The cold hits hard and fast. That’s the way it is in the high desert; no smooth transitions like in stories. It’s sunshine one day, snow the next. Sometimes being a mother is like that, moving me forward when I’m not prepared. I could complain, but then I’d miss that small gift hidden in the storm.
It is six below. As I step out onto the porch, the icy wind stings my face. My stiff fingers grip the juniper logs and I quickly rush back into the house to get the evening fire started. I place crumpled newspaper and small, splintered wood into the living room stove, and wait in anticipation for the warmth the fire will bring. One down. I move to the kitchen to the large cook stove to repeat the process, but the ring of the phone stops me.
I already know who is calling. It is my oldest son’s nightly ritual.
We have had the same conversation for two years now.
“Hello,” I’ll say.
“I can’t do this,” he’ll say.
“Live here, in this world,” he’ll add.
“Why? What’s going on?”
“There’s no point. I don’t see the point.”
I’ll give my best Pollyanna speech, weaving my words through each obstacle my son puts up, determined to find some hopeful perspective to provide him with the strength to get through one more day.
When I was twenty-two years old and eight months pregnant, the coming of my first child was an anticipated miracle wrapped in delicious fantasy. Innocence, and all those tiny bits and pieces of television shows like Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best, coalesced into my mind to paint a picture of family and motherhood. Any fears or problems could be calmed in thirty minutes. My child would live a life filled with wonder and miracles. I embraced each moment of my pregnancy as a gift and I welcomed the future.
It was time. The tiny front room of the old wooden house smelled clean and sterile in preparation for my baby’s arrival. Cool cloths were placed gently on my face and the soft voices of my husband, midwife, and closest friend surrounded me. Although I was in excruciating back pain, I was aware of consecutive contractions. I also noticed the sunlight streaming in through the east window as the faint hint of salt air drifted in. Our house sat near the Santa Cruz coast and the sound of the ocean calmed me. The last 13 hours of labor were about to end. The patterns of light reflected on the walls overpowered the night’s darkness. I pushed with primal strength and my baby was born. My world was reduced to the sound of soft sucking at my breast. I gazed into deep blue eyes and touched tiny curled fingers. In that instant, there it was: a mother’s love. I knew at that moment I would give all of myself for the life of my child; I just didn’t know what that meant.
I began to understand the meaning motherhood when my son was eight years old. I remember the cold, barren walls of the U.C. Davis Medical Center. The hospital environment provided no solace, no warmth, and no shred of aesthetic comfort. I sat near my son, as the sterile smell of alcohol, disinfectant and plastic sheets stung my nostrils. My feet were clad with hospital socks that would not keep out the cold of the polished linoleum floor. I could not find comfort in the hard plastic chair; its cracked seat pinched me whenever I moved. I sat and listened to the night sounds: the nurses who padded down the hallways, the soft cries of a child in the next room, and the agitated movements of my son as he tried to slip into sleep. Tubes and needles kept him from finding the comfort he sought, but eventually we both drifted off into restless dreams. Later, we were startled awake by a nurse who came to draw blood. I never got used to the constant disruption throughout the night. My son struggled to find calm in such a fearful place. As the nurse drew blood, I gently held his hand and spoke soothing words, trying to comfort myself as well as him. The nurse left and I sat beside him. My hand caressed his forehead, as the lights dimmed and the night sounds lulled him back to sleep. When the blood work was returned and the biopsy completed, I learned that my son had idiopathic cirrhosis of the liver. There was no cure and we now waited for a transplant. I was told to watch for signs of internal bleeding and to come back routinely for checkups. Though my heart felt like a sack of lead and it threatened to pin me down into my chair, I got up. I was determined to help my son through this difficult journey.
Four years later he vomited blood, and we made the first visit to the ICU. They took him away by ambulance. As I drove to the hospital, hot tears stung my face. The doctors had discussed this for the past four years. But why now? My son was 12 years old and here we were again.
The smells. I always remembered the smells: plastic, alcohol, hospital food, disinfectant. I sat by my son. I couldn’t leave his side. He was not conscious, but I did not want to leave, even to use the restroom, as I thought I must be at his side when he woke up. The ICU was like living in a small, glassed cage. At least it was quiet there, except for the comings and goings of doctors and nurses. Each tick of the clock synchronized with my heart pounding in my ears. I looked down and saw my son’s pale, thin arms, and the dark bruises that formed circles where the nurses drew blood. His name moved higher on the transplant list and so we waited.
It stormed the night they called. It was one of the worst storms in the history of the mountainous town where we lived. Power lines were downed; heavy, wet snow was falling. Branches crashed like thunder. We had one room with a heat source, so my family and I crowded there for warmth. We were fortunate to have power and made the best of the evening. We drank steaming hot cocoa and watched Cheers. The phone rang.
“Who could be calling tonight?” I asked.
“We have a liver. You need to get to San Francisco as soon as possible.”
I put into practice the scenario I had rehearsed in my mind many times: call my mother to come stay with my daughter and middle son; take them to the neighbors until family arrived; call my in-laws, so they could help with the kids, too. As the storm raged, we packed quickly and drove the three hours into the city. Thus began a year of living in and out of the hospital. All time warped into one: lack of sleep, ticking clock, waiting, waiting, waiting. Morning medications and blood draws. Bland food and the sound of television. Children cried. Each day was a repetition of the day before. We waited for a miracle, and finally things changed. The liver transplant was successful, but follow-up was critical.
We began the journey towards healing. I became one of the “liver moms.” We were the privileged few who could enter the nurse’s station to get the medications for our children. We took blood pressures, temperatures, and delivered meds. We had to. This would be our routine over the next several years outside of the hospital. I learned what medications should be taken when and how to keep track of blood pressure and temperature. Everything would be charted.
I stayed in an apartment in San Francisco, and after two months, my son moved out of the hospital and in with me. We walked to the hospital for daily check-ups. We walked together to get our morning coffee in the warm summer sun. This rejuvenated my soul after so much time in the hospital. Finally, the check-ups diminished to twice weekly, and after a couple of set-backs, we were allowed to travel home. Relief overwhelmed me. I was thrilled to be reunited with my other children. I always loved being home and I found myself crying with gratitude that we were there. Together. Small things, like cooking a meal, being surrounded by my own things and sleeping in my own bed were luxuries. We did it. In time, life gradually returned to normal. Normal? It was a matter of perspective.
Although my son’s physical health began to improve over the years, his mental health declined. After he turned eighteen, he was out on his own, but each year brought him further into depression, and finally, his first 5150. I was flooded with paper work and preparing for the end of another school year. I was exhausted, but couldn’t sleep. My son was in his late 20’s and he lived in his own apartment in Northern California. The conversation I had with my son earlier in the evening would not leave my mind. I tried to calm his fears as he cried-desperation thick in his voice. He had not been able to sleep or eat and he weighed only 105 lbs. I called his brother and asked him to check in on him. “He should be with him now,” I assured myself. Then, at 3:00 a.m. and the phone rang. It was the hospital.
“Your son is in the ER. He was brought in due to suicidal ideation. We found him on the railroad tracks. He wanted us to be sure to call you to let you know that he is O.K. He’s pretty sad and depressed; we’ll be moving him to in-patient mental health soon.”
I hung up the phone. Suicidal ideation. The cutting. The crying. All the classic symptoms. Of course, when I tried to get help, I was told, “He’s an adult. You can’t force him to get help. If he wants help, he can come in.” I imagined for years this could happen, but hoped for the miracle. My Pollyanna speech. My strong words of encouragement. My determination. They never really worked. I just kept hoping.
Two more years and two more 5150’s. Right now, my son is in jail. After his last major depressive episode, he was back in college and went out to check on a severely depressed friend; he was worried because she appeared suicidal. An older man answered the door, but told my son he could not come in. My noble (albeit too emotional) son tried to walk by the man in order to save the girl. The man hit my son. Physical touch was associated with a long history of pain; my son hit back. The man and my son both called the police. A report was written and my son was told to go home. He did not know that he was supposed to appear in court.
Three months later, my son called the police after he witnessed his brother’s ex-girlfriend breaking his things. The police came, but things were calm and she was on her way out. The policeman, however, later returned and told my son he had a warrant out for his arrest. The policeman grabbed him from behind, but my son fought back. Touch-pain-fight-flight. At about 105 pounds, one would not think he would be a threat to a very massive policeman, but it took another person to pull him off the officer. My son was taken away.
I wait for the phone to ring again.
“You have a collect call from an inmate from the county jail. Press one to accept the charges.”
I press one. My son is not too depressed. He is taking his medication. He likes the structure and routine in jail. He’s upbeat and he talks about the future. He sounds almost hopeful. He could be out in a few weeks, he could go on probation, or he might do four years in state prison. If he can keep his current attitude, it will be a miracle. Even if he doesn’t, I’m determined to count this one moment as miraculous grace, a small gift hidden in the storm.
About the Author:
Kandi Maxwell is a high school English teacher and a writing teacher consultant for the California Writing Project. She has instructed writing workshops forMemoir Journal’s (In)Visible Project. She has also published essays on Indian Education for Teachersvoice and California English.