Saturday, June 11, 2011

Acknowledging the elephant

When I first started writing this blog, I needed serious help.  I'm the writer of Christmas cards and sarcastic e-mails, not prose that will set the world on fire.  I found a book in those early days that served as a "How to Compose a Story for Dummies" of sorts, guiding me through uncharted territory and encouraging me to follow my voice.  One anecdote from the book has always stuck with me.  The writer recounts a time when she realized all she ever wrote about was her family.  She made a conscious decision to write about anything but her relatives.  Nothing came.  She soon realized that when she closed the door to what her heart really wanted to say, everything else was shut out, too.

That's where I am today.  In order for me to move on, I need to acknowledge the story again.  It's that same stupid animal that sits on my chest every summer.  I have written ad nauseam about my mother's death and the forgettable summer of 2008, but I have never explained in detail how another tragedy started the chain of events that lead our family into an uncontrollable tailspin during that horrible summer of my discontent.

On Memorial Day weekend of 2008, my mother had been living with my family for three years.  Late that Saturday night we received a call that is every parent's worst nightmare: my sister and her husband had been in a catastrophic motorcycle accident.  She was sitting on the back of my brother-in-law's bike with another couple riding along beside them when they stopped for a red light.   Behind them sped a drunken kid who slammed into the foursome at full speed.  One friend heard the truck coming and managed to pull away just in time.  The other biker, my sister's good friend, had no time to react.  She was knocked airborne into the intersection and landed with a vengeance.  She died instantly.  My sister and her husband were severely injured as they were trapped in the wreckage.

The pair was airlifted to a trauma center where the prognosis for their recovery was very poor.  Neither was wearing a helmet, and they were both in a coma.  I went to the hospital each day for a week encouraging my sister to open her eyes, to acknowledge us in some small way.  She had damage to her leg that required surgery, and her brain was also injured, but we held onto the hope that she would pull through.  Her husband fared even worse, though.  His brain injury was far more serious, and he lost his leg in the accident.  In an instant, their lives were irreparably changed.

I had the task of bringing my mother to see them while they were being treated in the ICU.  It was no small job, believe me. The hospital was forty minutes from my home, and she could only go the enormous distance from the parking garage, through the mammoth hospital to the umpteenth floor by way of wheel chair.  I knew my mother's health was failing, and this accident weighed heavy on her.  The stress of this tragedy weighed heavy on us all because we had to act like a family, not a an awkward group of strangers stranded on a stuck elevator.

After a week, my sister began to come around.  She didn't remember anything about the wreck that landed her in the hospital and had no idea her friend was dead.  My oldest sister and I planned to tell her the whole story that Monday morning.  As I sat in the room with her waiting for our sibling to arrive, my phone rang.  It was my mom.  She was at home alone with my then three-year-old daughter.  She said she was suddenly weak and felt like she couldn't even make the short walk down the hall to her bathroom or move from her chair.  Panicked, I sent my husband to assess the situation.

My phone rang again, and this time it was my husband.  The ambulance was at my house.  I took a deep breath, gathered my purse and left one hospital drama to embark on another.  After spending the previous week waiting for my sister to come out of her coma, I spent the new one waiting for the results of test after test to determine the cause of my mother's vague symptoms.  At the beginning of week three that summer, we had our answer: Renal Cell Carcinoma - kidney cancer.  It had been spreading with wild abandon for God only knows how long.  All of these symptoms - achy hip, stiff neck, anemia - they weren't just the maladies of old age.  She was being eaten alive by the cancer, and little did we know that we were too late to the fight.

We tried.  We really did.  Even in her weakened state, she endured radiation.  Her legs were so shaky that I had to place a chair in the landing of our stairway so that she could rest while making the climb to her room. I walked the steps behind her just in case she needed a little boost to keep going. I methodically doled out her medicine, and I cooked for her steaks and leafy greens to boost the iron the cancer was ruthlessly leaching from her.

However, it was all to no avail.  One night as we were talking, I told her that I needed to step out and would be right back to help her into bed for the evening.  When I came back for her, she didn't recognize me.  Her speech was slurred, and she was speaking in a language none of us understood. Once again, she was back into the hospital, and she never came home again.

At the funeral, my sister, barely on the way to recovery herself, hobbled in with the help of her family.  That very morning her husband was experiencing yet another setback as she left him at the hospital while we buried our mother.  Our disastrous summer that began with a shocking, fatal accident on Memorial Day weekend, ended with us laying to rest our beloved Mama on Labor Day weekend.  The summer had come and gone in one horrific whirlwind.

It's a story I have to tell.  It screams to be acknowledged with each passing anniversary, and it grips me tight until I let it out.  It's like the worst kind of stomach bug that makes you vomit over and over, projectile at times, until the sickness and pain are gone, and once again you can stand steady on your own two feet.  Thanks for being here to hold back my hair.


  1. "In order for me to move on, I need to acknowledge the story again." Right you are. Writing is cathartic and healing and helps you deal honestly with all the conflicting and horrible emotions you are feeling once again this time of year. And yes, we will be here to hold your hair back and listen and just be here. I'm sorry for your loss and hope through sharing and writing, it helps you heal and move forward.

  2. Lynda,
    You are in my prayers. I will not offer any platitudes because they do not help. Just know there are real friends and those like me who have you in our thoughts and prayers.

  3. Thank you, both. Each year is better than the one before. Honestly, for as much as I hate the events that unfolded that summer, I never want to forget.

  4. Lynda,
    I’m so sorry that you experienced these tragedies. Events like what you describe leave such a deep and long lasting bruise on our lives. I have lost both my youngest brother and youngest sister to auto accidents. I guess that I’ve never totally accepted it...I still feel that it never should have happened.

  5. Dave...I feel the same way, and I am so sorry for your loss. That would be tough to accept.


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