The memory unfolds the same way every time. My mother is standing on top of her hospital bed. My eyes notice her bandaged head before my ears register the shouting. And the profanity. The nurse thinks I can help. Perhaps talk her back from wherever the illness has taken her. My gaze flits between the two women, and I am suddenly unsure which one is hallucinating. Days later I would see the horseshoe-shaped incision where the doctors peered inside, trying to uncover the answer. Only then did I realize I would have felt like yelling too.
More than 30 years have passed; yet, this scene remains vivid though it flickers unsteadily like a silent movie—a fitting description since I can’t remember what was said. I hope I apologized to the nurse as I backed away, shocked, powerless…thinking this isn’t my mother. And I was partially right.
While away at college, I learned that Mom had been suffering from headaches and double vision. In between spinal taps, CAT scans, and inconclusive diagnoses, the doctors had given her a smorgasbord of pills. Maybe the illness affected her memory, or the pain made her so desperate that she couldn’t remember which ones to take when.
Sickness or over medication began to take its toll.
One evening while the TV hummed with laughter from The Tonight Show, my father noticed a deep unresponsiveness from the La-Z-Boy where my mother sat. Thrust through the looking glass into a world that no longer made sense, my hard-working, capable father called my mother’s sister instead of the ambulance.
My cousin, who was just getting out of the shower, remembers going commando as she struggled to jump into her clothes to drive my aunt over and access the situation. They called an ambulance as my mom suffered a seizure in the house my father had practically built himself the year before I was born. Fortunately, the ambulance arrived before the grand mal episode did.
“Chief’s name,” my mother said calmly, almost happily, to us as we sat by her bedside. Over and over she repeated her message as she waited for my father or me to give the appropriate response. The Prednisone had only just begun to fight the inflammation in her brain; there had been no tumor to remove as the doctors had feared.
Today I am amazed I can’t recall how we cracked the code. Did we dump out her purse so she was surrounded by familiar items and her hand reached out for her checkbook? At some point, we decided chief’s name meant checkbook and that she was worried about us forgetting to pay my college fees.
Mom studied bookkeeping after high school, so she handled our household accounts. Although we thought we solved the mystery, in retrospect, I wonder if it was the bookkeeper or the mother who was swimming to the surface of her consciousness. Did she sense how much we wanted to understand and mercifully let us settle on a plausible answer?
She soon regained her speech, but many neurons were lost to the universe never to return. With practice, she resumed reading and writing as her brain formed new pathways. Her short-term memory, however, would remain impaired. Mom’s coarse hair grew back as thick as ever, hiding the surgical scars. Extremely grateful that she had survived, I was still affected by the reality that she wasn’t the same person. The mother I had known was gone.
Several years later, I introduced my fiancé to my parents, all the while feeling that he wasn’t really meeting my mother. This wasn’t the woman who raised me. She wasn’t the person who patiently spent all those hours waiting for me to finish dance or music lessons, who loved to take me shopping for beautiful clothes she, as a child of the Depression, never had. It was someone else I munched tacos with while we watched Saturday afternoon roller derby. With difficulty, I tried to remember the tom boy turned Mom who once confided she would have liked to have been a race car driver.
She was. Then one day she wasn’t.
I look at my eldest son, and my thoughts wander unbidden down a similar path. I love Jess with all my heart. My brain, however, wonders what might have been.
“Gifts for you,” Jess smiles and presses several slips of paper into my hand. He has copied verses of songs or details of a car he saw on the Internet—things he thinks I would like. Words are important to my son; they have been the one constant in his life that has kept his interest and given him joy. I understand the value of these tokens in Jess-speak, so each time I take them, I thank him. I keep them around for a few days so he can see my appreciation. Then they get crumpled and shoved to the bottom of the recycle bin. Sometimes in flights of fancy I try to imagine how many he has given me over the years. If I had kept them all, perhaps I could have lain down on my bed and covered myself in paper until I was invisible. The love seeping from these messages might have healed me. Maybe I would have emerged serene and accepting instead of filled with an unrequited desire to change things.
Jess was born with a defect in the corpus callosum; the bundle of nerve fibers connecting the left and right sides of his brain did not form correctly. There isn’t a specific prognosis for callosal disorders. If you google the condition, you will find a wide range among the examples. People of average intelligence may even be unaware they are missing their corpus callosum until a medical situation requires them to have an MRI. Once the diagnosis is made, certain aspects of their lives may fall into place—social disabilities, perhaps due to difficulty interpreting nonverbal cues, or learning issues, caused by the inability to grasp abstract reasoning. In Jess’ case, it is clear that he will never manage an independent life.
Jess’ memory is a wonder and a mystery. He has hundreds of sports cards, and if I cover up the name or even a large portion of the card, he can still identify the athlete. He is rarely wrong. However, each time we play a board game, he is confused by the dice. There are only 21 possible sums for a throw of two dice, so it would seem that remembering them wouldn’t be a challenge for him. Yet, with every roll, he stares at the result as if seeing it for the first time. “Put the larger number in your head,” I advise. “Six,” says Jess, putting a hand on top of his head. With his other hand, he tucks in his thumb, fans out his four fingers and touches each one carefully to his lips, “Seven, eight, nine, ten.”
Life progresses slowly like a never-ending, two-person Monopoly game where both players ride swells of similar good/bad luck. One step forward. One step back.
There was a time when tired and defeated, I could let a snarky comment fall from my lips and Jess was none the wiser; he was unable to process the complexities of sarcasm. Ashamed of these moments, I was relieved Jess didn’t have to suffer because of them. Over the years, we have both grown. I have learned better self-control, and Jess has become more aware of emotions. We have moved forward, but only to a point. He has trouble sorting helpful comments from hurtful ones. Currently, he rejects all commentary he perceives as critical. This closes the door on important learning opportunities and could potentially put him in harm’s way.
Yes, that is the center of all my fears as Jess’ mother. How do I raise a child I can’t protect and who might never be able to protect himself? Sometimes it feels as if the world is rushing at us, hurtling dangers like broken building shrapnel during a tornado. And I am frozen, trapped in a soundproof bubble where information can’t reach me. Unable to fully comprehend the situation, I know I won’t be able to react in time. Friend or foe? Advantage or adversity?
In this realm of things I cannot quite fathom is the spot where my stories converge. My need to protect haunts and grows and refuses to retreat. Examples of my failures spill out into the 3 am darkness while insomnia steals away peace.
Memories of a car accident I wasn’t in whirl out into my consciousness. I wasn’t driving that day when my parents’ car crashed. Perhaps I should have been, and it wouldn’t have happened. Or if I had been, maybe I would be dead too. The police report provided no conclusions as to why my mother did not stop. There was no mention of black ice; however, it was a winter afternoon in northern Illinois so the possibility existed. Immersed in my roles as wife and mother thousands of miles away, I couldn’t say how many times my mother had driven a car since her brain surgery almost 20 years earlier. But it was the day after Christmas, my father had just had carpal tunnel surgery, and of course, he didn’t want to bother anyone. Although other cars were involved, my parents were the only fatalities.
Had I gone to visit them for the holidays, had I driven my father to and from the hospital, had Jess and I spent more time with numbers instead of words, had I insisted with drill sergeant regularity that practice makes perfect… Would my son be able to make change today or accurately tell time? Or would he remember those lessons with hatred and self-loathing? Out of my control, my thoughts never top skirting the divider between the chosen path and the road not taken.
Keeping destructive thoughts at bay can be a Sisyphean task. Fortunately, I am not a multi-tasker; and when everyday life and responsibilities intervene, I need to turn all my attention to them. My sleepless night morphs into a slow-moving morning. We are running late. I grab my purse and step into the kitchen to retrieve my keys from the counter as I hear Jess running upstairs to his room. He always takes a book with him when we leave the house, whether it’s a 5-hour trip to visit his grandmother or a 15-minute ride to school. He reads aloud (always aloud, never just to himself, interjects my caffeine-deprived brain), and sometimes if we are listening to music his cadence reflects the melody of the song. Other times the book just sits on his lap, providing its quiet comfort. Like a talisman, it is there if he needs it. My son who loves words has taught me an important lesson without using any at all. Trust in yourself to seek what you need, when you need it. Simple, too simple, perhaps. But my weary soul likes it, and if I don’t have a talisman, at least I can have a mantra.
Andrea Isiminger has lived in Argentina and currently resides in Spain. Originally from the Chicago area, a sweeping view of that famous skyline can still make her heart skip a beat. Several years ago with the “big 50” creeping ever closer, she decided to attack her bucket list. She’s only crossed off the first item, but her work has appeared in various anthologies and online at The Vignette Review, Mamalode, American Vignette, and Transitions Abroad.