December 17th, 1993: The Day of the Aneurysm
"Mommy...Mommy, wake up", her little voice moans, inches away from my pounding head. I'm nauseous, so nauseous and my eyelids hurt. I've never felt this sick. Things haven't been quite right these past eleven months; the headaches, frequent trips to my gynecologist for one reason or another...I'm out of answers and so is my doctor. Whatever this is, I might as well stay in bed and save the copay. I open my eyes enough to see my seven year-old little girl; her worried caramel brown eyes looking at me. "I don't feel good, honey. Gimme five more minutes." She reluctantly shuffles away. I should take her to school, I know, but I can't even fathom moving my body. I should call someone to take her. But who? My boyfriend is working. My ex-husband is out of town on business, as usual. I don't know what to do but until I figure it out, I just need five more minutes...
I only remember fragments and snapshots from that morning, like a fancy camera set on a high f-stop. I see myself pacing my bedroom, then the hallway, then back to my room, waiting for my Mom to get out of bed, hesitant to bother her yet again. My teeth are brushed and I'm lookin' sharp in my stirrup leggings, tye dye sweater and thick black headband. My bed is made and there isn't so much as a stuffed CareBear out of place. All I need is for her to get out of bed. All I need is to get to school.
It was odd my Mom wasn't feeling well; in my seven years on the earth, I'd never seen her sick. Ordinarily I wouldn't have minded staying home from school and watching Drop Dead Fred or Peter Pan (the Mary Martin version) for the 389th time. But that day was different. That was the day of the holiday gift exchange: the 1st grade version of White Elephant and just as brutal and tacky. My friends always got bomb-ass (I've never even said that in real life) gifts each Christmas and I was eager to see what I would get. I went to school in the kinda-sorta-definitely wealthy city of Palos Verdes, so as you can imagine, I needed to be there that day. For the gift exchange. But also, for the learning. To learn. I liked to learn. Nevermind.
I must have tried to get her out of bed to take me to school seven or eight times, each time more and more scared I'd anger her. Agitate her. But that day I was willing to risk it. I knew she was sick and needed to rest, but I had needs, too...
For Christ's sake, I'm up, I'M UP! This kid will not leave me alone. I drag my ailing, powerless body to my closet and put on black leggings and something with shoulder pads. The sooner I get Erica to school, the quicker I can go back to bed, or vomit, or both. Without traffic, it's an hour drive from our apartment in Orange County to her school in Palos Verdes. I don't think I can make it that far, but I have to try. I'm going in and out. Things are blurry and then they're not. I'm suddenly delirious from the whirring of cars ahead of, behind and around me. This is not safe. I need to pull over. I need to throw up. I swerve to the right, leave the car and my terrified child in it and vomit into the grooves of the pavement on 91 East. Erica's quiet. I know she's really scared and if I had the mental and physical capacity to assure her I'll be okay, I would. But I can't. I just need to get her to school so I can go to work and lie down. Andy, my best friend and boss, is out of town today so I'll be able to sleep in her office on her light blue velvet couch...
I forgot something at the office, I have to go back. I open the door and she's lying there, practically dead. She's green. No, blue. No, gray. I need to get her to a hospital. I lift her body as much as I can and pray I can get her down the stairs and into my car without her falling, or worse...dying. We cross the threshold of Urgent Care, and that's when the seizure starts. Her body rhythmically jerks side to side, back and forth as staff race around, almost as unsure and frightened as I am. The firefighters have arrived. Ten of them. TEN. HOT. FIREFIGHTERS. For a second I forget where I am and I catch myself adjusting my stance and fixing my hair. Here we are: two forty year-old single women, one having a seizure and the other trying to keep her sh*t together (pretty typical). I only have a moment to lean into my friend (who's practically as dead as disco) and whisper, "Sharon...they're so sexy. You're missing quite a show." They race her to the hospital as I follow behind.
What's happening? Where am I? Everyone's talking so fast but I can't make out any words. My vision is blurred, but I see Andy and then I see Dr. Okada, my Gynecologist. What's he doing here? And why is he wearing a suit? "Insurance". Someone just said that. "Does she have insurance?" I don't have insurance. I don't have insurance. I don't have insurance. What happens now? Will they let me die? I can't keep my eyes open, I'm starting to drift. And as I float away, before I disappear completely, I hear Dr. Okada say bluntly in the very far distance..."She has insurance. Now do the surgery."
I like to think my Mother's life strolled down some kind of Divine conveyor belt that day; starting with me, a seven year-old who just wanted to get to school, to Andy, who wasn't even supposed to be at the office, to Dr. Okada and the team of surgeons he hand-selected right there in the lobby of Torrance Memorial Hospital.
Doctors gave her a 4% chance of living and had to remove a portion of her temporal lobe, the part of the brain that controls memory and retention. For a long time she couldn't remember my birth date, our phone number, sequences and new information. She lost the part of her brain that allows fitness instructors, stand up comics and auctioneers to cue and speak in time. But little by little, number by number, memory by memory, she returned to herself. In fact, she became the very best version of herself.
She no longer needs me to remember things for her, like she used to. She doesn't need to ask me my birth date in public, she doesn't need me to remember phone numbers or addresses or remind her of appointments. But she knows I have a lot of information, should she need it, because I'm like an elephant; my memory is long. My memory is very, very long.
By nature (and a sharp New York temperament) my Mother is a survivor, she is her own best advocate and she teaches me how to be mine. I couldn't know this as a seven year-old, but I'd be so deeply lost without her. It's been twenty-two years since that horrible and confusing morning and on a very deep level, I feel a renewed sense of love and safety, each day my mom gets out of bed.
*There are almost 500,000 deaths worldwide each year caused by brain aneurysms and half the victims are younger than 50.
*For more information about brain aneurysms, visit this website.
*Thank you to Dr. Okada, Torrance Memorial and the brilliant team of doctors who went above and beyond so I could keep my mom.
*And a very special thank you to Andra Minnehan; sometimes, it's good to forget things at the office <3
To the children, parents and friends of those who've lost a loved one to an aneurysm, this post is for you.