She was sitting in her wheelchair, watching television with Claude. I wanted to get home early to get a good night’s sleep since I knew I would be on call the next day. It was a cool January night and Sylvia had passed the day well, smiling at guests, giving no indication of pain or discomfort. For the past couple of months she had appeared more and more serene in her demeanor. She emanated an inner peace that contrasted with the restlessness surrounding her during the first years of her stroke – her first death. Her peace was contagious and affected everyone around her. Her smile was captivating and made you wonder how she managed to maintain it with all of her recent physical limitations.
I knew she was placed on an antidepressant, but that didn’t really explain it – antidepressants are not “happy pills,” they just help one cope with depression so that one sees the glass as half full rather than half empty. They don’t provide joy. In a way only she and her maker understood, they seemed to have come to a mutual agreement beyond anyone else’s understanding, and now walked together, arm in arm. Having lost the capacity for speech and as a prisoner in her own mind, she had no one else to talk to. It was three long years of speaking to her creator in whatever forms that communication took. But she loved to receive guests, especially children and strangers. Her eyes would light up when a child visited, and it seemed at times that her loved ones had a harder time dealing with her stroke than she did. She made it feel good to visit her.
I got up from my chair, put on my coat, walked over to my mother, bent, and kissed her on the cheek. She looked at me and smiled. As I left the room, I said, “goodbye Mommy…I’ll see you tomorrow all right? I’ll be working close by so I’ll stop in.” She mouthed something to me and I understood it to mean, “get home safe, I’ll see you tomorrow.” Claude and I shook hands and as I walked toward the elevator I made an effort not to think about how my mother handles the night. Her aphasia had locked her inside herself, inside her mind. I continuously wondered what happened to her in the middle of the night when she woke up thirsty or after a nightmare. How was she consoled when she cried in the early hours of the morning? Was it in these hours that she made peace with her Savior? I even wondered what her thought-life must have been like in light of her stroke. Did she think as we do, with words forming goal-directed sentences, or were her thoughts expressed as waves of dark and light emotions? I went home that night feeling tired but somehow encouraged, believing that the worse was behind us.
The next day while I was driving on the Gowanus Expressway in Brooklyn, several calls activated my beeper in a one-minute interval. It seemed that all of a sudden almost everyone close to me, including my father, Gontran, was trying to contact me. Feeling a sense of urgency, I got off the highway, found a public phone, and contacted my father. He told me the hospital had called looking for me and requested that I come quickly. Apparently, my mother was not doing well. With anxiety as a driving partner I rushed to the hospital as swiftly as I could. I took the elevator to the floor where my mother was hospitalized. Moving quickly out of the elevator towards my mother’s ward, I ran directly into several doctors and nurses crowding outside my mother’s room. My mother was being coded.
I had walked right into my own mother’s cardiac arrest! By this point in my medical career, I had been involved in and functioned as the code leader in several cardiac arrests. However, never in my most far-fetched fantasies did I ever think that I would be present during my mother’s code. I felt an urge to get involved, to do something, even if it was just to hand a pair of gloves to a nurse. It seemed as if the code team was also unsure of what to do with me. They knew I was a doctor and familiar with code situations but this was an uncomfortable situation for us all. Detecting their nervousness, I walked into an empty hospital room to let the staff carry on with what they had to do without the added stress of seeing me. I continued a prayer I had begun years ago. I prayed for either my mother’s life or for God to take her home that very day. Those were the words of my prayer but my heart was not ready to let her go. It would never be ready.
In the room I heard the code leader giving orders for medications and the hurried footsteps of staff passing the open doorway. After what seemed like an eternity, the medical resident came into the room to say that my mother was resuscitated and had her tracheotomy tube attached to a ventilator. She was to be transferred to the intensive care unit. No one knew what had caused the cardiac arrest, but her prognosis was not good. That was Sylvia’s second death. The sound of rain lightly tapping against my windshield brings my thoughts to the tortuous hours and days after her cardiac arrest. I drive a little slower now, not wanting to miss any landmarks that will give me a clue to the whereabouts of my mother’s gravesite. It is becoming harder to concentrate on my driving as the memory of days of waiting and hoping while my mother was in the ICU comes back to haunt me like a vengeful ghost.