You Never Know What a Day Will Bring
My mom has been heading west for a couple of weeks each Thanksgiving and Spring for 20+ years—to a dude ranch no less, channeling her inner cowgirl. For the last several years, since she retired, she has wintered there—November to May, renting a house and enjoying mild weather and good friends. Asthma and arthritis have made New York winters a problem for her, and I’m glad she found a place that makes her so happy. The rest of the year she lives with my husband and me in Brooklyn.
But the regular pace of her life and mine shifted on April 19th. I was in Filene’s Basement, flipping through the blouse rack, when my cell rang. It was her friend, Katie, telling me in a cracked voice that Mom had been in a terrible car accident—she was broadsided by a pickup truck going 65+mph. When I call up that moment I still get the feeling of floating in a hot, airless bubble. The store noise drained away and I couldn’t breathe, and I struggled to understand what Katie said to me, about the sound like an explosion that sent her running out to the road, about Mom’s car in the ditch and the med-evac helicopter. I strained to make sense of what didn’t make any. The notes I wrote during that call slant erratically across my notebook page in handwriting I would never recognize as mine. During my subway ride home I made mental lists of what I had to do to get myself out there ASAP—book a flight, rent a car, pack some clothes, call my husband and some friends—it kept me together, putting one foot in front of the next, with a purpose. It kept me focused on what I could do instead of what was out of my control.
And it was bad when I arrived the next day. This person whom I had known my whole life to be in her right mind, wasn’t. She recognized me—I could tell because a tear slipped down her face when I entered her ICU room, but there are five days she can’t remember at all, including the accident. Five days of her talking in slurred speech from some reality that wasn’t where the rest of us live, of her being sweetly agitated, pulling out her IV lines, of needing to be reassured that she was injured, not being imprisoned against her will. My heart ached when I came in her room one day and her hands were restrained with cloth cuffs secured to the bed. I’ll spare you the gory details, but she had significant injuries, including a brain bleed, 7 broken ribs and her sternum and an ankle that required plates and pins. After two weeks and some very scary moments—and some funny ones too, where my very reserved and proper mother became the life of the party and social secretary of her semi-private room—she was released to a rehab facility. And the next day she was back in ICU—she had thrown a blood clot to her lung.
For five weeks I left my NY life, and whatever I would have been doing, and tended to her. And I was grateful I could arrange my life so I could do it, without worrying about all that would remain undone until I returned or whether I’d have my job. I was grateful for my husband who held it together at home, for my friends who helped take care of things I would normally have done, and talked to me whenever I needed, and for Mom’s friends, who called regularly and did whatever they could to get both of us through this.
Once I got Mom securely in rehab again, and made sure she was doing well, I came home, with assurances from her friends that they could handle things for a while. And they did. A week and a half ago Mom graduated from rehab to a friend’s guest room, and now she’s finally ready to head home.
She called me Monday. She had received a package of papers I sent which need her attention. Throughout this ordeal I have dealt with wads of forms, insurance companies, the car rental company, health insurance, etc. I have a gallon sized Zip-Lock bag full of statements and reports. But there are a few things that do require her attention and her statement. She was upset after reading through some of the papers, and she said, “I’m glad no one else was hurt, but this would have been simpler if I didn’t make it.” I wanted to come through the phone and yell at her, but I managed to modulate my voice, and I said, “Sometimes life is not easy, but it’s always worth it.” I’m not being Annie, singing about the sun coming out tomorrow. Everybody has had pain, some of it unimaginable to me. There was a hospital aide who would clean Mom’s room. Even when she was assigned elsewhere, she would stop in to check on Mom. After a while, we found out she was from Sierra Leone—she made her way here after the massacre in her town. Her mother was killed, the house set on fire. She had to jump from a window with her little brother on her back—he didn’t make it—unimaginable to me. But now she is pregnant and looking forward to the birth of her child.
All the mistakes, mishaps and the outright pain, are worth the wonder and surprise still to come. I wouldn’t change the bad things that have happened in my life, because it might change the good ones. Mom has always worried about getting things right, about not being a problem. I have too. But I knew something had changed in me since the accident, and I’ve had trouble putting it into words. I still do. But I know it involves, letting loose, becoming keenly aware we all screw up sometimes, and that the world will go on even if the paperwork is a little slow. That sometimes we are all a colossal pain in the face to those who love us, but miraculously, thankfully, they keep loving. That there are people who can get on my final, break the glass, emergency nerve, like Mom sometimes, but I would do anything in this world to keep them safe and happy.
In the midst of it all I was, of course, grateful for the knowledgeable doctors, and most especially the nurses, who were unfailingly kind, gracious, generous, and genuinely concerned for Mom’s well-being, no matter how messy or what time of day or night. But I could also still smile at the roadrunner who darted across my path as I drove through the desert—and the coyote. Seriously—I wasn’t watching the Cartoon Channel. The seemingly endless purple and orange sunsets made me feel serene and truly blessed. And last night, I asked for and received a ride through the aisles of Home Depot on my husband’s lumber cart (maybe a story for another day—involving a carpenter, who is downstairs banging, even as I type, a door and a washing machine) which seemed supremely silly, but it made me giggle and it was just fun.
I’m flying to Arizona to bring Mom home tomorrow. Her return has been a long time coming. So whether your underwear is clean or dirty—and I know Mom’s was clean—you can get hit by a truck. You never know what a day will bring—life changes in unforeseeable seconds. Having that fact smack me up side the head has made it supremely clear to me that I can let go and live.