We make it to main campus thanks to a friend of my dads who just appeared out of thin air at Euclid. I looked up and he was just standing there, ready to help a friend. We navigate through the maze of buildings and floors and find our way to another family room they have put us in. I walk in the door and my brother is there already with two of my dad’s sisters. Eventually more people begin to filter in this room – all but one of my Dad’s six siblings, my sister in law and her children, her sister, my daughter and my husband and my mother in law, my grandparents. And all the while my husband is kind of thinking all the things I’m thinking – they (my parents) can come stay with us, we can get her 24 hour care, we’ll figure this out. Because despite all of the voices in my head telling me otherwise, I still believe we’ll be able to pull out of this. I can fix this. And then the sad eyed doctors arrive and give us more information: they have performed an initial exam, she is non-responsive and it doesn’t look like she has any brain activity. Her carotids were completely blocked, which is why she passed out, and they are unsure how much time she spent without blood and oxygen to her brain. They are not sure what the likelihood of her ever waking up is. But they’re going to do more tests and another team is coming to evaluate her, and I take this little tiny minuscule detail as hope.
And so we wait. And pray. And the team comes back again, this time with new information. They did an MRI and have found a ray of light – her brain looks like it could be functional, and not as damaged as they had first thought. They want to do surgery to put stents in to open her carotids, and possibly allow blood flow back into her brain. This is her best chance. The surgeon is confident and likable. He reminds me of the doctor I work for – honest but hopeful. And so we hope against hope and pray some more. They allow us to see her before she goes into surgery and I notice at least 20 people standing around her room. At the time I just thought, this is a teaching hospital, these must be students and residents. It didn’t occur to me until much later that there were so many people around because this thing that happened to my mother, doesn’t happen to anyone. Ever. This will probably be the only time any of these medical residents see this. I grab her hand and tell her that she’s not allowed to leave yet because I’m not ready for her to leave. I kiss her and tell her I’ll see her soon, and I mean it.
And so we wait more. The surgery will take hours, I’m estimating we won’t hear from the surgeon for at least 4 hours. My sister arrives from Cincinnati and now we are finally all together, my siblings and I. My aunt drives in from Columbus. We try to talk about other things – how I’m feeling, my daughter’s First Communion – but the air is thick and tense. Everyone is anxious. Everyone is faking it. We eat to have something to do, but no one is hungry. We get updates from the operating room that things have started, that they’re going ok. And then after about 3 hours the surgeon comes down to talk to everyone. His team is closing while he talks with us. She’s made it through the surgery, and in that sense it was a success. And now we have a full complete story for what happened to her. “Did you know she had a congenital heart defect?” he asks. We all look at each other blankly. No. None of us knew this. She didn’t know this. And so he begins this staircase of problems, one leading to the next – she had a heart valve defect which caused the valve and artery to stretch out over time, and finally just stop working. The bigger issue, the actual problem though, is that she had an aneurysm that no one knew about. Her father had an aneurysm too; what a lovely gift to pass down. When the aneurysm ruptured, it tore almost the entire length of the aorta. When the aorta tore, the blood pooled in the exact perfect spot that caused her carotids to fall in on themselves, which stopped blood and oxygen from getting to her brain. If all of these things didn’t happen in the exact place that they did, she might still be alive. He repaired everything, put stents in her carotids and her heart is in good condition, another ray of hope. They will run another test in the morning to see if the blood flow has returned to her brain, if she has any brain activity, how the brain looks in the scan. And again, I am hopeful. He is hopeful. He tells us to understand that from a neurological standpoint, sometimes they will say things that sound negative, and that sometimes there is still hope, even though they will make it sound like there isn’t. “Don’t panic until you talk to me,” he tells us. And so I don’t. I go home to sleep and I’m not panicked. My aunts and uncle stay at the hospital with my dad. My sister goes back to our parents house to sleep, my brother to his. We are all hopeful for a brief, shining moment. To be honest, this limbo we are living in, not knowing what is going to happen, what the outcome will be, I like it. Time has stopped here. No one has died. I can’t be sad about something that I don’t know about. I want to live here forever. I tell my sister this, but I don’t think it offers her any kind of comfort. But for me, I fall asleep clouded in the hope that is limbo. And maybe we can fix everything. Maybe there is always a way.
I wake after 4 hours of sleep to my dad calling me. The doctor is coming to talk to us at 7. I hurry out of my house, hoping that, like my doctor, this doctor also runs on “doctor time.” Doctor time is whatever time the doctor gets there. Maybe it’s 7. Maybe it’s 7:45 or 8:00 or maybe it’s 10:00. He is running on doctor time, but I walk into the room after he has already spoken. Everything stops. Time stands still and the scene in front of me becomes frozen. I see my family sitting around him, as if the closer they are to him, the better they can understand what he’s saying. But my brother, my older, smarter brother, who is calm and collected and purposeful, who is positive all the time, who can fix anything, his face is not his face. It’s a face I have never seen him wear before. I don’t even hear the doctor speaking to me, I’m just thinking to myself, “Why does your face look like that?” And then the doctor says, “I was just telling everyone that there doesn’t appear to be any brain activity.” And just like that, the cloud of limbo, the rays of hope, it’s all gone. And we can’t fix everything. And sometimes there isn’t a way.
I turn away from the doctor, from my family, from my brother with his face I don’t recognize, and I look at my husband. I’m searching his eyes for something, anything, a fix to this shit storm we’ve been bombarded with, but I find nothing. There is no fixing this. Nothing can fix this. And my first thought is, “What am I going to tell my daughter?” We lived with my parents for the first 6 years of her life, as I had my daughter while I was still in high school. My daughter was attached to my mother in ways I couldn’t describe. She was like her other mother. Because she was also there for every sickness and every bad day. Sometimes in the middle of the night, she would get up and get into bed with my Mom and Dad instead of with me, because she was lucky enough to have two safe places, two guardians from bad dreams. And that thought was what did it for me. The thought of having to tell my child that she would never see her favorite person ever again, was my undoing.
I fall into my husband, as if by melting into him I can not be myself for a moment, and I come apart. He is actually physically holding me upright, which is probably difficult in the moment because I’m eight and a half months pregnant and pretty sizable. I might have literally fallen to my knees had he not been. The pain in that moment is not even something I have the words to describe. The acknowledgement that we have lost, that we’ve come to the end of this road, and now must travel down this shittier one, is not something I’m willing to accept. And so internally I’m waging this war with my mind and the only way to express that is to sob. Deep, desperate, holy shit I think I’m dying sobs, from within the very pit of my soul. I’m coming apart piece by piece until I’m shattered on the floor of this hospital waiting room, existing as just the shell of who I was ten minutes ago. I don’t want to be her anymore, because her has a mother, and my mother is gone. And I don’t want any of this without my mother, because what good is this life without her?
All the thoughts that I wouldn’t allow myself to have now come back as reality, and I lose my sanity in them. How can I, at 26 years old, have a baby that doesn’t know her? How can I live this life without the person who gave it to me? I don’t want to live it without her, doesn’t that count for anything? Deeper and deeper I go, until I’ve completely submerged myself in this sticky web of desperation and heartache, willingly drowning in it. Because I don’t want to breathe the air in this room, if she’s not also breathing it.