In which we are given bonus time
On December 20, 2014, my family and I were in the beautiful Rocky Mountains. We had come up the day before and planned on staying through the morning of Christmas Eve. After the very long nights of the previous two weeks, the break was necessary and desired. My mom’s condition had improved as had her mood. Friends of mine had visited a couple of days earlier, and she not only recognized them, she brightened at their appearance. Although I’d been questioning whether we should go to the mountains, the shift in her helped convince me we could still go.
So go we did. We were enjoying a lazy morning, the kids watching Saturday morning cartoons as my husband sipped his coffee while reading an article. I poured a fresh puzzle from its cardboard confines onto the long, wooden table, ready to lose myself in its 1,000 oddly-shaped pieces.
My phone jingled. A text message from my oldest sister. “No need to panic, but mom was just taken to the hospital in an ambulance. She’s OK, but they’re going to keep her at least overnight until her O2 levels stabilize.”
I didn’t wait to text back. I called immediately. “What happened.”
The long and the short of it was my mom couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t breathe, the nurse couldn’t help, 9-1-1 was called, and the EMTs used a C-PAP to force air into my mom’s lungs. And it worked. O2 charged through her bronchioles and popped open her shrinking alveoli, and her respiratory system began to work again.
For three hours, I hemmed and hawed about whether or not we should drive back down to the city. My sister said everything was under control, and I should stay and enjoy myself. But how could I enjoy myself? What if something happened overnight? I was an hour and a half away. Could I live with that decision? I could not. We drove home that night, and I went to the hospital first thing in the morning.
As I walked down the hospital corridor of the intensive care unit, I spotted my dad speaking with a doctor. As I came to his side, he held back tears as he said, “We almost lost her.” It was then I realized how close we really came as he recounted the story of calling 9-1-1, and the EMTs, and the seemingly interminable ambulance ride to the hospital, and the waiting. So much waiting.
She’d had a pretty good night and that morning, my mom was the most popular person in the ICU. An unending stream of family, friends, and neighbors joined us. The nurses continuously commented on how fun it was in her room. It was the place to be. She seemed to be her old self again, as though the last few weeks of sleepless, fitful nights had never happened. She crafted sarcastic comebacks and laughed raucously at a misheard comment from my dad about the “Flahertys praying in the bushes”. My mom was back.
Later that night, after she was settled into a regular room, one of my sisters and I were sitting and talking with her. She had finished eating and became restless. Then, out of nowhere, she began having deep coughing fits, so hard she would spit up phlegm and saliva. She couldn’t stop. The only thought that kept running through my head was, “She’s going to die. I’m watching her die. She’s going to die. I’m watching her die. She’s going to die. I’m watching her die.” on an endless loop. And I felt so fucking helpless.
So I did the only thing I could think of. I pulled out my phone and earbuds. I popped one in my ear and pulled up Spotify. I searched for Simon & Garfunkel, scrolled until I found the song I was looking for, and hit play. And I sang.
I sang one of my mom’s favorites songs. I sang while she heaved and hacked. I sang while she trembled, hunched over. I sang as she tried to hold my hand, but had to pull it back in an attempt to cover the body-rocking barks expelling from her frail frame. I sang about weariness, and tearful eyes, and being on your side, and bridges, and water, and being down and out, and comfort, and taking your part, and darkness, and sailing on, sliver girl, and shining, and dreams, and more water and more bridges. I was going to sing her across this bridge and ease her mind. I sang and I sang, and I squeezed my eyes shut as I did. I tried to block out the coughing because it was so loud. Her dying was so loud in my ears…why can’t this troubled water block it out? Block it out. BLOCK IT OUT.
She didn’t die then. She probably should have died that weekend. She probably should have died on December 20, 2014, when her lungs closed. But she didn’t. The first responders forced air into her lungs. And with it, bonus time into our lives.
I often think back to that day, and I wonder. I wonder, did she know? Did she know she was dying? Was she scared as she gasped for air? Was she panicking when they held her down? Did she feel terror as they forced the mask over her nose and mouth? Did she feel pain as the oxygen sped down her throat, expanding her lungs? Did she feel helpless as she flailed? Did she understand they were medical professionals helping her? As they carried her down the stairs, did she gaze at the pictures of her five children on the wall? Did she try to stroke the banister? As they hastily, yet carefully, pushed through the front door, did she notice the rocking bench on the porch? Did she see the empty flowerbeds she meticulously curated for almost 40 years, imagining the hibernating bulbs in the earth she’d tilled with her bare hands? Did she think of her tulips and bleeding hearts blooming come Spring? As they loaded her into the ambulance, did she get a last look at the house she’d made a home?
Did she know she would never return?