Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Tender Moments

We had literally just stepped into the parking lot from the lovely wedding of my cousin’s daughter we were attending in San Diego, a night of good food, dancing and great cheer, when all hell broke loose.

It was 9:25pm, and I unlocked the doors of my Jeep with my remote and Brenda and I sat down and turned on our phones.  Just then, a call came in from her oldest brother’s girlfriend.  “Letha is being rushed to the hospital.  They think she had a massive heart attack.”  I could tell by the way that Brenda hesitated for a second, and then said, “No,” softly because the breath had been punched right out of her that something was very wrong.  Letha is Brenda's mother.  She is the closest person on this earth to Brenda.  Brenda takes care of her daily through phone calls and monthly in person. Then, after another hesitation of hearing a bit more from the girlfriend on the phone, Brenda repeated to me what she had just been told.  My heart sank.  We just went from one of the most joyous occasions that a person can experience to complete horror. 

At this moment, they were taking her mother out of her home and onto an ambulance with her older brother inside as well.  Letha lives in a rural area about a half hour north of Bakersfield, and getting her to the hospital as soon as possible was vital. The girlfriend would follow them to the hospital.  Brenda finished up the quick conversation with her brother’s girlfriend, which included some additional information about how the girlfriend had found Letha, incoherent and lips blue, half way off of her bed, and had called 911 and administered CPR per the emergency operator.  At that point in reviewing the account Brenda, the girlfriend had to hang up with Brenda since they were involved in the complete chaos of getting the mother on the move. 

Brenda looked at me and said, “This can’t be happening.  I can’t lose her like this.  I have to see her again!  I have to get up there!”

We had just checked into our hotel in San Diego prior to the wedding.  I told Brenda, “Of course.  We’re going to the hotel, pulling our stuff out, and driving straight up to Bakersfield now.”  Brenda was doubled over in pain.  I felt helpless.  We were so far away, and naturally, she wanted to be by her mother’s side as soon as Letha arrived in the hospital.  Several things flashed through my mind as I expedited my Jeep the couple of miles from the Japanese Gardens, where the wedding had been, to our hotel.  Could I fly us up there?  No, it would involve a switch of flights, and that would take at least three hours.  So we’d continue the plan to drive up.  Would Letha make it?  I had just heard on NPR the week prior that a person who is found to be experiencing full cardiac arrest has a twenty five percent chance of surviving.  I wish I hadn’t remembered this right then.  And I certainly wasn’t going to mention it to Brenda.  But the twenty-four mile drive to Bakersfield that the ambulance had to make would be longer than the amount of crucial time needed to get her to a hospital, I calculated.  I assumed that about twelve minutes was the life or death window.  This was terrible. All that I could do was drive northward as fast and yet as safely as possible.

We arrived at the hotel, during which I said, “Just stay here…I’ll get everything.”  I ran to the room with my key card, and started packing everything quickly and hauling it out to the SUV.  It would take two trips, I discovered quickly.  So I was back in the room again, pulling the last few things, when I heard Brenda crying in the bathroom.  I hadn’t even noticed that she had gone into the room past me somehow.  She gathered a few things from the bathroom, whose shower was still wet from the frolicking time we had each had earlier, lathering, shampooing and getting ready for the wedding, while I went to the office and told them I had to check out quickly. The front desk clerk, a young man, was nice and got me out fast.

Brenda and I got back into the Jeep and hit parkway 163 north to highway 805, and then joined Interstate 5 around La Jolla.  My navigation told me that we would arrive in Bakersfield at 1:25am.  It’s around two hundred and thirty miles; not a quick jaunt on a Friday evening.  On the 805, Brenda started getting calls from her brothers and sisters, and from the older brother’s girlfriend.  Sometime in there, Letha had made it to the hospital.  This was in some small measure a relief.  She had not died on the way to the hospital.  That’s got to be worth something. 

Brenda was just beside herself, crying and asking God to spare her mother.  She had to be with her again and couldn’t lose her this way without any warning.  The next calls started coming in as we were reaching about Oceanside, CA.  Her sister called and reported that the hospital had pretty much ruled out a heart attack or a stroke.  But they had found that she had carbon dioxide and ammonia build up in her body, and that she was dehydrated.  The hospital had induced a coma, I learned later, to cool down her body. 

A little back story here is that three weeks prior, Brenda’s grandmother (Letha’s mother) had gotten ill again.  She had been stricken with pneumonia about four months ago, went to the hospital, then had come back to her own home and had done well again.  However, the grandmother had come down with something again.  Brenda’s uncles urged Letha to take care of the grandmother for a few days, hoping that she would improve and could go back home.  Brenda was against this because she knew that Letha had C.O.P.D., and used supplemental oxygen just to keep herself going.  Brenda had a sense that if Letha took care of the grandmother, she would get worn out. She said, "It'll be too much for you, ma!"  And Letha shot back, "I'm taking care of my own mother, and that's the way it is!" Make no mistake; I know from where Brenda's stubbornness is born.

About the fourth or fifth day, Brenda and I, who were at our home in Burbank, started sensing that her mother, Letha, was very tired; more so than normal.  Brenda and I talked about it, and then I told her, “Go up to help your mom today, and then just stay there for a few days.”  And that she did.  She stayed with her mother for about five days, helping her grandmother, and relieving Letha of some of the stress she had mistakenly signed on for. 

We had a couple of challenges coming up, however.  I had some family I hadn’t seen for years coming in from Denmark visiting on Wednesday, which Brenda wanted to be a part of.  And we also had a family wedding that Friday night in San Diego.  The powers that be finally decided that the grandmother really needed to go back to the hospital rather than stay at Letha’s home. This was on Saturday.  Brenda stayed with her mother for two more nights, trying to make sure that Letha was getting the rest she needed.  In all of this, Letha had also loaned out her supplemental oxygen to the grandmother while she stayed in the house.  This, rather than the two uncles bringing the grandmother’s own oxygen machine with her.  A mistake to be sure. 

Tuesday morning rolled around, and Brenda had to get back to Burbank.  She sensed that her mother was still groggy and tired, but this was not completely unusual for Letha, but was somewhat atypical in lasting throughout the daytime.  She tended to get very tired at night.

On Wednesday, we went with my Danish family to Santa Monica, Bel Air, Beverly Hills, and finally to the Americana in Glendale, CA.  During the day, Brenda kept checking in with her mother, realizing that her mother still sounded extraordinarily groggy.  Brenda’s sister had been by during the day to pay her mom’s rent and to try to take her to her general practitioner’s appointment, but she refused to see her doctor that day.  With further phone checks throughout that Wednesday, Brenda got worried at about dinnertime while we were at the Americana.  She called he sister and asked her to go by Letha’s house, which would involve a thirty-minute drive for them.  After some pressuring from Brenda, she did and brought her sister-in-law along.  When they arrived, they called Brenda and said that Letha was doing about the same.  Letha just didn’t sound well to Brenda.  She told her sister that she either had to take Letha to the hospital, or she had to stay with her all night.  With some further pushing from Brenda, they took her to a hospital in Bakersfield.  The hospital did a chest x-ray and found nothing alarming.  They felt that she needed to go home and rest.  She was brought home by the sister and sister in law and slept for the night. I want to point out here for reasons of fairness, that Brenda's sister had driven one hundred-fifty miles in just that one day with the three trips back and forth to Letha's house.

Then, on Thursday, Letha was still sounding about the same. She’d talk to Brenda on the phone, but she had no energy and seemed to just want to sleep.  Brenda got worried that Letha had been either undertaking or overtaking some medications she was on, and so she arranged for her uncle to come get her medications and bring them to a relative who lived a few doors down from Letha, who promised to count and then dispense the meds to Letha in the evenings until Brenda got back, which would be either Saturday or Sunday, after the wedding and stay in San Diego.  All of this was done, and the neighbor reported to us, about the time that we were arriving back home from our outing with our Danish family, that Letha was still groggy and without energy, but was just sleeping a lot.

This brings us to Friday, the day of the wedding and the day that this story started.  Brenda and I had to be at the wedding at 5:30pm, so we drove from about 2:00pm from Burbank to San Diego.  On a weekday, I like to take another route rather than Interstate 5, which has a lot of congestion in Orange County.  I take the 210 to the 57, to the 71, to the 60 to the 15.  It sounds like a lot of freeways, but all except for the first and last freeway are within a few miles of one another.  It makes for an easier drive because we can sneak through Temecula and down into San Diego from the northeast instead of from along the Pacific Ocean. 

We were about in San Dimas when Brenda did another phone check on her mom.  She didn’t sound good.  Her breathing was labored, which I heard when Brenda held the phone to my ear as I was driving, and she didn’t want to talk much.  Yet, towards the end of this phone check, Brenda found her mother talking okay again.  She was kind of dipping up and down a bit in energy level.  So Brenda called her mother’s neighbor, and also her older brother and told them that someone had to dispense Letha’s meds to her that evening, and that someone should go by and check on her now and intermittently.  They first sent the older brother’s girlfriend’s father over, who opened some water bottles for Letha.  She said that she seemed sluggish and just wanting to stay in bed.  Then, in the evening, the brother’s girlfriend went over to give Letha her pills.  This was at about 9:00pm.  As she was leaving, she sensed that Letha didn’t look right at all. She went a few doors down to get Brenda’s older brother, and that’s when they came back in about ten minutes and found Letha having trouble breathing and her lips turning blue.  It’s no doubt that Brenda’s persistence in having people continually check on her mother saved her life, as did the older brother’s girlfriend following through on it and being there to recognize that something had gone completely wrong with Letha. 

So this brings us back to our drive up Interstate 5 around Oceanside.  Some more driving through the night revealed that we were now adjacent to Laguna Niguel.  The rest of the family, that is, all available brothers and sister (singular), sister in law, aunt, uncle, cousin, were all at the hospital already, a mere one hundred and sixty-five miles ahead of us. It’s still a long drive just to get up to Disneyland from there, and we had to get through Los Angeles, over the Grapevine Pass, and up to Bakersfield.  The calls to Brenda were all status quo from this point on.  Her mother was resting in a coma, and everyone was in the lobby awaiting our arrival. 

Something that I realized just at this moment, as we were passing through Laguna Niguel, which is where Interstate 5 pulls inland from the coast, is that during the entire drive from when the 805 joined Interstate 5 to the point we were now at, I had never once been aware that we were driving next to the ocean.  I am a native Californian who is very aware of his surroundings.  Unlike a lot of friends of mine, I have always had a sort of internal map of where I am, and I know the California coast like nobody’s business.  I have surfed and boogie boarded all of my life up and down the coast, and driving up and down Interstate 5 all of my adult life and then some.  But on this night, and for the past sixty miles, I had never been aware that the ocean had been to my left; something that would be so completely unnatural in me.  My and Brenda’s tunnel vision was so extreme, that all I had seen were the white lines on either side of my car in my effort to get Brenda close to her mother. 

I don’t recall even going through Los Angeles at all either.  I know exactly how I did…how I would have, but I have no recollection with the vague exception of passing through the East L.A. Interchange.  I recall only during our time going north, praying to God that Brenda could see her mother alive, and also of how terribly badly I felt for Brenda having to go through almost four hours of driving at the most important time of her life to be by her mom.  It was excruciating for her and for me.  I also felt very guilty for having taken her away from her mother for my family's events at a time she Brenda had sense that something was awry.  And yet, I had told Brenda before she came down to Bubank, “If your mother is so tired or worn out and you have to stay with her, then there is no need for you to come back to Burbank for the visitors and for the wedding. They will understand."  But Brenda had mostly felt that her mother just needed some good rest as well.  And yet, we had heard her labored breathing earlier that day.  All of this kept going through my head, back and forth and we drove the long drive, up and down what I would later realize were the Interstate 5 hills through San Clemente and up the straight Interstate 5 gauntlet through central Orange County, during which I had no orientation.  Would Brenda never see her mother again?  How could she or I ever cope with that knowing now, inversely, that she could have just stayed up there and been with Letha, and perhaps prevented this all from happening? 

The last travel milestone that I recall was that we stopped in Castaic, just before driving up Violin Canyon and into the Grapevine Pass.  I had to stop at a Castaic truck stop because I had needed to pee since we were leaving the wedding venue parking lot in San Diego, and I could hold it no longer.  I told Brenda, “I’m getting out to go to the bathroom and to get a bottle of Coke to stay awake.”  She said, "Okay." Pretty much nothing I said fazed her at this point. 

The next thing that I was aware of, we were sixty more miles north and pulling into the hospital in Bakersfield, right next to the old Crystal Palace, where Buck Owens and Dwight Yoakam performed all of their famous concerts.  It was 1:30am; the extra five minutes from the initial navigation calculation had been used at the Pilot Truck Stop in Castaic, CA.  We got out of the Jeep, and I recall kind of stumbling and getting my tie from the wedding off from around my neck and opening up my cream-colored dress shirt a little for comfort as we walked towards the automatic doors of the hospital. 

Everyone was inside the lobby as we had inferred from our phone calls.  Brenda’s older brother, his girlfriend, Brenda’s younger brother, his wife, Brenda’s sister, Brenda’s cousin, and her aunt and uncle.  The word was that Letha was in her induced coma and resting.  Only two people at a time were allowed inside, and the aunt and uncle were presently in there.  Rather quickly, they came out and Brenda and I were allowed to go in as the next pair of visitors.

We walked from the lobby around a corner, through some control doors, and into the emergency unit, where Letha was in her bed, looking pale and lifeless, and hooked up to a respirator.  Her hair was all askew and looked to me as if I could tell that she had been worked on; sort of akin to how a woman’s hair might look after giving birth.  This wasn't how Letha should look.  She should be smiling at us as we walked into her house, television on, and gripping a glass of tea as we say hi and ruffle the fur of her cute Shih Tzu dog, Molly. 

We walked up to the side of her metal hospital bed. Brenda tried to contain her tears.  She stroked her mother’s wrist, her hand, and stroked her hair while she told her mother that she was there for her.  Brenda was so gentle and so caring for her mother, that it broke my heart to have to see Brenda and her mother in this position.  Brenda’s voice was tender as could be, and she leaned in and looked into her mother’s face and she spoke to her about how much she loved her, her voice cracking with sadness all the while.  It’s a situation that one never imagines one finding oneself in, and here was Brenda caressing her unconscious mom’s hands.  I’ve always known that Brenda has a great capacity to care for people; more than most people I’ve met in my life.  It's why I chose her.  And yet, here she was with that gift completely unveiled in front of me for her mother.  I felt very lucky to witness her complete love and utter devotion to her mom.  I loved Brenda greatly in that moment and I was so proud of her that she could be so completely there for her mother in that way.

I remember how my mother was with her mother, my grandmother, when she was dying of cancer in New York.  I wasn't there, but I know by nature how caring my mother was and how she stayed by her side until my grandmother died.  I also thought about how I wasn't completely able to be there emotionally for my mother when she was dying this past February.  I would visit her, touch her, and tell her I loved her.  But I had a guard up in some way to protect myself.  Brenda was purely open and vulnerable with her mother, and I loved, respected, and envied her greatly for that natural ability in her.  I then took a turn and spoke to Letha with Brenda next to me that night and I told her that I was there for her and that I loved her very much, and that we would be there to see her every day. 

Before we left her bedside, Brenda took a ring off of her mother’s left hand that her mother was wearing, and she put it onto her own finger.  She did it in a way as not to wake her, I think, even though she was in a coma; part of Brenda's sensitivity.  We left the room and then sat in the lobby with the rest of the family talking for quite a while, until about 3:30am, and then we all left to get some rest.  Brenda and I stayed at her younger brother’s house, which is near the hospital.  The next day, we visited Letha, now in an upstairs ICU room, and then I went back to San Diego to retrieve a couple of items of value that Brenda had left in the hotel room on our way out.

During the next few days, I saw Letha, still unconscious, and those evenings I asked God and also I prayed to my parents, Marcia and Bill, to help Letha find her way back.  I wanted that for Brenda. 

Without ever having been given a solid diagnosis of what occurred that Friday evening, it looks as if it’s about what we all had deduced; that Letha, over the days of caring for her own mother, had gotten very worn out, not taken her supplemental oxygen nearly enough, had gotten dehydrated, and had passed out.  She already had a constricted throat from her years of smoking, and it all led to the perfect storm of carbon dioxide build up in her blood.  She is lucky to have been checked on and to have survived.

There is more, of course, some family fighting and blaming.  Some behavior that has been inappropriate.  These things often happen because highly emotional situations kick up a lot of family stuff, and it's not much fun.   

The grandmother, as of this date, is not doing well. She continues to have pneumonia and I just don’t know how much longer she will be with us.  She is ninety years old, and is a woman of the dust bowl days in Oklahoma, then transplanted into the San Joaquin Valley farming labor camps, a la John Steinbeck.  These are some hardy women in this family.  But sooner or later, everyone’s time comes.

Brenda’s mom remained unconscious for five days, then started to react with movements when Brenda and her siblings spoke to her.  She gained consciousness within another day or two and is now off of the respirator.  Brenda has slept overnight at the hospital and the rehab facility several times. Letha is awake, walking with therapy, starting to swallow food, and is mostly coherent, thought still a little depressed, I sense, from the entire trauma she went through.  But God heard our prayers, and Brenda is now able to talk and be with her mother again.  And, that makes me very happy.  Brenda was right; Letha just couldn’t go that way.