This is what happened to her: On April 17, 2002, in the late afternoon, my mother was weeding the front garden when a weakened blood vessel in her brain ruptured, leaking blood onto the surface of her brain. Like battery acid on skin, the blood corroded brain cells in her left frontal lobe, sending her body into a defensive coma so that her brain could deal with the more immediate problem at hand. Approximately 10 minutes later, a neighbour saw her lying face down in the dirt and called 911.
This is what happened to me: I get home from wherever I've been and the phone is ringing. It is my brother, telling me that our mother has had a seizure or something and has been taken to the South Street Emergency Room. I tell my boyfriend what my brother has just told me and we get back in the car and he can't drive fast enough for me, I'm calm but panicked, and that feeling you hear about in the pit of your stomach, it's there, not metaphorical at all, like lead or butterflies or both. And we get to the emergency room and I tell the attending nurse my name and my mother's name and she tells me that nobody has been admitted by that name. And she is so calm and assured that I want to fucking punch her in the face. So I repeat it and I can hear my voice getting shriller and another nurse appears behind the glass and asks where my mother was picked up and I tell her the street and she looks at the other nurse and says, "That's the Jane Doe."
I am led into a white room, but not as white as you see on tv, and my mother is lying on a steel gurney. She looks strange without her glasses and her bare left breast is exposed. I come to know her body, its intricacies and functions, very well in the coming weeks, but right now my mother is lying dead in front of me and her breast is exposed and this is somehow a violation of something so I pull the sheet up to cover it. She is a stranger.
At this very moment, her body is defending itself against the blood, sending reactionary but suicidal fluid into the brain which causes it to swell, like a sprained ankle. But, unlike an ankle, the brain can only expand until it hits the skull. When it has nowhere left to go, the brain will push itself down into the spinal column, crushing the nerve stem, resulting in immediate death. The doctor explains this to me and I listen. Strangely, there is nothing they can do in this situation; the body will either defend itself or die.
There are no tubes hooked up to her in this room, she lies naked and still and alone on the metal gurney and we onlookers are oblivious to the war waging within her brain. And somehow, suddenly, this is all terribly funny and we laugh, my brother and his girlfriend, my boyfriend, and me. We laugh, joking that she really didn't want to turn 50, that she didn't want to attend the birthday party next weekend, it's kind of drastic but effective, having a ruptured aneurysm to get out of turning another year older.We laugh until the tears flow and whether they are from laughing so hard or from crying is irrelevant. I am given a clear plastic bag with her effects: urine-soaked shorts, a tank top cut in two, one sandal, her glasses. There is no identification. I keep the glasses and throw the rest of it into a garbage can.
They transfer her to the intensive care unit at University Hospital. Here she gets hooked up to all kinds of tubes: tubes to monitor breathing, heartrate, blood pressure, and urine output, tubes to keep her hydrated and fed. They are taped to needle punctures in the backs of her hands, clipped to her fingers, inserted through her nostrils and mouth. Before I am allowed to enter the ward, I must cleanse my hands with a water-free antibacterial gel. There are nine other critical patients here and each time the nurses need to perform a test on one of them, I am asked to leave the ICU and wait in the waiting room. I wait a few minutes and use the phone on the wall to call to ask to be let back in. I wash my hands. After this happens a dozen times, they let me stay, drawing the curtain around us. I sit on a chair beside the bed and hold my mother's needle-bruised hand, realizing that it doesn't really matter how much bacteria I have brought in here. She will die or she will live.
And sometime during that endless night, a part of me dies, and the death goes unnoticed.