I wrote this piece three years agoon the anniversary of my mother's death. It was a tough time for me then. I'm in a much better place now and I can look back on this essay with a gladder eye. I celebrate my mother every time I repost this and, I hope, honor her.
It was January 16th, 1997. I can’t really remember how it started. I know it was a phone call. I’m assuming after the fact that it was my brother, considering how close we are, but it could have been my father. The first thing that I do remember clearly is the waiting room for the ICU at Cedar Sinai Hospital. All we knew for certain at that point was that my mother had been in an accident and was in Intensive Care.
Mom was an Ohio transplant. She drove out from Toledo with her brother in the early 60’s after graduating from OSU. Uncle Jack was going to be an engineer and Jane was going to be a teacher. She became a wife, mother, substitute teacher, then teacher, vice-principal and principal. Then she became an alcoholic, Coke-addict and squatter. She ended up sober and an accredited Drug and Substance Abuse counselor. She had degrees in English, Teaching, Psychology, Drug and Alcohol Counseling, a Masters in Education and several other accreditations and certificates.
She was the closest person in my life. She taught me to read and with that my love for literature. She was the only person in the world that I could tell anything to. Later in life, after she’d gotten sober and was counseling, she would ask what I did the night before. I’d smile and say things like,”Oh, I went to a rave and did X.” She would just smile, shake her head and say,”Just be careful,” and then move on. She never judged me.
When we were finally allowed in to see her, she was lying on the bed, eyes-closed, skin clammy, with IV drips, respirators and everything else you could possibly imagine. She looked so small. She’d wasn’t a tall woman, very short in fact. But she had never looked that small.
The doctors explained to us that mom was in a coma, apparently brain-dead, and the machines were the only thing keeping her alive. There was a possibility that she might come out of the coma, but it was slim at best.
I remember the first time that she went through rehab. I was 17 at the time and used to work in this comic book store near my house. I was the night manager and had to close at night. I was like the Flash I was so fast at getting everything stocked and the doors shut tight. Because I had to make it across town time for family counseling in the Detox Unit. I went every night. I was the only one in my family that did. It was in the hospital there that my mother met the Cocaine dealer she ended up dating afterwards who got her hooked on that drug. She relapsed and became an even worse addict and alcoholic.
When she went back into a program, I told her flat out that she’d let me down last time. That I did not want to see her or talk to her until she had been a year sober. A little while later the envelopes started coming in the mail. Every time she went to a meeting and received a chip; 30 days, 60 days, 90 days, a Year; she mailed it to me. Even after four years of sobriety she never stopped doing that. I still have that old keychain I keep them on at home.
It was three years after her first rehab attempt that she ended up in the hospital. She’d had a seizure. As it was explained to her, her body was so starved for vitamins and nutrients that it had shut down. She was left with the choice of quitting and living or, if she continued to abuse, death.
It was a seizure like that one that had led to the car accident, the doctors thought. Her body was admitted paralyzed down the left side which evidenced some sort of attack. It had been one of those intense El Niño storms and they assumed that she’d had an attack at the wheel which caused her to go through the red light. Her car was smashed into by a Jeep Cherokee crossing with the green.
It was about five days after the accident that she opened her eyes. That was probably the worst part about the entire experience. You could be in the same room with her and you would put your hand in hers. She would squeeze. Her eyes would follow you. But those were just autonomic responses. Her eyes were reacting to the change in light when you stood above her. Her hand, to the sensation of touch. My mother was effectively brain-dead.
When I was just going into Junior High, my mother requested that I be tested for the GATE program [Gifted and Talented Education]. Our principal flatly refused because neither my brother nor my sister scored well enough to get in when they were tested. Mom fought for me and, as a result, I was tested and score in the highest percentile. She was there when I gave the keynote speech at our Junior High graduation.
All through high school my mother was a substitute teacher. I even had her for some of my classes. It’s a strange and wonderful experience to go to school and on campus at any one time is your brother, sister and mother. I got into trouble a lot. Not bad stuff, mostly just talking back and the like, but enough that the administration knew me. Our principal was good friends with my mom and every time he saw her would ask,”How’s your rebel son?”
She was with me every step of the way when I was growing up.
A little over a week after the accident the family had a meeting with hospital staff to explain the options available to us for my mother’s care. In their opinion, the hopes for any kind of recovery was miniscule. In addition, if by some slim chance she did come out of the coma, there was no possibility of recovery without some sort of brain damage. The recommendation of the hospital was to discontinue life support, but we had some time to think about it.
My sister did not take the news well. She drilled the doctors with questions, looking for any possible hope that there might be a complete recovery. Seeing my mother in that room, nurses having to wipe the drool from around the tube in her mouth, staring wide-eyed at the ceiling, eyes looking to the left or right depending on who was blocking the light, I couldn’t see that hope. I’d been in that room, talked to her, looked in those watery eyes and there was no spark there.
One of the things that she and I could always talk about was Star Trek. It's so incredibly trivial and dumb, but we both loved the show. The old ones and all of the new series. She loved Capt. Janeway and the Voyager series, but nothing replaced the original in her book. She gave me my love of fantasy and science fiction. One of the first books she gave me to read was a leather-bound version of the Hobbit by Tolkein. I was eight. She gave me the chronicles of Narnia, A Boy's King Arthur, Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s court, her copy of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. I still have a set of tapes of the entire run of the original 60’s Star Trek that she taped herself, labeled in her handwriting.
On January 30th we decided as a family to take her off of life-support. They told us it might take anywhere from eight to twelve hours for her to pass away. We all went to the diner across the street from the hospital. We’d spent a lot of time there; you could see the window of the ICU room on the 8th floor where mom was from there. It was only an hour later when the ICU staff called us.
My father refused to see the body. He said he wanted to remember her in life, not death. My sister didn’t know what to do. My brother and I went in to see her. The room was empty except for her. They had pulled out all of the equipment. Her eyes were closed and her skin waxy and yellow, cold to the touch. He and I just held each other and cried. When we finally returned to the waiting room, I told my sister that she didn’t want to go in there. She never did.
We cremated my mother. The wake was held at the recovery house where she’d gotten sober and still helped out as a part-time counselor. Over 250 people came. My brother spoke and told the story about mom and me and the AA chips.
She passed away January 30th, 1997, only two weeks after being involved in a car accident. She would have been 71 this year.
I miss her every day.