One year ago today, my Mom suffered a sudden, unexpected, massive brain aneurysm.
I chronicled the early months of her recovery over at Sandy's Recovery, as she went through multiple surgeries, a long coma, and many months of grueling therapy. Today, her physical recovery is an ongoing process, and we still ask for your thoughts and prayers. But she is alive. My Mom is alive and her mind is as active, clever, and witty as ever.
I started writing this post a few days ago because I knew it would take me several attempts to get my thoughts down. I still cry when I think about the early days after Mom's aneurysm.
It has been a very long, very full year.
I will never forget the evening of November 7, 2006. I was standing at my stove cooking chicken for dinner and talking to Nathan on my cell phone. My phone beeped - it was an incoming call from my Mom's cell phone. I don't remember now what Nathan and I were talking about, but it seemed important at the time, so I figured I'd call Mom right back after I finished my conversation with Nathan. A minute later, I checked my voicemail and had a message from Dad. He had called from Mom's cell phone to tell me that Mom was in the hospital, going in for surgery. That was it, that was the message. I didn't know what had happened, and when I immediately tried calling Mom's phone and Dad's phone, both were turned off. (You can't have cell phones on when you're in the hospital rooms around all the equipment.) I couldn't reach my sister Emily, either. I finally got ahold of my brother Jonathan, who told me it was a brain aneurysm. He didn't have much information. All we could do was wait to hear from Dad again. I couldn't believe I hadn't answered my phone. (Now, when my parents call me, I drop any other calls or things I'm doing to answer my cell phone, because I'm terrified that something might be wrong.)
I don't remember how long it was before I heard from Dad again. I remember looking up aneurysms online and falling apart when I read that my Mom's chances of survival were around 50%. It was a scary night; the worst of my life. Nathan came over right away to be with me, and my friend Melissa came over too and brought me a big teddy bear. Melissa and Nathan stayed with me into the wee hours of the morning as I waited for calls and updates from Dad. We talked and prayed and waited together, and I'm really glad I didn't have to be alone that night. I wanted to buy a plane ticket to fly home immediately, but Dad asked me to wait until Mom came through surgery and we knew a little more. He had a lot of big decisions to make at that time under tremendous pressure and I'm amazed he was able to do all he did that night and in the weeks that followed.
At about 2:00 EST he called again and asked me to get a ticket and come home. I bought a one-way ticket online right away and packed a small suitcase. Melissa eventually went home and I lay down to try to catch an hour or two of sleep. Nathan sat beside me the whole time. He drove me to the airport early in the morning to catch my flight to California. While I waited in the terminal for my flight I had to call and cancel a babysitting job for that afternoon. I remember trying to stay collected and calm, but as soon as I explained, "my Mom's in the hospital," I started bawling right there in the airport. It was like having to say the words, "she had a brain aneurysm," came as a shock to me, like saying it made it real.
After what felt like the longest flight in the world, I was finally in Sacramento. Jonathan flew in from Texas around the same time, and a kind friend picked us up and took us straight to the hospital in Roseville. Dad was SO glad to see us when we walked in. We got to go see Mom immediately. I was glad to see her, but it was really hard to see her like that. She was essentially comatose for a long, long time. Over the coming days sometimes we would see progress like open eyes and blinks in response to questions, but then there would be another surgery and another setback, over and over again.
Those days were long ones, but the nights were worse. While we were at the hospital we could be with Mom, but when we went home around 9 each night the house seemed empty without Mom. Some nights Dad would take out old photo albums and look at pictures for a long time. "Look at Mom. Look how pretty she looks." Also, unspoken... look how alive she looks.
Home without Mom was weird. Our family has always been the best at laughing together, but with not much to laugh at we found we weren't quite sure if we could cry together. Not knowing how to act together at first, we argued about silly things that didn't matter during those first few days - at least fighting involved some display of emotion.
I learned about grief during that time. I'm not sure I had ever felt true grief before I heard the words, "Mom had a brain aneurysm." I heard that, slid down to the floor of my apartment, curled up in a ball; I learned what grief was. At the same time, I found that my feelings weren't what people expected. They expected tears and frequent phone calls to talk about my emotions; I didn't even know what to feel or think most of the time. Even when I found some clarity for my feelings, I didn't think anyone would want to hear my thoughts when I questioned God or felt upset by well-meaning people who always said the wrong things.
I stayed in California until Thanksgiving, when I flew out to Pennsylvania to be with Nathan (my fiance at that time) and his family. I'm really glad I went; at that point it was beyond wonderful for me to relax a little.
Between Thanksgiving and Christmas I returned to Massachusetts to continue teaching my students and taking care of my other obligations. I worried about Mom a lot, and during that time I remember that seemingly random little things would trigger really big, overwhelming emotions for me. One Sunday at church an elderly man suffered a medical problem and had to be taken to the hospital by a crew of EMT's. It hit too close to home at that time and all I could think about was my Mom, and what it must have been like for her immediately after the aneurysm burst, whether she was scared, whether she was aware of what was going on... tears started rolling down my face right there in church. I remember that a nice lady from church came over and rubbed my back. Another time, Nathan came to visit me after attending an event where he had a glass of wine. The smell of the alcohol on his breath reminded me of the smell of the hand sanitizer we all had to use at the hospital and instantly brought back upsetting memories. I also remember going to the DMV to get my Mass driver's license and being denied because I didn't have my birth certificate. I told them I didn't have it and they said I'd have to get it, and I said no one knows where it is except my Mom, and she's in a coma, and I almost started crying. (And even then they wouldn't give me a driver's license.) Sometimes I felt like I couldn't escape reminders of what my Mom and my family were going through.
At the same time, even though Mom's condition was always on my mind, there would be moments when I would think, "I'll call Mom," as if everything were ordinary. And it would take me a moment to realize that I couldn't call Mom, that she was in a coma. And it would be a shock all over again to realize that this was really happening.
Well, long-time readers of my blog know the story. Nathan and I had been engaged to be married on January 6, but we changed our plans a little bit and got married in December in the hospital so my Mom could be there. By that time (December 28) Mom was alert enough to attend the small ceremony in a wheelchair. In the following months Mom made tremendous progress and by July she walked down the aisle at Jonathan and Jenn's wedding. Today her physical therapy continues, and she is still making amazing progress - she's proving a lot of doctors wrong daily.
For a while I thought I might not have a Mom anymore, and it was awful, and I wrote this because I wanted you to know how awful it was. May this year be only the first of many years to come.