Memories are funny in the way that certain ones present themselves as grey, fuzzy misshapen images that lack clarity and detail but retain emotion and so they stick with you, while others are concrete with technicolor hues and precise details that for whatever reason exist only to further convince you that yes, this happened. The older I get, the more memories I find tucked away with those hazy unimportant remnants of history that only surface if I’m really thinking hard about them. There are far fewer distinct memories, the ones I can recall with impressive exactitude that is, than I would care to admit and really, of those, even fewer that are happy.
Some years ago, (a lady never reveals her age) at the age of 17, a memory was formed and cemented into my brain and my heart. Into every fiber of my past and future. It has shaped my fears and insecurities in ways that no other experience ever has. In all the years that have passed since then the images and feelings have never dulled and even with the most subtle whisper of it I am transported back and left hollowed by it.
It’s a chilly morning in November, some time around 9 a.m. or so and I am just returning from working at an overnight event running carnival games and painting faces. Its a Saturday and I think to myself gratefully that I can finally flop down into bed and sleep until whenever I feel like waking up and then maybe go drive down to my friend’s house to spend the rest of the day listening to music and dreaming about what life will be like next year once High School is over. The house is quiet, it usually is this time of morning. I smell coffee, which my mom has left on for anyone who wants it. She started her day hours ago and is already gone by the time I dragged myself in through the door from work. But the scent of Tuscany lingers in the air and I smile because that is the scent that will always make me think of her. I quickly take off my work clothes, throw on my 311 concert tshirt and some ratty sweatpants and tuck myself into my blanket like a human burrito, wishing that the sun would go away and stop leaking through my blinds like a hudred tiny flashlights aimed right for my eyes. It doesn’t ultimatley matter though. I’m exhausted and quickly fall into a deep, drool inducing sleep.
I feel my heart racing well before I can comprehend why. I can hear the shrill “ring, ring riiiiiinggg” of the phone. I can feel my mouth, dry and sticky and likely smelling like a hundred garbage trucks, trying to open up to croak, “huh..hullo”? As my eyes begin to focus I can see the alarm clock says 11:18 a.m. and I’m silently resentful that I’ve barely gotten a few hours of sleep and the caller has the audacity to bother me.
“Jeanette, listen, your mom is being taken by ambulance to the hospital. Someone found her on the sidewalk non responsive and they don’t know what happened. I have to stay at work, can you drive to the hospital to be with her?” “What do you mean? I don’t understand what you mean? Mom is she...is, I mean is she alive?” I manage to choke out, already on my feet. In retrospect my first question should have been, “what do you mean you can’t get out of work?! Mom needs you!” My step father and her haven’t been getting along, but this lack of consideration on his part and the fact that he’s now laying this terrible responsiblity on my shoulders to bear alone is reason enough for me to resent him forever. But he gives me more reason and he shows me how cruel a human can really be to another. “I talked to the first responders. They think she tried to kill herself. She swallowed a bunch of pills and for some reason started walking down the street by the church. She fell on the sidewalk and hit her head. Some guy on the sidewalk saw her and called 911. She’s already coded twice and they don’t know what damage has been done. I gotta go, I gotta get back to work. I’ll come by when I’m done.”
He hung up the phone abruptly and I felt my body shaking. Shallow breath moving in and out of my lungs, but on the verge of hyperventilation. I could feel the panic rise up in me as I looked around frantically at the floor. My brain was a barren void and I had no idea at first what I was looking for. Shoes-and keys. I had to go and I had to go quickly. Just as suddenly I found myself driving as fast as I could down the highway towards the hospital. I calculated-they found her less than five minutes from our house (by car) and the hospital was only another five or six minutes from there. I willed the car to move faster and the lights to stay green and my mom to be alive and ok and to make some sense out of what I heard.
I breathed long deep breaths at the lights that did not stay green for me, making the strange strained faces of someone on the verge of losing it and willing it back right before a dam of tears burst through my eyes. Eyes that felt like they hadn’t blinked in hours, dry and gritty with the effort to suck back tears so I could see while I drove. I reflexively picked at my finger bed until it began to bleed, hardly noticing because the light had finally turned green and that meant I was almost there. I felt myself strangely disconnected, the way you do when you see someone on TV in a movie or the news being affected by some tragedy where you feel sadness for them but only in the dutiful way that our empathetic side tells us to.
Then, before I could register it, I was there. Parking in the parking garage and all but running to the lobby with the overflow of unshed tears leaking down my face in sad, silent streams. In a panicked voice I said “my mom was just brought here by ambulance, I need to see her!” The woman gave me a cursory but somehow sympathetic look and asked for her name. “She’s in the ICU now honey. I’ll take you there.” We walked down the halls, a maze of disinfectant laced air and walls that seemed to bobble around me, the way someone might describe an acid trip I suppose, where reality wasn’t quite...real?
The nurse and Dr. spoke in hushed whispers to one another and I stood in the hall feeling lost and afraid again that my mom might not make it. That she was lost to me forever. The Dr. approached me with that look you reserve for small children when you have to tell them something upsetting. I felt my stomach turn and clench, instinctively wrapping my arms around myself, as if bracing myself in a hug to protect my body from the assault of his words. He introduced himself and sensing I was not looking for small talk or pleasantries began to give me a clearer picture of what was going on.
“Your mother swallowed a large number of pills, I think in an attempt to end her life. We pumped out what we could but a significant amount is still in her system. Her heart stopped twice but we were able to start it again. We are trying to get her stable. She may have suffered damage to her brain but we won’t know for sure until the pills are out of her system and we can evaluate her further. I want to warn you she is very out of it right now. Is anyone coming in to be with you?”
All of those words crashed into my head and exploded sending choked sobs from the depths of my chest. “You think she tried to kill herself?” I said, an air of disbelief so apparent it suprised him. “Considering the amount of pills, yes.” But I still didn’t believe that. Not my mother, whose four daughters still needed her, though most of us grown or nearly grown might not have readily admitted that. Not my mother, she wouldn’t want to die and leave us here without her. There couldn’t be a reason good enough for that. To leave us to suffer her loss and wonder why and what we did or didn’t do right or wrong or what we might have changed to make her want to stay.
I couldn’t think clearly. I needed to see her and know she was still breathing, her heart still beating. I needed to know for myself if she really wanted to leave this world. So I asked the doctor if I could see her. Reluctantly he said yes and then suggested that maybe my presence would calm her. They brought me to her bedside, monitors beeping and binging and tubes and wires everywhere. Her wrists were shackled to the bed in the leather restraints they use to keep patients from harming other people...or themselves.
It sticks to me, that image. Her body in the bed, eyes mostly closed so that they were barely slit open, like when you are pretending not to watch something scary on TV but you still peek through barely open eyes so you don’t miss anything good. There was a large circular mark taking up residence on the larger part of her forhead, brown and rust colored and I winced at the sight of it. It was starting to bruise around the edges of the mark, angry purple and blue hues that were painful to look at.
Seeing my line of sight resting there the Dr. offered up “She’s lucky, her head hit the dirt instead of the sidewalk. We haven’t had a chance to clean it up, we wanted to get her stable first.” I must have looked angry or some other version of displeased. It’s the only reason I could think that he would feel the need to explain it to me. Why the caked on (what I now knew to be) mud and smattering of blood remained on her head in and almost comically perfect circle. It was almost as if that dirt on her head was even sadder to me than her heart monitor fluttering wildly up and down or her wrists tied securely to her bed. I felt the need to clean her up, give her some form of dignity while the people fretted around her oblivious to the way the leaves and sticks stayed clumped in her hair.
I quietly asked for some water and a cloth to clean her with, a sense of purpose now providing the appropriate seal to shut away my mounting desperation. They gladly obliged and watched as I tenderly wiped at her forehead, pulling out twigs and random debris from her hairline and watching as sweat beaded above her lip. Her breathing was ragged and staccato. She seemed restless despite the obvious stupor she was in, her hands clenching and unclenching involuntarily. I continued to work at the dirt mark where there was quite clearly a large bruise forming underneath, worrying at my lip and trying to focus on the task at hand and not the gravity of everything all at once. I did the best I could, but the mark remained, staining her skin with bruises and ground in dirt.
It was likely only minutes after I first got to her bedside, (but who can really judge time in moments like these) and her eyes began to flutter open. Not in the whimsical way a sleepy baby does when they first awaken from a nap, but violently as though startled awake from a dead sleep by something horrifying. Her rootbeer colored eyes scanned the room wildly, mouth parting to speak but only garbling words as though her mouth was full of water. I reached down for her hand and gently squeezed it consoling her with “shh, Mom, I’m here. It’s me, Netty. It’s ok”. But it wasn’t ok. Her eyes found me and tore through me with a violent despondency. She was crying and pulling at her wrists, attempting to yell but only getting out slurred versions of words and gutteral sounds, thrashing her body and head as she attempted to free herself. “Mom! Stop it Mom! You are going to hurt yourself!” I cried out to her, likely with more fear than I had wanted to convey. Again her eyes met mine.
“Gg-geeeyyt. Meknyyff. Gggettt meeyu. G-gg-get me kniiffffe.” She struggled and repeated this over and over until it was clear to me that she was asking for a knife. I stared at her. I stared at her and all of the air left the room. There was no sound and no floor. My heart beat but I didn’t know it. She was asking me for a knife. She was asking me for a knife so she could finish the job. That reality, what she was asking me to do, to help her do, crushed me. It shattered me into a million tiny pieces and then set them aflame. I felt nothing and everything all at once. I know that somewhere outside of me, where my body was reacting while my mind was falling apart, that I was yelling at her “NO! NO I WON’T DO IT MOM! I’M NOT GOING TO HELP YOU DIE!” She was looking at me again, with her eyes posessed by some sadness or madness that was not my mom, just some shell of her and she told me to “listen to your mother!” like this strange insistance would somehow make me comply. All I could do was stare and try to remember to breathe.
I lost it. All control of myself, the downpour of tears and heavy, strangling sobs consuming me and obliterating any reality that existed around me. I felt arms curl around my shoulders and lead me away from the bed as I excalimed in broken words through my tears that “I...I can’t do it...No, I don’t understand. I love her. Doesn’t she love us? Why I don’t....I don’t, I can’t.” The nurses were kind and trying so hard to soothe me and all I could think was how I needed to stop blubbering and how horrible my breath was because I hadn’t had the chance to brush them before I left. Which I gathered in the midst of everything was trivial and stupid, but there it was...the thought that brought me back from the edge of insanity. My breath stinks and I’m crying and yelling all over these poor people...
I don’t want to leave you off without some kind of conclusion, so to make a longer story shorter, she pulled through in the end. My mom is doing well and we have talked about this day and what it meant to each of us. How it changed us all. That day has made me more cautious, sometimes to the fault of asking “what’s wrong” one too many times to those around me who don’t seem happy. That day made relationships a little harder and also more important. It broadened my understanding about depression and suicide and how we often misunderstand that someone commiting suicide is not trying to be selfish. They genuinely believe that the people they love suffer because of them.When you are that sad, that sick, your mind tells you that those you love would be better off without you and your problems. Which isn’t right, but the mind is a powerful thing and can convince you of just about anything when it is sick. Take care of the ones you love. Be kind when you can and kinder than that when you can’t. It only took one conversation with a callous man to push my mother over the edge and into the darkness. Careless words that he assumed would be brushed off but instead ignited a fire that burned my mother and all of us alive.
The first time I witnessed death there was a tangible sorrow in the air.
I watched as my grandmother fumbled with the breathing machine until my mother had to tell her to stop, it made no difference.
I stared for a long time.
Even now I can’t remember the thoughts that crossed my mind.
I had never seen someone die before. And now he lay in front of me, only moments after he had shuddered his last breath. His mouth now in an eternal scream.
The skin on his face gaunt and an unearthly yellow color, it felt unreal.
My chest convulsed as I realized the severity of the situation. I listened to my grandmother sob as the room became void of any positivity. I found myself gripping my own shoulders until my knuckles turned white for lack of an ability to do anything else.
I think this was the first time I realized that one day I would die.
It absolutely horrified me.