The Day Her Memory Changed (Word Count 1489)
Time and temperature seemed suspended as my sister, and I stood in the parking lot watching the air ambulance take off. Looking at each other from behind solemn matter of fact masks, there was a feeling of being in the wrong place. We were usually faceless bystanders wondering who the patient was. This time all we could think about was how at 71, our mother probably wouldn’t remember her first helicopter ride.
Just a few hours before, she had left her apartment building to pick up a few things at the grocery store across the street. My father sat at his favourite end of the couch watching television, waiting for her to get back. He heard a sound that must still haunt his dreams, squealing tires and the thud of metal hitting bone. As an amputee, he couldn’t rush to the window but somehow sensed that it was my mother who had been hit. A knock on the door a few minutes later confirmed his fears.
I was conducting business as usual when I got the call and rushed across the city. We sat nervously in the emergency waiting room looking up every time a doctor passed, wondering what kind of shape she was in. We did know she was in pain. Strangers looked up as she cried out in pain. We could all hear her calling my dad’s name over and over again. It was torture for him knowing there was nothing he could do for his wife that was begging incoherently for his and God’s help.
They decided to fly her to a trauma unit at another hospital that was better equipped to handle cases like hers. She had two broken legs, pulled ligaments in her knees, a broken pelvis, broken shoulder and a head injury. We accepted at her age the bones would take time to heal. What we didn’t know is how the head injury would change her memory and our family forever.
When my sister and I arrived at the trauma unit the workers seemed to take extra care. Instead of seating us in the open waiting room with rows of uncomfortable plastic chairs that faced machines that served watered down coffee, they ushered us into a small room not much bigger than a Catholic confessional. We would have confessed anything if we thought it would help our mother. When the doctor arrived, we both made instant judgements about his personality and qualifications. He looked too young, too tired and he wanted to operate on our mother’s leg. We were warned that in her condition the surgery could be touch and go.
Now after midnight, we were shown to yet another waiting room. This one obviously for families as deeply worried as we were about their own relatives who might not make it through the night. People had taken up residence, sleeping on cushions on the floor. They stirred as we headed for some cushion-less chairs. We sat silently most of the night accepting the few nods of knowing from others waiting. The only diversion in the room was a painting. A violent scene of thunderous waves crashing against rocks, a reminder of our own turmoil. After hours of waiting sunlight filtered in lifting the shadows in the room and our spirits. The sleeping figures on the floor woke to instant camaraderie. Each feeling for the other’s family members who hovered between worlds in the intensive care unit.
When they moved mum downstairs to a regular hospital room, we assumed she was fine. We weren’t prepared to see her strapped tightly to a bed, crying out, frantically struggling to get out of the binding, trying to rip the IV from her hand and the splint and cast from her legs. She didn’t recognize any of us and couldn’t even acknowledge our presence. She was in her own world, crying the same prayer over and over again. The scene caused a lump in my throat that years later never quite dissolved.
Her recovery was slow and arduous. At first, she couldn’t communicate. When she did start to put simple sentences together, they didn’t make sense. She kept crying for anyone to “take the money off my leg, take the money off my leg” as she tugged at the cast and splint. She kept crying to go home. It was hard to decipher what she meant at times. The prognosis wasn’t good. Even if she could learn to read and write again her long-term memory would be affected permanently.
Private thoughts about what was happening were one thing, dealing with other family members and the logistics and guilt around daily hospital visits were an unexpected and additional strain. My father couldn’t make it to the hospital on his own. Every day for the first two months I spent hours on the road somewhere between my parent’s house, the hospital, the office and my house occasionally for wardrobe changes. In between I sat in the hospital room muscles clenched, listening to the constant chatter in my head about how things would turn out.
It was the small, unexpected things around the accident that caught me off guard but left a lasting impression. About a week after the accident, I remembered the first hospital had given me a bag full of the clothes mum had been wearing when she was hit by the car. I had thrown the bag in the trunk to deal with later. When I took the clothes out the bag, I didn’t expect to see a mass of congealed blood and hair stuck to her jacket. Pictures of an accident I hadn’t witnessed flooded into my thoughts. My stomach turned and tears ran down my cheek. I flinched at the thought of the impact of the car, her small frame lying on the coarse cold pavement. I couldn’t stop thinking about how much pain she must have felt.
After months of learning to walk and think again, mum came home from the hospital. What should have been a relief was the start of a whole new torturous adventure. The phone calls started. She would call my sister 5 to 10 times a day sobbing her heart out about things that seemed very real to her. We were beginning to understand the effect that the loss of short-term memory would have. Day-to-day communication consisted of answering the same questions over and over again. She would ask the thing ten to twenty times in one ten-minute conversation not realizing she had even asked it once.
One day we went shopping. I stopped for a second to look at something and she wandered off. Panic set in when I couldn’t find her. Five minutes later after running down several aisles I rounded a corner and saw her being taken care of by another shopper. She was crying like a lost child because she had no idea where she was or why she was there.
The emotional battles we fought were equal to the lengthy legal battle we had to fight with the insurance company who wanted to deny the claim for her case based on the fact she was 71 and the loss of her mental faculties could be attributed to her age. Eighty thousand dollars in legal fees and two years later we won the case including costs. It could have been a financial disaster if we had lost, first paying the eighty thousand dollars and then trying to provide money for care for someone who needed attending 24 hours a day.
It’s been years since the accident, but the head injury is something the family deals with every day. The memory problems continued to cause emotional trauma for my mum. When my father passed away and she had to be told again and again that he was dead. To her it was like hearing it for the first time every time. It changed our whole family. The mother we once knew doesn’t exist. We have become the parents.
I often wonder if the woman who hit my mother with her car ever gives the accident a second thought. I’m sure the memory of it was disturbing at first but has faded with time. Her life is basically unchanged except for maybe an odd twinge of remorse. I’m sure she even feels the same chill I do driving past the spot where it happened. The difference is she keeps driving. I must turn into the driveway and deal with the consequences. Our family has long since dealt with the emotions around the accident. I’m proud of the way we didn’t stop to lay blame but just took on what needed to be done to take care of mum. My only hope is that any drivers reading this will take a little extra care, pay a little more attention while driving. You never know whose mother could be around the next corner.