Even a Blind Man Could See It
A Short Story by Mackenzie Littledale
“So what did the doctor say, Mom?” I asked over the phone and plunked my purse down on the sofa. “I’ve been trying to reach you all day.”
“You were? I was home. Must not have heard the phone.”
Her nonchalance didn’t sit well with me. “What were the heart monitor’s results?”
“I don’t need the pacemaker after all,” she said. I could hear the smile in her voice. It reminded me of a kid with a kazoo. Not that her voice was twangy, but sheer childlike happiness came through.
“That’s great,” I said, but something was off. Her heart rate had been slow and somewhat irregular, so her cardiologist had her wear a monitor for two weeks. Everything about a pacemaker made perfect sense, so this verdict from the doctor left questions hanging. “Then what’s causing your slow heartbeat?”
“I don’t need the pacemaker,” she repeated in a firmer tone of voice.
I sighed and rolled my eyes. Subject closed. My knuckles ached and I realized I was gripping the cell phone way tighter than necessary. “Very well, Mom. What are you going to do next?” I eyed my red apple and strained to reach it. I could just about taste its sweetness and feel the crunch in my mouth.
“You know I’ve always wanted a sporty Mazda.”
I dropped the apple. “Oh God, Mom, what did you do?”
“I had the money and I’ve been trying to think of one good reason why I’ve been waiting so long to get what I want.”
I gestured with my hand the way a logic professor might. “You’re eighty years old. You’ll be too old to drive it before you even pay off the loan. You’ve never handled a sports car. Your eyesight isn’t great. You can barely hear the other cars honking.”
“So says you, smarty pants. Well, I can’t think of any reason. I had the money,” she said.
I got up to pace. Any one of the reasons I just rattled off was reason enough, but she hadn’t considered any of them for even a second. Not that elders can’t drive whatever car they want, but Mom was anything but world-wise, attentive, observant, or quick on her feet. A sports car with her behind the wheel would be a disaster.
“Are you saying you bought the car?” I held the microphone away from my mouth and took a vicious bite of the apple, perhaps like Eve in the Garden of Eden with a misguided belief that knowledge would magically sprout to life in my head. What good is knowledge without the wisdom to know what to do with it?
“You’re going to take me to the eye doctor. I’m having surgery next week.”
“Wait, what?” Where did she come up with these bombshells? “Since when did the ophthalmologist say you needed surgery? Surgery to correct what and what are the chances of success?”
“This surgery is to correct the glaucoma in my right eye. I failed the vision test for my driver’s license renewal and now I can’t even drive my new car. You have off work on Thursdays, so you can take me, right?” It wasn’t so much a question as a done deal.
“Of course, sure,” I said, and left my mouth hanging open for a few seconds too long. I rubbed my forehead and resigned myself to add the details to my calendar.
“I’ll see you Thursday morning, bright and early,” Mom said. “I love you.”
“I love—” but she’d already hung up before I finished. “You, too.” I bit down hard on my apple and chewed furiously as my mind raced in overdrive for questions to ask the doctors about this surgery.
Throughout the week, I went to work as planned but with my mother on my mind. Worries about an eighty-year-old woman behind the wheel of a Mazda faded to the background. Eye surgery seemed so dreadful. Thinking about a literal needle through the eye made me shudder.
On Thursday morning, I drove the eight miles to my mother’s place. She walked out of her door, steadying herself with her three-pronged cane. Even though she didn’t have arthritis, aches, or pains, sometimes she had dizzy spells. Her attire didn’t betray the occasion. A navy suit jacket with gaudy baubles and simple makeup. If she didn’t want anyone to know she was on her way to eye surgery, mission accomplished.
I helped her get in my car and got back in the driver’s seat, donning dark sunglasses to block the glare of the harsh summer sun. “Do you have questions for the doctor?”
“Like what kind of questions?” she said.
“Mom, didn’t you discuss the pros and cons of this surgery with the surgical team?” I glanced at her over the rim of my sunglasses. “How many of these procedures do they do each year, what’s the success rate, what determines success, do patients have recurrence of glaucoma, can patients drive again, will you need more of the same surgery down the line? Those sorts of questions.”
“You worry too much, Amina. Just drive.” She looked out the side window. “The landscapers do such a nice job maintaining the property. The plumeria are going to bloom soon.”
“Yes, Mom.” I pressed the gas and took the wheel with both hands.
She provided directions to the outpatient surgical center and twenty-five minutes later, I pulled up to the entrance. Their pineapple logo made me think we’d gone to the wrong business. Pineapples are a symbol of hospitality, as in hotels and inns, not hospitals, but we were at the right place. Inside smelled vaguely antiseptic, not like a full on hospital. Hints of pine, bleach, and lemon breezed by in bursts every time someone opened a door behind reception. Mom and I took seats in the waiting area. Overhead windows ringed the walls holding up vaulted ceilings. Tons of natural light shone on the elm fixtures and furnishings. Mom turned in her forms and we waited some more as patients and their companions came and went. I never liked the sight of bandages, especially over people’s eyes, but several patients left with dark plastic glasses as if the most invasive procedure was dilating pupils in the back room.
I crossed my fingers and slipped a prayer skyward for everything to be easy. I didn’t want Mom’s procedure to turn into a case study on outlier events.
A plump woman with frameless eyeglasses opened the door behind reception and called out. “Leticia Lawrence?”
I tapped Mom’s forearm. “That’s you.”
I waved at the woman while Mom gathered herself and her cane. We followed the woman to an examination room. After we answered a series of perfunctory questions, the lady asked me to return to the waiting area so my mom could change into the gown. An hour later when I could rejoin my mother, I found her in a surgical bay hooked up to various machines. She looked like an old-fashioned doll in a bed much too big for her.
The air was impenetrable with medical knowledge, an invisible barrier to everyday people. Beeping machines, flashing lights, salves, balms, and latex gloves. Everything in the space had some purpose toward healing and none of it made a lick of sense to me. I looked at the nurses as they flipped through charts and notes. The beeping machines and flashing lights didn’t alarm them. They knew something I didn’t – when to and when not to panic. All of it unnerved me so I directed my faith in them for reassurance and calm. All the while, my mother lay in the gigantic bed between the steel rails with a placid smile on her face as she periodically nodded off. How could she think of sleeping now? Now? They’re going to stick a needle in her eye!
One of the machines let out an uninterrupted beep and I turned my attention to it. I had no clue what it was for. “Excuse me,” I said to a nurse standing behind my mother’s bed. “Why is that machine making that noise?”
The nurse looked from her handheld notes to the black machine. “Your mother’s heart rate is slowing down to less than forty-five beats per minute.”
“That sounds too slow,” I said, raising my eyebrows as my own heartbeat sped up.
“You can discuss it with the anesthesiologist,” the nurse said and returned her attention to her notes.
“Okay,” I said, swallowing down panic since she seemed so cool, calm, and collected about it. “When is the anesthesiologist coming out?”
“He’ll come out soon with the whole surgical team.”
My mother continued dozing until I caught her open one eye briefly and grin. The situation unfolding around her must have amused her. Great. The steady beep gave way to intermittent beeps again and my breathing slowed back down. My stomach had knotted up, but I only just then became aware of it and relaxed. As Mom’s eyes opened, I took her hand. “Are you comfortable?”
“Oh yeah,” she said, smiling.
Four doctors with clipboards came from nowhere and approached my mom’s bed in the cold surgical bay. They dressed just like doctors on TV in light blue scrubs.
“Hello, Mrs. Lawrence,” each one said as they introduced themselves.
“Which one of you is the anesthesiologist?” I asked, eyeing each one.
The tallest waved. “I’m Dr. Jenkins, the anesthesiologist. Who are you?”
“I’m Amina, her daughter. That machine,” I said, pointing an accusing finger at the black contraption, “was beeping, but then it made a steady beep. Why is her heart rate falling and is the procedure safe?”
Dr. Jenkins flipped through a one-inch-thick file that he held under his clipboard. “Hmm, Mrs. Lawrence, you’ve been to a cardiologist.”
“Yes,” Mom affirmed. “What’s the problem?”
“Your heart rate may be slowing down too much,” said Dr. Jenkins. “Tell me about the pacemaker.”
My mom waved that away with a smile as sweet as apple pie. “Oh, the cardiologist said I didn’t need it.”
I looked at her suspiciously. Something wasn’t adding up.
Dr. Jenkins shook his head. “That’s not what the doctor’s note says. It says you declined the pacemaker.”
My jaw dropped open and my shoulders slumped. “What? Mom, what did the heart doctor actually tell you?”
“He said I don’t need a pacemaker.”
I flattened my lips into a straight line and frowned. I turned to Dr. Jenkins. “What does that note say?”
A shorter doctor with hazel hair in a style like Joey from F-R-I-E-N-D-S stepped forward. “This is a concern because during the procedure, we’ll push a needle through Mrs. Lawrence’s eye and it’ll tap the vagus nerve, which may slow her heart rate down. The anesthesia will also slow her heart. If, however, it slows too much, we’re not equipped for emergency service. We’ll have to call nine-one-one and wait for an ambulance to take her to the nearest ER.”
My stomach sent a warning salvo that if my mother didn’t give the right responses, my morning’s breakfast would be returned as projectile vomit all over my white blouse. All my muscles tightened. “Mom, do you understand what might happen? You have a lazy heart and a pacemaker will force it to beat every second like a drill sergeant. Everything could go wrong. You could freaking die. There’s nothing they can do here and if we need an ambulance, we start running out of time.”
The doctors and nurses nodded, urgency written large across their faces.
Dr. Jenkins held the file up. “Mrs. Lawrence, the cardiologist’s note is clear that you need a pacemaker. When you had the monitoring device, the decision could be delayed, but not declined. After this conversation, I’m not fully confident in going forward with your procedure.”
“But I need to see to drive,” Mom said. Then almost inaudibly, “My Mazda.”
Of course, I heard the longing in her voice like a violin. I hung my head and rolled it side to side to stretch, to buy time, to hope the doctors would send us home. “Mom. Listen, please? You’re not having the eye surgery today. I’m taking you home and we’re calling the cardiologist to make an appointment about a pacemaker. Once you’re cleared by that doctor, you can get the eye surgery. Got it?”
She screwed her face like a petulant child. “I don’t want a pacemaker.”
The lead surgeon stepped forward. “You can’t force us to perform a procedure if we’re not one-hundred percent comfortable.”
I turned to the team of doctors. “Thank you. We’ll be in touch soon.” The team stood straight and tall while the nurse wheeled Mom back to the room where she could get dressed. I waited in the sunlit reception area, my nerves shot to hell. I glanced at my reflection in a compact mirror. My makeup hadn’t held up well against beads of sweat even though the outpatient center couldn’t have been more than seventy degrees.
Leaving the bleach smell didn’t bother me one bit. They could try to smother it with lemon and pine all day, but it clung to my clothes and nose hairs. On the way to Mom’s place I asked, “What is it about a pacemaker don’t you like? You’re reluctant for some reason. Talk to me.”
“I’m not afraid,” she said in a voice that no one could possibly count on.
“Tell me,” I said. “We’ll write down all your questions and grill the doctor until you’re satisfied that it’s safe.”
Her shoulders rose and fell with a sigh. “I want to know if I can shower with it. Will I have to sleep in a certain position with it?”
“Good, we’ll write it all down.”
I hoped we’d find some answers online rather than wait to ask the cardiologist. We were only twenty minutes from her apartment, but worry and anxiety made the drive drag on as if the asphalt was taffy. I couldn’t show any negative emotion for fear my mom would catch my fears. She stayed quiet, but the worry wrinkles deepened across her forehead. My job had to be the picture of calm. “Knowledge is power. We’ll look up some answers on the internet, too.”
“I can’t even drive my car without the eye surgery.”
“That’s true, but you can’t get the eye surgery without the pacemaker. Everything is going to happen in the right sequence, okay?” I patted her arm and she smiled a thin, weak smile.
The following week when I was off work again, I drove Mom to Dr. Santini’s office. While we waited, we looked up FAQ about pacemakers online from my phone. As she scrolled through the questions and answers, she had her own list of questions folded in her palm.
The cardiologist came into the examination room. “Hello, Mrs. Lawrence. Amina, I haven’t seen you in a long time.”
“Hi Doc.” I’d remembered him taller, but Dr. Santini couldn’t have been more than five-foot-five in platform wedges. He brushed his dark hair back, though not a strand was out of place.
“What brings you in?” he asked, pulling out a rolling stool and sitting down.
I sat with Mom on the exam table and opened my mouth, but she spoke up. “The reason I’m here is I was scheduled to have surgery for glaucoma, but my heart rate slowed down too much, so I’m here to find out more information about pacemakers.”
“I see,” Dr. Santini said, leaning forward on his elbows. “You declined that even though I advocated for it. It’s obvious you need it.”
“I’d like the monitor again to see how my heart is doing.”
“That won’t be necessary,” he said, leaning back. “Your heart hasn’t suddenly started beating properly.”
“If the pacemaker stops working, how would my mom know?”
Mom’s eyes widened as if she were struck by lightning. “That’s a good question.” She turned her gaze to Dr. Santini and folded her arms.
I knew it was a good question. It had been burning a trail in my mind for days.
The cardiologist chuckled. “Every three months, your mom will come in and we’ll ‘interrogate’ the pacemaker to make sure it’s still performing.” He continued on to answer all her questions. She could bathe and shower as normal. She could sleep on her stomach and toss and turn all night if she had to. The device would force her heart to pound out sixty beats per minute.
Twenty minutes later, we were walking back to my car.“How do you feel about the process now, Mom?” The plumeria ringing the doctor’s parking lot was in full bloom. I paused to admire it.
“Much better. I’m going to do it.” She got in the passenger seat. “You know what though?”
Oh Lord. I took in a deep breath, bracing myself. “What?”
“I got to drive my car a couple times already.”
I side-eyed her as I clicked my seatbelt. “And?”
“It gave me quite a thrill. I hit the gas a teensy-weensy bit and it took off like a racehorse.” She faced me, laughing with a schoolgirl blush. “It made me feel young again.”
My heart bottomed out and floated at the same time. She felt young. I couldn’t take that away from her, but she was a danger behind that car’s wheel. “Mom, are you keeping the car?”
“Of course I am.”