I love months that end in thirty-one. January does that. But this January has been full of memories and I’m so happy to see it go. For periods of the time I’ve felt submerged, deep into a sea of trauma laced memories, a family in disarray, heartache, so much hope, and so much uncertainty.
I don’t know if there’s a name for this feeling. It’s not grief, but maybe it’s related to it. It’s not loss, but loss came. The word that resonates most is trauma. I can’t help but relive a time when life was beyond precarious.
I had a client who hated May. Every year she couldn’t wait for May to be gone. Her husband had been diagnosed in May with the same disease that killed the puppeteer Jim Hensen from the Muppets. It came on hard and he could have died quickly like Jim did. It was a race against time but he survived. My client was diagnosed with breast cancer in May as well. It wasn’t in the same year but May had not been good to them.
I couldn’t quite understand how anyone would want to write off a whole month, especially the beautiful month of May! Wouldn’t those traumas fade and May could be just be May again when kids would be playing league softball in city parks, students would be graduating, young adults would be getting married and fifty-year-0lds would be traveling to France?
Now I get it. Her May is my January.
The Golden Globes brought it on
The morning after the Golden Globes this year, I started to sink into that sea of emotions that I don’t have the name for.
Mother and I always talked the morning after the Golden Globes. We’d rehash the dresses. She’d share her favorites with me and I’d share mine with her. Only two years ago it didn’t happen. I called to talk to Mom and Dad answered. “I’m worried, Brenda. Mother fell this morning in the bathroom. The paramedics came and got her up and she seemed okay but now she’s talking funny.” I could feel his helplessness and hear his tears. I hung up and called my brother. He went over and Mom was coherent and then not so coherent. He immediately took them both to the Perham, MN hospital to have her checked out again.
“Good news, Brenda,” he said later. “They did a CT scan and she has a small bleed in her brain but they think it’s no big deal. But they’re taking her to Fargo just to monitor her for a day.”
I called the hospital in Fargo the next morning and the only one who would talk to me was an ICU nurse. “They did another CT this morning and the bleed is now huge. She has brain damage. If it doesn’t stop, she’ll …” and she stopped talking. “Who is there with my Mom?” I said. “Your father and it appears two close friends but they’re not capable of talking on the phone. They’re taking this really hard.” I could see Dad and Bill and Verona Martin sitting in the chairs in the corner of Mother’s room, crushed.
If I wanted to see my mother? “You better come quick,” she said. In forty-five minutes, my twin brother (he lives thirty minutes from me) and I were packed and on our way to the airport, headed for Fargo, ND.
Here’s what a brain injury is like
Pretend your brain and all it does for you is a savings account with $100,000 in it.
Within twenty-four hours that bleed in her brain depleted her account and all that was left was $8000.
She was breathing, but not on her own. She couldn’t swallow so she wasn’t eating or drinking. She didn’t recognize anybody. She couldn’t talk. I’d sit in her room in ICU and just watch her chest move up and down. When her eyes were open I’d stand next to her bed and look into her beautiful blue eyes, begging her to come back.
I was there early every morning to catch the neurologist on her rounds. She’d ask Mother to wiggle her toes (she didn’t), to squeeze her hand (she didn’t), to tell her if she knew who I was (there was no response).
Yet, the neurologist kept reassuring me.
“Brains can heal and given how active and bright your mother was before this happened, I believe she’ll get back there. It will take a while. You can’t measure progress in days. You have to measure it in months. In twelve months, she could be fully herself again. If not 100%, then awfully close.”
Waiting and watching
The next two weeks followed the same pattern. Twelve hours with Mother, an hour or two in the evening talking to family members on the phone, calling my nursing friends in SF to get reality checks from them.
But about fourteen days after her fall, I arrived in her room, leaned over and kissed her like I did every morning and said, “Good morning, Gorgeous.”
I had a necklace on and she took it in her hand and said, “Pretty, pretty, pretty.” Her words were back! She was making sense. There weren’t full sentences yet, but we were communicating! That had to mean a $7000 deposit into her brain savings account, didn’t it?
Each new day I was eager to see her progress. But like the neurologist said, there were forward steps and backward steps. Deposits and withdrawals.
Sharing the deposits
She soon called me by name. She called other family members by their name. One day when Dad was quietly weeping in his chair across from her bed where I was feeding her (she didn’t have motor skills yet), she surprised us all and said, “Don-ald, what are you doing?” It was her tone, the way she could call Dad out and make him laugh. We all laughed. She was his wife, 100%. Her brain account had to be up to $17,000.
She could swallow again. She could eat again — soft things. There were many, many kisses and I love you’s. Friends visited. She didn’t always know their names but I wanted to think she knew them just the same.
But then on January 29th, Dad’s birthday, we nearly lost her. A new bleed had started in her stomach and she was dying. For the next 24 hours, the ICU doctor kept telling us, “We’re doing the best we can. There’s nothing else we can do but wait.” And then, the next morning after 11 units of blood product had been put into her, she was awake, alert, and more of herself than ever. She was the miracle of the ICU. When nurses asked her where she was, she knew. When they asked her name, she knew. She knew who the president was. She knew where she’d grown up. She knew where she lived.
January 30, 2015 was my happiest day ever. When the doctor who had spent the most time with her took me aside and said, “Yes, this is amazing, and you still have to know that the road ahead is bumpy. She has other issues that have nothing to do with the brain injury and they could make recovery difficult.” Sure, she had a heart condition, she had diabetes problems, but surely this day had to prove to him that Mother was made of tough stuff! She was resilient! She’d survive! She would thrive! I just knew it. He didn’t know my mother like I did.
Looking back I have enormous compassion for the Brenda Kinsel that was defiant with that doctor that day, the Brenda Kinsel who had hope and all the strength she needed to spend the next twelve months participating in her mother’s recovery.
I could do that. I signed up for that. I was with the program.
Dealing with a parent in crises is an immersion program
When I reflect, I liken that period with Mother to that of having a baby. New life is an immersion program. The rest of the world disappears while you’re in those early weeks of caring for a newborn.
Spending a month in the hospital with Mother was an immersion program. The rest of the world disappeared and everything that mattered was going on in Room 214 at Sanford Hospital in Fargo. I am so glad I had that time with her. It was intimate. It was hard. It was family. It was rough but it was life with my precious Mom.
This January, it’s like watching a movie. Frame by frame the details are vivid, the drama is intense. I witness the hopefulness and the heartache. I want to say to that character in the movie that is me, “I love you. I’m sorry you didn’t get what you wanted. I really am.”
The doctor was right, even though I know he didn’t want to be. Her other problems were too weighty on her system and she passed away in a rehab hospital at the end of March. I look forward to March. I see a celebration of all she was: wife, mother, grandmother, friend. January will be that much more in the distance and the March movie will have a satisfying ending: celebrating the love and tenacity of family.