I’m Still Here

I’ve started this column/post a thousand times over the past four months. In my head, at least. Getting it down on this piece of electronic paper has proven a bit more challenging. But in the spirit of all the catch phrases and self-help gurus who’ll tell you/me to just write anything, badly, rather than not write, I’m going to spout off a bunch of brackish, murky thoughts for no other reason than to (hopefully) prime the pump for the clearer, tastier water lying deeper in the well.

So for this first gargle, let’s catch up a bit, shall we? In case you missed it, back in the fall of 2012 I was taking steps toward a dream of mine. In early October, I was in Annapolis, Maryland, checking out the U.S. Sailboat Show, looking at a few boats for sale in that area and working with a friend who has a business in the marine industry. With my mother’s blessing, I had given notice that October was my last month in my apartment in Newburyport and was planning on  chasing life once again. The primary plan was to head south toward turquoise waters on a boat of my own sometime around early November. If my search for the right, pretty-much-ready boat didn’t pan out, I was going to head somewhere, anywhere, in hopes of rekindling that fire that I had in 2011 that got me writing again. Something about adventuring always seems to get my creative juices flowing. Regardless of the specifics, my life was going to change.

And change it did. On Saturday, Oct. 6, I emerged from a seminar at the sailboat show to find a message waiting for me on my phone. I dialed my voice mail and heard my father’s shaky voice tell me to call him back, that it was an emergency. I found a quiet corner of the hotel, away from the seminar rooms, and called my father. He told me that sometime in the early hours of the morning, my mother had fallen down a flight of stairs at the inn where they were staying in Maine. My father said that she’d sustained a concussion and a broken arm, and that she’d been helicoptered to the Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston. I told him I was on my way and would start driving back immediately, that I’d be there around midnight.

Something didn’t feel right though, so I called the hospital back as I was driving out of Annapolis. I was connected to the doctor who said he was glad I had called as he didn’t think my father was thinking too clearly in light of what had happened and then proceeded to tell me what the real story was. Mom had sustained heavy brain trauma and had been revived once already. She was on life support but the prognosis was not good.

I damn near drove off the freeway as the doctor ran through the situation step by step. I was hyperventilating and couldn’t breathe. I was crying uncontrollably and couldn’t see. I focused on taking deep breaths as the phone call concluded and was able to see signs for the Baltimore airport. A quick exit, I parked, grabbed a few things threw them in my bike-messenger-style computer bag and entered the terminal. I found an AirTran flight that went direct to Portland, Maine, in an hour and a half and booked a ticket. I then called my sister and brother out west and told them what the doctor had told me, and that they needed to get on planes ASAP.

I got to the hospital in Lewiston around 6pm. I proceeded to stay up all night by my mother’s hospital bed, but it had been clear to me from the moment I walked in that she was already gone. My siblings arrived around lunchtime the next day and we made the decision to stop life support. That’s one thing about our family: as disparate as our attitudes about pretty much everything are, we are unanimous in our belief that essence precedes existence. Mom passed away very shortly thereafter on the seventh of October.

There was a whirlwind of activity in the week following my mother’s passing, what with a wake and a funeral and getting the process started to deal with her estate. I chronicled some of what was going through my head at the time in the previous two posts in this blog. In those posts, I made it clear that I was not going to repeat the mistakes my family had made in 1985 when my brother died. I was going to get the help and support I needed to avoid drifting off into some abyss, and I was going to do so in an open and honest manner here on TerraStomper. Obviously, since this is my first writing since the eulogy I posted back in October, that didn’t happen.

What did happen was that I left Newburyport all right: I moved three miles east, back to the family home on Plum Island. I was there three weeks later, instead of in London as I had planned after Mom’s passing, because hurricane Sandy was bearing down on the East Coast and I didn’t want to leave my father alone to deal with the inevitable mess she left in her wake (and also because I was hoping to get some great surfing in).

With apologies to those in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, Sandy turned out to be a big dud here in Massachusetts. But that Monday evening, the 29th, I was waiting for my father to join me at the dinner table when I heard him cry out. I was sitting in the chair my mother always sat in at the table and turned to see him falling backwards in slow motion. I jumped up and caught him before he hit the floor and laid him down slowly. After he rested a bit, we tried to have him roll one way. Too painful. We tried the other way. Too painful. He tried to sit up. Way too painful. At that point, I pulled the chute and called 9-1-1.

Fortunately, with all the hype surrounding Sandy, there was an ambulance stationed on Plum Island in case of evacuation. The EMTs reached the house in no time and immediately determined that dad had broken his hip. Whoosh! They whisked him off to the hospital and I followed in the car. Again, thanks to Sandy, everyone was bundled up in their homes so the hospital was empty and dad was settled into a room in relatively short order.

The next morning, the orthopedic surgeon — who lives just down the street from us on Plum Island and who has worked on a ton of friends — arranged to perform surgery in the early afternoon. Dr. Steve worked his magic and dad’s hip was repaired with a couple of pins: one running the length of his femur and another pinning that whole arrangement in place in his hip. A couple of small incisions were all that showed anything had been done at all.

Except that dad suffered complications. His blood pressure was very low and the anticoagulants that he’d been taking for years as a result of his irregular heartbeat (for which he’d had a defib/pacemaker installed in his chest in August) prevented the wound from clotting and his leg filled with blood. Infection followed, as did an inability to swallow and keep food or liquids down — the result of dad’s intubation during surgery. For two weeks, my father lay on his back at Anna Jaques Hospital in Newburyport, and in that two weeks, what strength he had evaporated.

Dad then spent six weeks in a pair of rehabilitation facilities, improving in fits and starts on the long, slow road to recovery. (The completely and totally fucked-up health-care system in this country will be the subject of a separate, later post.) But through it all, his spirit was slowly waning. The soul-crushing nature of nursing homes was taking its toll. So on Christmas Eve, a good two weeks-plus early I would guess, I brought my father home to Plum Island. He made it home for the holidays, and though the house was pretty empty it definitely provided my father with a pick-me-up. He’s been home for five weeks now, slowly improving, since then and his spirit has made the long journey back.

And that’s where we are at this point. Obviously, there’s a lot more to it than just this quick recap. Suffice it to say: these have been the longest, most arduous four months of my life, without question. And therein, I hope, lies some of the growth I had hoped to capture along the way. That I couldn’t find the strength to do so as it all was happening is a testament to the exhaustion I’ve been wrestling with. With this gargle, as I called it, I’m taking the first step back, finally.

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