t* done in winter because of it. I have S.A.D., I know it. When winter comes I hole up like a bear, and you really don’t see me until Spring. That first day of spring I always call in sick to work, go get a big KFC bucket, and when I used to live in Richmond, go to Maymont Park with a book and my sunglasses to melt the winter crust off.

That would be mid to late April usually, but here in Pittsburgh, we really can’t expect a day like that until late June – if we’re lucky. So here lately, I’ve been forcing myself out of the house, but it’s hard. The pull of the comforter is so strong. I’m like a plant – without sun I don’t flourish.

When I was a Junior in high school I checked out that winter so bad I didn’t even turn in a term paper, which was probably the most blasphemous thing you could do at Hermitage High in 1984. I just pulled a Bartleby and stated, “I prefer not to,” when Mrs. Rasnake ordered me to write a fifteen-page paper on the Circus Maximus. I’m sorry Mrs. Rasnake I prefer not to. I’ve written 15 gazillion notecards on something I could give two farts about and as for creating something legible out of all this mess in the thick of winter and the sun hasn’t shone in three months, uh, sorry, no.

“But Juh-nell, you’ll fail English!” she gasps clutching her pearls (okay, I added that for effect).

“Uh, Mrs. Rasnake, I don’t have an ‘L’ in my first, middle, or last name,” I retorted. She points her finger out the door ordering me to the office.

Okay, I made that last part up. Mrs. Rasnake did call me that the entire school year but back then I never had the nerve to call her on it. I always wanted to and in my mind made up various clever, snarky remarks I would make in response and other more devious scenes where she would end up looking like an ass and I would finally get the attention and “coolness” I wanted. But I was always too much of a chicken. I would just sit there and Bartleby my way through the rest of the year of English – I ended up with a “D” for the semester which ruined my GPA – a big deal back then.

Those of you who spent high school competing with one another for the highest GPA’s will know what I’m talking about here. At my school your GPA meant the difference between UVA and J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College down the road. And we were all just poor enough to really want that scholarship. Isn’t it amazing that something that meant so much back then is like ashes at the end of a cigarette now? Remember when crap like that was important? Weird, huh?

Why do I remember this? It always amazed me that a teacher could go 180 days and not learn a student’s name or even something that was remotely close to it. So when I became a teacher, it was the first thing I did. Learn their names and more than that, learn who these creatures were in the desks before me. More than just bored eyes and tapping fingers and shaking, bored feet in Etnie shoes. They’re not just grades in a book, they’re people.

But I digress. I suppose I’ll never flourish in winter. I’ve got a sunbox now, and at least it gets me out the door – I don’t call in sick like I used to. I slog to work with the rest of the lemmings. But I still think bears have it pretty good.