Mom and I have a Golden Globe ritual. Every Monday morning in January, the day after the Golden Globes Award’s Show, we rehash who wore what, who looked good in what, and which gowns we loved the most of all.
This is what I can tell you about this year’s awards: Mom loved America Ferrera’s golden yellow gown as well as Jennifer Lopez’s gown in a similar shade. You know how much Mom loves yellow so no surprise there. She swooned over Julianne Moore’s teal gown. I added how that color looks so good on someone with red hair. She agreed. We also agreed that Helen Mirren’s simple, shapely black gown was a hit but we disagreed on Jane Fonda’s ruffled frock. I thought it was creative and a nice departure from her usual sparkly, body-hugging gold gowns. Mom and I worry about actresses that are too thin and we put Jane in that category. I told Mom, “I like seeing more weight on her and those ruffles did just that.” Mom chuckled but thought it was just goofy.
She also commented on how well Melissa McCarthy looked especially given she’s on the plump side. I don’t love her use of the word “plump” but I didn’t make a deal out of it. She loved Jennifer Lawrence’s red dress and thought the ladies that wore higher necked dresses looked the best this year.
Me too, Mom, me too.
She couldn’t get over how nasty Ricky Gervais was. “Can’t he just be nice for a change?” she said. “Well, Mom, that’s not his brand of humor,” I said, not admitting to how many times I laughed out loud…more than I thought I would.
In her mind, movie stars are just fine sitting on pedestals. They don’t have to be real people in her book. She’s not interested in any dirt. I’ve never told her about Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck getting a divorce. She adores Jennifer Garner! She thinks she’s cute as a bug’s ear. She’d be upset if she heard Ben was messing around with their nanny. She turn away from the hard details. “They’ll get back together,” she’d say. That’s Mom, always hoping for the best.
But like I said, I didn’t bring that up when I was talking to her this morning in my head.
I’ve been dreading this day for weeks. It’s the anniversary of the event that changed everything. That I’m cheerfully discussing the evening’s highs and lows with my mother who passed away last March, even if it’s just an imaginary conversation, is a good sign. I didn’t even know if I could watch the Golden Globes this year, not after what happened last year.
Last year I watched the Golden Globes, taking notes about my favorites, eager to compare them the next morning to Mother’s notes, just like we always do. I called Mom that Monday ready to talk fashion. Dad answered and he was awfully worried.
Mom couldn’t talk at that moment, in fact, she was starting to have a hard time talking at all or making sense, he said. He gave me some details: she’d fallen early that morning, he couldn’t get her up off the bathroom floor (his shoulders are shot, he didn’t have the strength), the paramedics were called; they got her up and she walked back and forth in the hallway; she knew the answers to all their questions. They were satisfied that she was okay and they left. “She’s got a big bump on her head,” Dad said. “I don’t know, I’m scared.”
“Dad, let me call Kirk,” I said, “and then I’ll call you back.” I called my brother and he said he’d run out there to check on things. When he got there, Mom was making partial sense. He wanted to take her to the emergency room. She wanted to fix her hair first but Kirk put his foot down. “No time,” he said and loaded them in his car and sped to Perham Hospital’s emergency room.
They gave her a CAT scan. There was a little bleed in her skull. Not a big deal but they took her by ambulance to Fargo and admitted her for observation. When I talked to the ICU nurse at Sanford Hospital that night she said, “Your mother is very healthy and strong. She’s unharmed, no broken bones. Her blood work is good; labs are good. There’s a small bleed in her brain, very small. I’m expecting her to be stable. This is the kind of thing where she may be looking for her keys a month from now and not remember the word for keys. But it’ll come back.”
I was so relieved! I wanted to get after her for whatever she was doing that made her take that fall but those reprimands would wait until she was back to herself again. Our Golden Globe rehash would have to wait too.
When I called to check on her the next morning, it was a way different story. This ICU nurse told me they’d ordered another CAT scan and the results showed a giant bleed. It was bleeding in her brain, not around her brain. She wasn’t following commands. She opened her eyes once, a little, the nurse said. She said, “With the size of the bleed, the prognosis is very low. She’s breathing okay now, but it could inhibit that.” My dad was in the room but couldn’t speak through his tears. Their dear friends, Bill and Verona, were in the room, but they too were speechless.
I hung up the phone and an hour later, I was packed and on my way to the airport along with my twin brother, Brent. At that point, I just wanted to see her alive. This was not right, not right at all. My parents and brother from Minnesota were supposed to be boarding a plane in a week to visit me in California. How could this be happening?
We arrived in frigid Fargo, checked into a hotel across the street from the hospital where Dad was staying. I wanted to see Mom. I entered the hospital through the emergency room entrance just across the street and took the elevator to the ICU. Her room was near the end of the hall, on the left. I walked in, quietly. The machines were whirring and giving digital readings of numbers that didn’t make much sense to me yet.
Her face was so black and blue, just like her left arm. Her beautiful blue eyes were open (how had I not noticed how very blue they are?) but darting. I leaned in close to her face and said, “Hi Mom.” She didn’t say anything but she seemed to check me out. Maybe she knows it’s me, I thought. But when the doctor came in and asked Mother if she knew who I was, there was no response. There was no response when the doctor asked her to squeeze her fingers; there was no response when she asked her to wiggle her big toe. She couldn’t swallow or say her name.
She’d been on the drug Coumadin, which thins the blood. It’s for her heart. She has a pacemaker. That pacemaker was the best thing that ever happened to Mother, but now, the drug that was part of the regime was threatening to pull the curtains on her life. Although she was off the Coumadin now, they didn’t know if the bleed had stopped or not. It could get worse. What would “worse” even look like? It was unimaginable.
Over the next several days I got into a rhythm. I’d be at the hospital by 7, 7:15 and stay with her until 7 that night. I was there to talk to the doctors when they made rounds. One member of the staff flamed the hope that she could recover while others were more focused on determining if she’d reached a plateau in terms of functioning.
Angela was the neurologist’s assistant. She had straight, blond hair that never wavered from her strong jawline. She had similar blue eyes to Mom’s. She’d come in every morning and go through the same questions. She also asked me questions about Mother.
What was her level of functioning prior to the fall? Did she cook? Visit with people?
Oh yes! She and Dad go to church on Sundays, I told her. She meets with her quilting ladies every Wednesday at the church and they go out to lunch together. She cooks but doesn’t love to. She makes lefse with her friend Verona. She talks to me on the phone all the time. She’s up on politics and current affairs. She loves fashion and beauty. She loves the NDSU Bison football team and never misses a televised game.
“Good,” Angela said. “That’s how we measure expectations for recovery. If she’s been living on her own and active, we’d expect she could recover to that level or close to it. But recovery is slow and it’s not linear. There will be signs she’s doing better and then there may be days when nothing seems to be happening. You have to be patient. I believe she can recover. Don’t measure recovery in days, measure it in months. It could take twelve months before you’re seeing her old self.”
While one ICU nurse was saying Mother would never swallow again (I didn’t like her), Angela was saying she’d be back quilting with the ladies, maybe a year from now. One day Mother sort of squeezed Angela’s fingers when asked and maybe seven days into her hospital stay she nodded when Angela asked her if she knew who I was. She couldn’t say my name but I believed Mom was telling the truth. When I got scared, I forced myself to see things the way Angela did.
On day nine, I walked into Mother’s room around 7:15 as usual. Mother was awake and alert, looking at me with both eyes equally open. I put down my coffee and went to her side and said, “Good morning, Gorgeous, this is Brenda.”
“This is Brenda,” she repeated. She said my name! And then she told me she was hungry and thirsty. I knew I couldn’t give her anything. She’d have to pass the swallow test first. I pushed the call button. When the nurse came in I asked her to call the speech therapist and give Mother another swallow test. The nurse put the order in.
I leaned in to kiss Mother on the lips. “Mom, I’m so happy!” I said.
And then she said, “I love you.” I was nearly breathless.
She discovered my necklace, a sparkly web of small hematite beads on a long, delicate chain, and was mesmerized by it. She put it in her hand, looked at it and said, “Pretty. “Pretty, pretty, pretty!”
And then she noticed my bracelet, a Lucite cuff with a starburst design in the center of it, like a big watch face. She put her fingers on that next. “I like that,” she said.
“A friend gave that to me at Christmas time, Mom,” I said.
“I want a friend like that,” she said in a charming, childlike voice.
I’m ecstatic. I’m having a “normal” conversation with my mother! We’re talking about normal things we talk about: jewelry and beauty and friends. I wanted to keep talking to her but I wanted my family, desperate for news, to know she was giving us the signs we’d been looking for, praying for.
I dialed my brother Kirk’s number and said, “She’s talking! Call Brent! Tell Dad! Come quick!”
Mother kept following the sparkles in the necklace. I sneaked in a quick text to my girls and my best friend. Caitlin was the first one to respond.
Me: Mom and I are having a great conversation!!!!!!!!
Caitlin: With words?
Me: Lots and lots of words and I love yous!!!!
Caitlin: Wow!!! Amazing. Tell her I love her for me.
Me: She just complimented me on my necklace. Pretty, pretty, pretty she said.
The speech therapist came within the hour. My twin brother Brent had joined us by then. I moved aside so she could line up her supplies.
She started with a spoonful of applesauce. I have this part on video. I’ve watched it many times. It’s probably my most prized possession right now. I’ve shared it with family and a couple of friends. Mother isn’t dining at the Cordon Bleu. She isn’t all dressed up wearing earrings and a sparkly necklace. There is no white linen tablecloth but the moment is no less grand.
Picture it: Mother in her hospital gown, which is all kattywumpus on her shoulders; her head propped up with pillows, her hair in desperate need of her weekly hair appointment with Jay, the bed cranked up to about a 70-degree angle. My Mother slowly, gracefully takes in that first spoonful of applesauce as we watch her, coaching her without words, to swallow. She does. She coos, “I love it.” I’ve never seen such a savored bite of food ever. She smiles and says, “I want more.” She passes the swallow test and goes on to eat three cartons of applesauce, a carton of peaches, and a cracker.
I think that was my favorite day last January, my very favorite. Hanging out with Mom, talking fashion and eating applesauce. It was glorious. It seemed that Angela had been right all along.
But remember, we’re talking traumatic brain injury mixed in with the existing health problems she already had. That bright day would be mixed in with some not so bright days. The worst was yet to come.
But I don’t want to think about that right now. I want to remember last night’s fashion and listen to Mother’s voice in my head, imagining what she’d be saying today if we had that luxurious gift of speaking on the phone together, like old times, mother and daughter.