The day my mom died of complications from a brain aneurysm, the entertainment media reported the breakup of Miley Cyrus’ parents. The rumor mill hinted of an alleged affair between Miley’s mother and the rocker Bret Michaels from Poison. The same Bret Michaels, as it turns out, who suffered from a brain aneurysm six months earlier and recovered miraculously. My sister told me this information over the phone while I was idling in the Target parking lot a few weeks after my mom’s death.
“So he uses his second chance at life to have an affair with a married woman!” This tidbit of gossip irked me, like a thorn on a rose.
We concluded this was most unfair. Our mom had raised nine children, including my autistic brother who couldn’t walk across the kitchen floor without stepping in a tedious pattern across the tiles. Her nineteen grandchildren were counting on the Christmas sleepover at Grandma’s where gooey fingers spread peanut butter on pinecones for the winter birds and ornaments were picked out at the local Shopko. My mom wrote each child’s name on their ornament along with the year: ’06, ’07, ’08, ’09. I can see her at the walnut desk in the office, Sharpie marker posed, trying to find a place to write Drew’s name on his kryptonite-star-like ornament.
Now, there would be no ornaments marked ’10.
How could she die? My dad needed her. After forty years of marriage, he had melted into the routine of her. The oatmeal on the stove, a purse placed by the light switch in the bathroom, steady hands on a steering wheel, an ear listening to the details of a thirty-year career at the same job.
If she had recovered, no doubt her life would measure up to the second chance she had been granted. Bret Michaels, with a bandana tied around his head, paraded his ordeal around the media circuit. Each interviewer complimented him on his recovery as if he willed it through sheer mental power. Did my mother not have the same white-knuckled desire to live? Why had he lived and not her?
As if it was her or him.
As if death presents a this-is-the-reason-your-mother-died-instead-of-Bret-Michaels certificate to those left behind.
It all began on October 13, 2010, when I answered a call from my dad.
“Oh Kristen, I’m so glad I caught you at home.” He paused. “Mom’s in critical condition.”
Critical condition? Mom?
“She’s being transported up to the University of Utah Hospital right now.”
“What happened?” I managed.
“She collapsed this morning in the kitchen. It sounds like she’s had some hemorrhaging on her brain.” His voice hollowed out. “We will find out more once we get to the hospital.”
I stared out the window at the two purple ash trees shedding leaves near the street. Wasn’t critical condition the worst scenario? Surely mom must be in stable or fair condition or even serious but stable. But not critical. Surely not my mom, who religiously worked out to Hooked on Aerobics every day during my childhood and was the family’s antidote to my dad’s incessant health problems.
But hours later in the fishbowl waiting room, dread clouded my vision like tinted glass. My mom was undergoing brain surgery and that was serious stuff, critical even.
A doctor in blue scrubs finally pushed through the glass door into the waiting room. “Are you Marilyn Ott’s family?”
“Yes,” my dad croaked. “I’m her husband.”
“I think she is going to be okay.”
“Oh, thank goodness.” My father’s body slacked with relief.
“She had two aneurysms,” the doctor explained. “Only one of them ruptured, but it was the other more treacherous one that I am very glad I fixed successfully.”
On a scrap piece of paper, he illustrated his spectacular surgical feat. The drawing of the vessels in my mom’s brain resembled a forest of forked tree trunks. I nodded at the appropriate moments in the conversation, not caring how he fixed my mom’s brain as long as it was fixed.
“What happens now?” I asked.
“Her recovery in the hospital will take about three weeks.”
“Yes, because all the blood on her brain will cause complications until it is eliminated. Her blood vessels will spasm and the process usually lasts three weeks.”
“Does the treatment work?” my dad asked.
“It has proven to be highly successful.”
“What are the side effects of the spasms?” I asked.
“They can cause many complications. Stroke. Organ failure and more.”
I glanced at my dad, but he’d retreated from the conversation after the words: The treatment has proven to be highly successful.
This is how far he was in denial.
Or how far he was in hope.
I made a deal with God. If my mother’s eye would once again respond to light, I would believe it was a sign from Him that she would recover. After the last brain bleed, the pupil in my mom’s left eye had fixated like a black stone at the bottom of a creek. This development frightened me more than all the other bad news we had received over the past two weeks. If God kept His side of the deal, I promised ravenous faith. All He needed to do was heal whatever was stopping her pupil from contracting when the nurse shone the mini flashlight into her left eye.
There were so many tubes cobwebbing up to the pouches hanging from my mom’s IV rack that the nurses had to label each one with a white sticker to keep everything straight. As the days passed, my mother’s face, hands, and legs swelled up from the fluids they were pumping into her body. Her tongue grew huge and swollen, fighting for space next to the respirator that nagged at her lips until they bled. Thick staples held her skin together from an incision that went from her ear to top of her head. And after the bleeding, a spaghetti-like tube drained blood from the surface of her brain. Whenever I was in the room, my eyes rendezvoused with the quivering stream of blood worming up to an additional plastic pouch. She fevered and they placed a fan in the corner. She developed blood clots, intestinal infections, pneumonia.
Yet nothing alarmed me like the fixed pupil of my mom’s left eye. It bothered me more than news of a stroke during a surgery. Or the inflation of her Intracranial Pressure (ICP) one night as doctors scanned monitors and ordered medication, muttering “she is very sick, she is very sick” in my general direction. The fixed pupil overshadowed another surgery that removed part of my mother’s skull so her brain could swell without constraints. I imagined this detached section of her skull, a smooth and creamy knickknack placed somewhere on a hospital shelf for safekeeping. But even this nadir failed to push the despair up my throat like the fixed pupil. Something about the eye, the connection to the brain, the ability to see and feel and love and be loved. The fear, of course, was that even if my mother did recover, she might not be there anymore. The overused, juvenile term brain damaged became a frightening reality.
So I bargained with God. If He would spare my mother’s life, I would testify to the world of the miracle. Day after day, as complications stacked up like thrift shop novels on my nightstand, I resuscitated hope. It was all part of the plan to test my spirit, cement my testimony, and create a more compelling tale to share with everyone when she was healed. She kept having complication after complication and still we prayed with faith. The doctors said it was a miracle when she recovered.
This is how far I was in denial.
Or how far I was in hope.
On November 3, 2010, they removed my mom’s respirator so she could die. A recent hemorrhage had bruised her brainstem.
“The damage is irreversible this time.” My dad told me over the phone. Irreversible.
With the plastic pipeline finally gone, my mother’s lips slacked with flaccid freedom. My brothers and sisters and their spouses gathered at the foot of her bed, on the couch in the corner, against the privacy curtain. I gravitated to my mom’s right side while my aunt hovered in the doorway.
Perhaps thanks to the big screen, our expectations mirrored a scene from Terms of Endearment. While we gathered, wept, and goodbyed, our dear mother would breathe softly, flutter her eyelids, and peacefully pass away.
Instead, she rasped for hours. Yawning intakes. Rattling releases.
“She’s strong,” the nurse said. “Her oxygen levels are still good. This could go on for a while.”
“It’s too painful,” my dad moaned and left the room. Eventually, we all decided to take a break for dinner, leaving a friend with my mom.
“I’ll phone you right away if anything changes,” she reassured us.
“Her oxygen levels are still great,” the nurse added. “Go get something to eat, you might need your strength. This could be a long night.”
Instead, my mom died while I was finishing up my cobb salad with the blue cheese dressing.
In hindsight, I should have seen it coming long before it came. When the doctors requested a family meeting in the days leading up to her death, I failed to read any writing on any wall. Although information from the medical establishment had trickled down to an arrhythmic drip, I blamed it on brusque bedside manners. When my aunt fretted over the sudden appearance of a social worker, I dismissed her reaction as overdramatic.
I was stonewalling the truth. My mother was dying.
During the meeting, we asked our questions. How much longer will her vasospasms continue? What do you think caused this recent bleeding? What permanent damage has been done to her brain? If she doesn’t respond after so many days, what is the prognosis?
The doctors bypassed the real question that tugged underneath all our queries like a mosquito on the belly of a frog.
Will she live or die?
“When you are dealing with the brain,” one doctor offered, “there are so many variables it’s impossible to predict anything with certainty.”
One thing was certain, the odds were not in our favor. This truth was finally worming its way into tunnels of my resistance. But then, as we pushed back our chairs from the oval table in the conference room, Dr. Hirsch casually remarked that my mother’s left pupil had started, once again, responding to light.
We clung to hope like it was a piece of driftwood in a pool of our own panic. This gray hope camouflaged the obvious signs like the doctors postponing the tracheostomy that would have made my mom more comfortable. Or the way my daily emails to the family deflated into platitudes stripped of details.
Mom remained stable through the night.
Mom had another restful night.
Mom hasn’t responded yet.
Mom’s hanging in there.
It sounds like Mom had a pretty uneventful night.
No responding yet but no new concerns either. Her body, no doubt, needs the rest.
The days passed without change. The progress reports wanned. And then there was the time I called to check on my mom’s progress.
“Of course, there hasn’t been any change!” the nurse sneered, as if I’d just asked him to give me an update on the production of cheese.
I refused to swallow the clues. At the doors of the NCCU, I’d pause to prepare for the scene inside. Pressing the sanitizer gel onto my hands, I’d likewise squeeze some hope into my soul. Somehow, I knew if I swallowed the signs, I would choke on despair. How, then, would I subpoena my feet to tread down the tiled hallway to the room where my mother languished beneath the cubbyholes of syringes, bandages, cotton swabs, tissues, disinfectants, and clear poly jars? How would I mollify the primitive dread? Or hush the raucous cry in my heart?
This was when I realized that hope is mercy.
Call it denial or hope, it was saving me.
After the initial surgery and before the vasospasms racked her body, my mother was coherent and lucid. For three days, she answered the cognitive questions the nurses asked her every hour.
“What is your name?”
“What year is it?”
“How many kids do you have?”
“Who’s that over there?”
“My daughter, Kristen.”
They asked her to raise her arms above her head, wiggle her fingers and toes. They shone the flashlight in each eye.
As the sun glittered through the hospital window, my mom doggedly carried on conversations with her visitors. Is baby Jared gaining weight? I missed Zeke’s birthday! Is Spencer home with the kids? How is Jayden doing?
Looking at me, she asked, “How’s Drew’s reading?”
“He’s doing a lot better.”
Only later did I realize the significance of such a question at such a time. My oldest son, struggling to decode words on a page, was often a topic I discussed with my mom but perhaps a strange topic to engage in while your life hangs in the balance in an intensive care unit after recent brain surgery.
She whitewashed the situation as no big deal, just a misunderstanding. Why did we look so worried? So weary? It would all prove to be a fleshless bother, a bump, a gray-colored nuisance that would be over as soon as she could get out of this bed. She attempted to climb out of bed so often, the nurses resorted to medical restraints. I believe she weathered her own fear by mothering us from her hospital bed. Fighting off the heaviness of the drugs, she’d squint in our direction and pepper us with questions. How was our drive to the hospital? What were we planning to do for lunch?
“Am I doing what I should?” she slurred to the nurse.
“Yes, you’re doing great.” The nurse patted her hand.
“Good,” my mom muttered as if she could hasten her recovery by raw determination.
“I’ll come see you tomorrow,” I said when it was time to leave.
“Well hopefully I’ll be home by tomorrow. I’m really feeling quite good.”
This is how far she was in denial.
Or how far she was in hope.