Me, at 14
Being 14, smart and part of a family that was somewhat famous for keeping important information away from my delicate and innocent ears… was difficult. I was only filtered piecemeal details about the day (night?) my dad was admitted to the hospital for heart failure. He had likely had a heart attack, suffered from and with congestive heart failure for a very long time and had eaten (oddly enough, for him) seafood that day and became horribly sick. Our neighbor Trevor (a good friend of my dad’s at the time) took him to the hospital. At some point, the doctors determined he needed bypass surgery. Quadruple bypass surgery. My dad wasn’t just sick then – he had been sick for years. I was terrified at 14, but the protective layer of my brain (and memory) has blocked a lot of the other details out. The only other crystal clear vision I have is seeing my dad, post-bypass, connected to about a million tubes and machines. He was being kept alive; it seemed to me, by everything external to him even though they had “fixed” his heart, the biggest offender.
In the weeks and months that followed his surgery, I knew my dad would never be himself again. Physically, mentally or emotionally. At 14, you want (and can possibly only process) that your parent(s) are going to always be there for you. You know they’ll always be with you. A crisis happens in having to understand that may not be the case.
Me, at 38
24 years later – an almost quarter century sounds insane on paper, but that is what it’s been – my 38 year-old self has recently watched the almost identical health scenario unfold with my mom. Emotionally, it’s been about a million things, but the parallels have not been wasted on me since it all started to take shape. My last six weeks, in many ways, have just been surreal on repeat.
The “me” of 14 and the “me” of 38 have now walked through similar experiences – separated by a sea of time.
My mom suffered multiple symptoms for several days. Initially, she also thought she was having stomach issues and chalked it up to a bad chicken sandwich from McDonald’s. On Mother’s Day, she finally had her neighbor and best friend take her to the ER. She felt horribly unwell and, even from 3000 miles away, I felt a sense of growing dread as she continued not to recover from what she initially thought was food poisoning. It was far from food poisoning.
When the ER checked her out and did all of their diagnostic testing, the evidence was conclusive: DJ had HAD a heart attack (within the previous two weeks). Our neighbor Kerry (in the modern-day universe, the wife of our previously mentioned neighbor Trevor who ironically passed away one year before my dad) took my mom to the ER and called to tell me what was going on later that day. DJ (mom) was admitted to the hospital that night, and I was on a plane to Miami the next day. Four days later, they were wheeling my mom through the operating doors for a double bypass. I tried to remember funny things to tell my mom post-surgery – e.g. how she was babbling about the vegetables in the refrigerator once they started the anesthesia meds and looked partially insane as the hair net they put on her tilted to the side more like a beret than any actual receptacle for hair. Humor has always been a hard and fast coping mechanism for us.
My mom was in an intentionally prolonged sedation after surgery to make sure that her body remained calm. Her newly bypassed heart was having some trouble figuring it all out, but she was eventually stabilized and my 24-year-long memory of my dad in this almost exact picture… was simply replaced by my mom laying in what could have been the same bed. The context was identical: unknown sounds and bells, muted lights being turned off and on repeatedly, quiet shuffling of nursing and other hospital staff going in and out of the room. My reaction was more reserved than it had been in first seeing my dad, but the emotion I felt was no less overwhelming. A distinct and major difference in 2015 is that I walked into the ICU alone – I didn’t have my other parent to accompany me this time. It was just me. And I must have ESP’ed to my mom no less than a million times that night that it was NOT her time, I needed her here. I wasn’t prepared to deal with two (earthly) absent parents.
This week will mark six full weeks since my mom’s bypass surgery and three weeks since the subsequent procedure she needed to remove the huge build-up of fluid in her lungs and around her heart (this alone could be the subject of a separate post; long story short, the fluid was a byproduct of a horrible reaction to Coumadin, a blood thinner, and an interaction between that drug and another one). We arranged to have her transitioned to a physical/occupational residential therapy facility before I left Miami, and she’s still there, surrounded by friends on a daily basis and improving. Progress can feel glacially slow (especially to her), but given what I remember of my dad’s (not at all positive) recovery, I think my mom is doing amazingly well. She disagrees with me (I ignore her). She is walking, building her strength back up, weighs less now than she did “since her wedding” (this is DJ’s claim, anyway), and the goal is to have her regain the independence she had pre-heart attack. Personally, I’d like to see her feel even stronger than pre-surgery (that is, surgery 1 and 2).
Given the infinite calendar I now hope sits before her, six weeks is really just a flash in the pan. Prior to the second trip to the ER, I was packed and checked in for my flight back to LA. I was horribly angry with the entire situation and came as close as I’ve ever come to having a full-on meltdown (another one of my mom’s closest and oldest friends Diann saved me from a possible Baker-acting). I didn’t like it, but I was forced to accept (eh… I still struggle with “accept”, but I’ll use it here) that this walk would just take a little longer – and it’s one I needed to stay on.
There’s really so much more I could reflect on in this experience, but I wanted to share at least this much as the whole saga has been another life-changer for me. To me, DJ and the way the story unfolded over its entire evolution is a miracle. And I hope she understands how important her “second walk” is – not just for her, but for my 14-year-old self (who’s never really far away when it comes to DJ) and the taller, shorter-haired version of that same scared self at 38 as well.