Essay: So the Pot Roast Will Get Cold

My mom passed out at the dinner table on Christmas Day.

The four of us – mom, her friend Maryann, Maryann’s daughter, Paula, and myself – had just passed a platter of pot roast and vegetables, a bowl of beets and a basket of rolls. The conversation paused as we each focused on something on our plate. I had taken no more than a few bites of salad when Paula cried from across the table: “Margaret. Margaret. MARGARET!”

My mom’s head had rolled back, her jaw slack. She wasn’t moving and the color seemed to have drained from her face. She appeared to be asleep, but the beginning of Christmas dinner isn’t exactly a typical time to nod off. My stomach dropped, all interest in food gone. My heart raced as panic set in. Is she…No. It can’t be. Not now! Not today! Not yet! Not like this!

She only had a few sips of the Angry Orchard hard cider she had bought for me, remembering that it’s one of the few (maybe the only) alcoholic beverages that my GI system can handle. She didn’t appear to be struggling for air. But is she breathing? I can’t tell. I’m standing beside her now, watching her chest for movement. “Mom. Mom. MOM.”

“Call 911,” Paula said. Oh. Of course. Right. I was in too much shock to think clearly. My mom’s phone was not in its usual place, on the wall by the entry to the kitchen. What is this contraption bolted to the wall where the phone used to be? Where’s the phone? “Use my phone,” Paula says, pointing to her cell phone on the buffet table.  Yes. Thank God it’s not an iPhone. I don’t know how to work those.

My mom’s arms started to shake uncontrollably, though her body stayed in the chair. Oh God. A seizure? What do I do? Aren’t I supposed to put a spoon in her mouth, to control the tongue? But is she breathing? One can’t go too long without breathing. Oh God. “Margaret!” Paula said emphatically. Maryann pressed a wet towel on my mom’s forehead.

I’m giving the 911 operator my mother’s address when she revives. She looked around the room, surveying the spacious kitchen/dining room that contains her cherry wood dining table big enough for six, a matching buffet table and an older wooden cabinet that belonged to her mother. Her new dishes with the butterflies were still piled with food, but the chairs were empty. My mom seemed oblivious to what just happened and bewildered as to why Maryann was standing over her, Paula was standing over Maryann and I was pacing around the kitchen giving her address to someone on the phone.

My shoulders relaxed from my ears just a little as I told the 911 operator, “We were just sitting down to dinner…” all the while watching my mom. She seemed alert. My mom picked up on the fact that I might be talking to a medical professional. “Don’t do that. Get off the phone. I’m fine.” I turned on my heel and paced toward the living room. I didn’t think she was fine, but a doctor can make the final call. It’s not normal for someone to possibly have a seizure at Christmas dinner.

I answered a battery of questions while the operator assured me that an ambulance was on the way. “No, she hasn’t been sick lately…nothing  unusual…her back has been hurting but that’s about it…she takes a few medications I think, but I’m not sure what they are…she’s 75…no, no history of seizure…in generally good health, pretty active…”

The ambulance arrived. Two very burly men with buzz cuts and kind, concerned eyes approached the front door, along with a female police officer. They said “yes ma’am” and were very polite with my mom, but when she told them that’s she was feeling a little nauseous, but that she’ll be fine if she could just lay down for a while, they were firm. “Based on your symptoms and what just happened, we think you’re sick enough that you should get checked out by a doctor, so we think  you should come with us,” one of them said. My mom did not argue.

I was still shaky from shock. The roast beef and vegetables were still sitting in the middle of the table. Maryann and Paula looked to me as the big EMTs put my mom on a gurney. “What do you want us to do?” Maryann asked, still looking so scared and worried. She wore a Christmas sweater. I needed to find my mom’s keys. I don’t like leaving things in disarray, and I know my mom doesn’t either, but I have to go with her despite the untouched meal. I didn’t know what I wanted Maryann and Paula to do. I didn’t want to ask any more of them than to be with my mom and me at the hospital. “We’ll be there shortly,” Maryann said. I don’t think I ever answered her question.

The EMTs shut the ambulance door and I rushed out of the house with my mom’s purse (Whew. Found it!) and keys. I gave Paula my cell phone number but left it sitting, charged and ready, in my old bedroom.

Stonecrest Medical Center, the shiny new hospital in Smyrna, Tennessee, about three miles from my mom’s house, was quiet as can be on Christmas Day. The hospital’s clean and relatively calm emergency room was nothing like the chaos I saw at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Oakland, California, about three miles from my apartment, the morning a maroon Nissan Altima U-turned into me while I was riding my bike.

The nurse asked dozens of medical questions, directed mostly to my mom, partly to me. She asked if I had power of attorney. “No,” I said. We haven’t gotten to that point yet. My mom and I haven’t even really had that talk yet. She wants to cross that bridge when she comes to it, while I want to plan for the bridge before she comes to it.

Until Christmas Day 2013 I had never, in my 42 years, seen my mom in a hospital gown. I’ve never seen so many doctors poke and prod at my mother’s arm or talk to her like she’s “old.” She can’t hear very well anymore but her mind is sharp. She can understand medical jargon even if she is exhausted and on the verge of throwing up for the umpteenth time.

The CT Scan, blood tests and EKG all came back normal. My mom just wanted to go home and go to bed, but the doctor on duty wanted her to spend the night so that they could “keep an eye on her,” you know, “because of her age.” I agreed – better safe than sorry.

The sun that warmed me on that morning’s run in 20-degree weather had disappeared, leaving a black sky and biting cold. It was dinnertime—typical dinnertime, not the oddly timed 2 p.m. Christmas dinner time—by the time the nurses wheeled my mom into her room for the night, asked her more questions (most of them repeats from earlier) and inserted an IV of fluid. When the commotion had settled and a delivery of hot water and a Lipton tea bag, followed shortly by a turkey sandwich, an apple and some Jell-O, had arrived, I took a break to check on the state of affairs at my mom’s house, call my father, whom I was supposed to see the next day, and finally eat a little bit of that pot roast.

Our Christmas Angels, Maryann and Paula, had packed away the food and washed all of the dishes before joining me at the emergency room that afternoon. How wonderful. I dirtied up one for my makeshift dinner, put away most of the rest and cleaned up the beet explosion my mom accidentally made in the microwave. There. I helped. All day I felt so helpless. I was too stunned to think quickly on my feet. I didn’t know my mom was taking muscle relaxers for back pain. I don’t know CPR and have never performed the Heimlich maneuver. I forgot my phone. I snapped at her that morning and felt guilty all day.

As I was gathering my things to return to the hospital, the doctor called. A confluence of factors—rushing around preparing dinner, hard cider, eating too fast—came together to force the blood away from my mom’s brain and caused her to faint, he thought. I listened, I answered his questions and asked a few more. There. Responsible.

Back at Stonecrest, my mom and I watched back-to-back episodes of “Big Bang Theory” as if we were in her living room, her on the maroon love seat, feet propped up on the ottoman, and me on the sofa, reclining length-wise. I left around 9 p.m. and 12 hours later, halfway into another sunny run in the freezing cold, she called me to come and pick her up. And that was that.

At home, mom seemed like her usual self, joking that she was going to harass Maryann over the hospital bill because she “made” me call 911. No mom, had Maryann and Paula not been there, I would have done the same thing. Despite the panic that caused me to forget where my mom kept her phone, I would have had the sense to call for help. I like to believe that I can consider what’s best for my mom even when she can’t consider it for herself. But can I handle something worse? What will I do when the unspeakable comes, most likely many years from now, but maybe not, when she needs someone to “keep an eye on her” more often? Am I ready for this?

I want to hold on to the illusion that my parents will always be healthy, that there will never be a time when I am without them. I don’t want either of them to ever fall ill or “grow old.” It stings, in some deep embryonic place, to think of either parent suffering in any way. And even though my mother knows exactly how to push my buttons with her passive-aggressive jabs, and my father seems to have forgotten how to make a telephone call, I know I will be lost without them.

My mom worries that she “ruined” Christmas. Not so. Her health scare was uncontrollable and certainly scary, but in a span of less than 24 hours I witnessed the generosity of friends and the quality care that her local hospital provides. I also got a loud and clear reminder to appreciate every visit, every phone call, every e-mail and letter that I experience with my family. I couldn’t have asked for a better Christmas gift.

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