Over time, several readers have asked how ‘things’ started. A bit longer than a usual post, this is the book’s first chapter…
Stories like this seldom have an easy place to start. Instead they tumble upon themselves and become difficult to sort. When the phone rang, I was at work. It was a Friday. All I wanted was the day to end and the weekend to begin.
“Elizabeth Thomas speaking.”
No greeting. “Your mother’s eye exam wasn’t good. Another brain aneurysm. We’re at the hospital.” It was my father.
Mom had had headaches and double vision for a few days. Thinking it was vision-related, she went to her eye doctor and was sent directly to the hospital for immediate surgery on a cerebral aneurysm pushing against her left optic nerve. It was March, 1996. She was sixty-nine years old.
On the other end of the phone, my father’s breathing sounded like steam escaping from a boiling teapot. “Dad, you okay?” Stupid question. “What hospital?”
I did not have a chance to see my mother or hug her or tell her how much I loved her before she was taken into surgery. Except for my youngest brother who couldn’t get a flight quickly enough from Texas, my three older brothers and I waited with our father.
When the neurosurgeon finally approached, I was less than assured. He looked like he should still be in high school, obviously too young to be tinkering with my mother’s brain. He told us it went as well as expected for a woman her age. She was not yet awake and we could only continue to wait.
In ICU, it was possible to be with her only a few minutes each hour. We felt helpless, especially my father. An overwhelmingly proud man, he was unable to enter her room by himself. Someone would walk in with him and he’d slump in the chair by her bed and repeatedly call out her name.
She slept on, a tiny woman in a huge hospital bed. Her head was completely wrapped in bandages and her mouth might have been a slash made by a paper cut. She was as colorless as the sheets draped over her narrow body.
By the morning of the second day she had not yet awakened from surgery and her doctor was concerned. My father was beyond that. Never good in situations which required patience or prayer, he took to ranting. Unable to cry, he needed release.
Except for an occasional cold or flu my father was seldom ill. “It’s a good thing I’m a Thomas,” he always said. “If someone else was as sick as me, they’d be dead!” I wish we’d taken more seriously his assertion that he’d recently experienced a TIA. He’d felt “punky” and went to the Veteran’s Hospital for a checkup. They started him on an aspirin a day. An aspirin? Big deal!
Back then however, we had no experience with strokes, no family history, nothing. The couple of times he mentioned TIA’s, we didn’t pay attention. “They’d probably go away if you’d quit smoking.”
Mom, on the other hand, had various ailments, most probably stemming from an adult life spent worrying about other people. You could tell her excellent news – “I just won an all expense-paid vacation to Bermuda!”– and her response would be, “Oh dear”, drawing out the single syllable of the second word as if two. She was a light smoker with a history of ulcers, colitis and Crohn’s disease.
After lunch on the second day, my father and I walked into her room. The bandages had been removed. No one prepared us and we both stopped short. Never a large woman, she appeared wizened, as if disappearing. The left side of her head was shaved, while feathery tufts of salt and pepper stuck out on top. Along with what appeared to be haphazard stitches, she looked like a scientific experiment gone bad.
I helped my dad over to a chair and he remained, head down, while family came and went. Finally a nurse gently suggested we go home. The last thing he said to his wife was, “I’ll see you in the morning.”
We left the hospital together, both despondent and exhausted. He walked me to my car and we hugged goodnight. I should have held on, should have gone home with him or had him come home with me. It probably wouldn’t have changed anything, but we all have moments in all our lives we wish we could redo.
When people are asked where they were when President Kennedy was shot or the Twin Towers hit, they remember exactly. The next morning when I received a call to say my father had had a stroke and was being rushed to the hospital, I have no idea who I spoke to or where I was. He was seventy-seven.
I remember feeling angry, shaking with the audacity of God to take both parents this way. Having grown up Catholic, it should have been easy for me to fall into prayer. Those first few days though, rather than beseeching God, I ranted.
When we were finally allowed to see him, he looked like he was napping. The rise and fall of his large belly was reassuring, though several tubes trailed from under his sheets like tributaries feeding something larger. Tube-less, he would have looked quite natural.
Today, when someone has a stroke, immediate action may make a significant difference. If given within three hours of the start of symptoms, a clot-busting drug called tissue plasminogen activator (tPA) can reduce long-term disability for the most common type of stroke. Back then though, stroke victims were basically kept comfortable and closely monitored, while damage to the brain continued. The doctors would not know the extent for days.
Since both our parent’s problems were neurological in nature, they were on the same floor of the same hospital – first in ICU and then three rooms apart. As a family, we practically lived at the hospital, wearing a path between rooms. Nurses and doctors knew each of us by first name and the nurses, particularly were patient and kind.
The day after Dad’s stroke, Mom opened her eyes for the first time since her surgery. We decided not to tell her about Dad. Due to her neurological condition, she was only vaguely aware anyway. When asked, we would tell her he had the flu. She didn’t ask though and for weeks, wasn’t even sure who we were.
While our father ‘slept’, a specialist from neurology spoke to my oldest brother and me. “Mr. Thomas had a massive stroke on the left side of his brain and if he wakes up, he will live in an unresponsive state.” These were not his exact words. He actually used the word “vegetable”. “He’ll never speak or walk again.”
Quite blunt, this guy. He could have started with, “I am sorry about both your parents.” No, not ‘Dr. Bedside Manner of a Razor Blade’.
“But Doctor, he just gave pressure with his thumb in response to a question.”
“Impossible, not with a stroke like this. Merely reflex.”
My brother Carl is a big guy, muscular and fit. I give him a lot of credit for not decking the doctor. I certainly wanted to. Carl put a hand on my shoulder and said, “Well Doc, think what you want. You don’t know our father.”