I was standing in the kitchen of a house in Boulder, Colorado, staring down at the letter on the counter, but no longer seeing it. The shock-waves in my mind seemed to come from the paper, and my eyes began to see planes of shadows and light, forms without meaning as the photons of sunlight coming through a nearby window rode the waves. They battered me and turned my brain to cellophane.
The letter that had arrived a few minutes earlier in the morning mail was from my mother, and it announced that by the time I got the letter, she would be dead. Dead. My mind careened with live-mother images from the past few weeks, months, years; then dead-mother flashes; I leaned on the counter to support my wobbly legs.
The house, where I lived with three roommates and four dogs, was eerily silent, and I could hear my heart in my ears, a counterpoint to my raspy and rapid breath.
It was a sterile suburban house down the hill from NCAR south of town, and none of us who shared it would have chosen it except for the fact that the owner almost miraculously allowed dogs, which was becoming all too rare in Boulder. The white, textured walls and olive-green carpet in my peripheral vision contributed to the rubbery-reality-stretching I was experiencing. So much ugliness.
My parents were in the process of separating, and I had just flown to California once again, this time to drive my mother and her brilliant black-and-white Springer Spaniel, Lincoln, back to Boulder for a visit. She wanted to formulate a plan for her life during her stay, maybe even move here; oh dear.
She’d been injured in a car accident years before, and her doctors had neglected to find some broken cervical vertebrae that were causing her lots of pain and immobility. As sometimes happened then in those cases, there were vague accusations against her of malingering, or hysteria, or who the hell knows what, but she was nevertheless well-supplied with pain meds. Between the drugs and increased alcohol use, she’d devolved over time into an unhappy and paranoid version of her former self. The eventual surgical repair two long years later helped her pain somewhat, but couldn’t fix the damage to her soul or her spirit. So I’d brought her to Boulder to try to help her heal, or at least give her some respite from her personal hell…or something. In an epic role reversal, I’d been shuttling back and forth from Colorado to California for several years…to take care of my parents during their myriad crises. Life interruptus.
Lady, for that’s what I called her, a bit of a barb at her pretensions of class elegance when she’d had a few too many cocktails…had the most romantic notions of log cabins and mountains, and nothing would do for her but to stay in a little cabin. I found a motel at the mouth of Boulder Canyon: each room was its own petite cabin, with a tiny bathroom and a tiny wall heater. She loved it. I can’t say whether or not she’d made much headway in her plans, but then she must have known she didn’t really need one.
After a week or so, shed said she wanted to take a trip into the mountains by herself. Check. She would call me after a few days and we’d plan from there. Check.
On this particular morning the day after she’d ‘left for the mountains,’ I got the letter in the mail. It said, in effect: ‘By the time you read this, I will be dead. I am in a motel near the Denver airport close to your cousin Jim’s house. I’ve left a note with his number on it, and being near the airport will make things easier for all that will come next.’
Christ; it was apparent from the letter’s date and the postmark that it had arrived earlier than she had counted on; she might still be alive.
Much of what ensued is blurry for me. I called the police, who said they would send a car and some officers to help. While I waited, my roommate Connie and her boyfriend Bob came home. After reading my mom’s letter, they asked for a description of her car, my cousin’s location, and headed to Denver. They would damned well find her! An absurd notion, but off they went, while I waited for the police, who never did show up, which is still perplexing. While I waited for them, I called suicide help lines to see if they’d heard from her. It sounds lame now, but it was hard to think what to do.
Jeezus; what a dupe I was; all this fiction of her bravery in the face of my father leaving her for the woman whose parents lived in the condo above my parents in San Jose. Phyllis. And God, I wanted to hate my father, but I just couldn’t; Lady’d grown more bitter and twisted over the years; maybe he would have a bit of happiness in his life. Some bloody mess it all was.
I paced and smoked and waited and snuggled with Lincoln; ack; that was why she’d left him with me… No police came, but finally the phone rang. It was my roommate Connie; against all odds, they had found her. They’d cruised motel parking lots in areas near the airport until they spotted her the white Olds 98 with a green-tinted rear windshield. She was still alive when the manager unlocked the door to her room; I won’t describe the scene they found.
An ambulance had come for her, and I managed to cadge a ride to Denver General Hospital with a friend who dropped me near the front door. Steady on.
I asked for her at the admissions desk when I got inside, and was directed to the basement (‘follow the green tape on the floor’ instructions included). Fuck. It was the Jail Unit of the hospital. It was still illegal in Colorado to attempt suicide. Illegal.to.attempt.suicide.my.gawd.
When I walked into the room, the jail room of the hospital, I found my mother handcuffed to a gurney, lying on her side, trying unsuccessfully to find a comfortable position that the short chain on the cold metal cuff would allow; I found her a pillow. I can cry even now remembering the stricken and sheepish look on her face, mixed with the apparent despair of finding herself still alive.
I remember none of the dialogue between us, save her pitifully small voice asking for a cigarette. Now, back then smoking was still allowed in hospitals, but there was, by God, no smoking for hospital suicidal jailbirds! She should suffer a bit more; having her stomach pumped of the barbiturates she’d swallowed wasn’t quite punishment enough, I guess. Her lips were parched, and I retrieved her pocketbook and put some lipstick on them for her. The contrast made her look even worse, but it was a small comfort to her.
Shock protects us in emergencies like this, and ensures that the molecules of our brains and bodies don’t explode into space; its protection dulls the pain into almost manageable levels of…non-feeling. It can help us to perform like automatons; but it makes everything seem like we are moving and speaking in slow-motion underwater, at least for me. All the car accidents I’ve been in were similar to this.
Bright lights, mercilessly bright lights showed every pained angle of my mother’s face, and her struggle, mirroring my own. She couldn’t meet my eyes but once or twice. What next? What am I supposed to do? I’d have to call my pop for help; I was twenty, hadn’t any money nor a car, nor any of the skills this called for; I was in a strange city, in a fucking jail cell. Oh, Lady; how did we get here? I can vaguely recall sitting with her, and mouthing meaningless words, and holding her free hand, but like still shots produced by a camera, with no flow or continuity; just the click-click, whirr of the shots.
Gradually I tuned in to a voice softly calling, “Help me; please help me.” I followed the sound of the voice, a woman’s, back to a corner in the jail, where I saw a hand gripped around the bars of a door. A cell door. “Please come here,” she begged. I went over to her cell. She was dark-haired and a petite forty-something, well-dressed, standing in a tiny barred cell with a bench along the wall behind her. “Call someone for me; I shouldn’t be here. You have to help me.” And she must have told me more about her incarceration and its wrongness, but I didn’t register any of it; it was beyond me.
Christ in a canoe, it was like I’d fallen through the Looking Glass. A cloud of lethargy and confusion engulfed me; there was no way I could make an informed decision about whether I should help her, much less if I could help her. I think I must have whimpered, “I’m sorry…my mother…I don’t know…” and backed away. Her voice, louder, followed me. I retreated, trying to gather myself. I should call my pop; he’d have to help.
I was so hungry; it had been at least a day since I’d eaten. I went out to the nurse’s desk, and asked if there were a place to get something to drink. “Ah,” said a nurse. “We have some milk in the refrigerator; I’ll get you a carton.” She did. I was so grateful, it sounded heavenly to get something in my stomach, to sop up the acids of fear and shock. I opened the little red and white box greedily, and sucked down a big glug of it. And immediately realized it was rotten, so out of date it had curdled and smelled like it was black around the edges… I threw it up into the nearby drinking fountain. Jeezus.
It may have been the day that I subconsciously decided that it would be good for me to become a fan of irony; I swear. I think I cried then.
Did the nurses let me call my pop? I can’t remember; but when I reached him, he said it would take some time to get to Denver, but he’d try to send someone from the Denver branch of his company to help until he could arrive. Mr. Already-had-two-heart-attacks would come and help sort things out. Oy. His surrogate arrived in the jail room a couple hours later, and was very helpful. He advised getting my mom the hell out of the nasty Denver General, and checked in across the street at another, better, hospital. Under his direction, we did it: my Homely Angel of Mercy in glasses, in front of whom I was stupidly embarrassed for my mother’s condition, and afraid that he might gossip about it to others in the company. I’m sure I never thanked him adequately, and am equally certain he hadn’t minded.
Somehow during the night we got my mother checked into the tall, blue edifice of Saint Joseph’s, where it was said they had a nice mental ward. They could take care of her; Goddam, was I relieved to give over that duty for a while. My father had arrived some time later, but when I try to conjure him up now, all I see is his pained, remote eyes and the deep, dark circles under them toward the top of his 6 foot 4 inch frame . Oh, daddy; my heart aches for all of us, even now.
There would be more hell to come, but for now, this was a blessing. And at least Lady would be able to smoke her Viceroys.
Parts II and III to come on other Sundays.
(cross-posted at caucus99percent.com)