March 6, 2006

Open Chat: Kirby's Stroke

After hearing the bad news about Kirby Puckett yesterday afternoon, I tried to think of something I could add to the story that would be meaningful and worthwhile. What I came up with is the essay that follows, which I wrote for a non-fiction literature class during my sophomore year of college, back in 2003. It's extremely long, even for my standards, and a little rough around the edges, but given Puckett's situation hopefully some of you will stick with it until the end and enjoy it.

"All the Other Emergencies"
By Aaron Gleeman

Many college students get jobs during the summer, but I don't. I treat my summers as three-month vacations from school. I sit around with my dog and watch TV or mess around on my computer or go play baseball with my uncle. A schedule as strenuous as the one I just described often leads to days and nights getting mixed up.

There is no real urgency for waking up in the morning, so you sleep until noon (okay, 1:30). Because you've only been up for eight or 10 hours by the time most people go to bed, you also have no problem staying up late. You watch a little TV, send a few e-mails, maybe rent a movie on Pay-Per-View or play a few video games -- before you know it, you hear the newspaper being delivered.

Unlike me, my mom had her days and nights in perfect order. She went to bed early each night and woke up early each morning -- 6:01 a.m. to be exact. You see, she had this thing called a "job." In fact, most mornings, my mom would wake up on her own at 5:59, without even needing the alarm. And even when the alarm did go off, there was never any snooze-buttoning involved.

Our paths often crossed in the morning, when she was getting ready to go to work and I was getting ready to go to sleep. I had been doing the same thing for weeks, but each morning, when my mom would walk by my room, she would look in, and with the same astonishment, say, "You're up? Why are you up? You know it's 6:30 in the morning?"

I've spent pretty much every summer of my life -- save for the two years at summer camp -- living like this, like a vampire. Sleep all day, up all night. After years of studying the issue, I've come to a startling discovery: Everything seems more entertaining at four in the morning. I've watched movies and come away thinking I had just seen the greatest film ever made. Then later I will see the movie at a more normal hour and realize not only was I able to sit through all of Police Academy 7: Mission to Moscow, I actually enjoyed it.

This phenomenon works on other things besides movies too. I've watched an entire "Cosby Show Marathon" on Nick-at-Nite. I've come across infomercials and watched them in their entirety. I've seen enough World's Strongest Man competitions on ESPN2 to know the strengths and weaknesses of each competitor. During the wee hours of the morning in the summer of 2002, I even found myself watching and enjoying World Cup soccer, a sport which I despise during normal "business hours."

One seemingly ordinary night, I decided to rent a movie on Pay-Per-View. I scanned my choices and decided on Ali. I watched it and thought it was great. More than strong enough to withstand the pull of my heavy eyelids. Of course, I had watched Friday the 13th Part VII: Jason takes Manhattan the night before and it immediately became my favorite movie ever, so it's possible my late night entertainment theory was affecting my judgment again.

Just as the closing credits began to roll -- right around 6:00 a.m. -- I heard the buzz of my mom's alarm clock in the next room. It was the same sound every morning: BEEP, BEEP, BEEP -- click -- bathroom door shutting. Over and over, with perfect precision -- The Sounds of Morning.

The credits kept rolling and my mom's alarm clock kept beeping. I probably wouldn't have noticed it, except my tired ears were incredibly sensitive. It kept going for several more moments, and then I finally heard a heavy-handed WHACK across the snooze button. Then, like a train that was delayed for a moment but determined to remain on schedule, I heard the bed rustling, feet walking across carpet and then tile, and the bathroom door shutting.

Beside me on the bed, my Boston Terrier, Samantha, started to wake too. She knew that door shutting meant she was going to be going outside soon. That was the summer routine. The dog slept in my room, tried to stay up late with me, inevitably fell asleep, and then awoke at 6:10 to take a "walk" outside with my mom.

The bathroom door opened and my dog did what I like to refer to as the "Peepee Dance" at the end of the bed. At the same time, I was ready to tell my mom that yes, I was up, and yes, I did realize it was 6:15 in the morning. I also needed to inform her that Ali was perhaps the greatest movie of all time and that, just like she told me to, I had finally remembered to tape the movie I rented, so she could watch it too. I was ready to say all this, but I never got the chance.

My mom came into my room holding the dog's leash, and she was drooling. My mom, not the dog. She reached down to connect the leash to the collar but she couldn't. As she tried, spit dripped onto my bed. At first I got angry. "What are you doing? You're drooling all over my bed!"

She looked up at me, like a zombie, and said "I'm sowwwy," like a drunk with a fat lip. She kept drooling and I started to get concerned.

"Are you okay?"

"Yeps, I'm dust a libble teepy."

About two months earlier, my mom had a problem with one of her teeth and it had caused one side of her mouth to swell up. She looked and sounded like the person standing in front of me. I figured whatever had happened then, which was fixed by a quick trip to the dentist, was happening again, so I clipped the leash onto the dog's collar for her and let her take the dog out.

I heard the screen door slam and grabbed my remote, flipping the channel to a soccer game. A couple minutes later, the screen door slammed again and the dog came scampering back into my room. I saw my mom in the kitchen. She had taken the newspaper that I had heard delivered a few hours earlier in, and was attempting to take the plastic cover off. I watched as she struggled, in slow motion, tugging the bag back, inch-by-inch. A task that normally took half a second now looked impossible.

I got out of bed and walked into the kitchen. As I did, she finally got the plastic off the paper and then went to put it into the trash, under the sink. As she tried to open the cabinet doors, she was met with the dog proof locks that kept our darling little Samantha from chewing on trash all day.

Bent over at the knees, yellow plastic bag in one hand, my mother pawed at the door. It was as if she was petting the door like a dog or waving goodbye -- all in slow-motion. Her hand rubbed against the door, her fingers extended, and then closed. Nothing happened -- all in slow motion -- over and over. I bent down in front of her, pushed down the lock and opened up the door. I looked up at her and she smiled at me.

"What's wrong Mom?"

"Nubbin, I'm dust tired."

"Maybe you should go back to bed for a while."

"I'b bonna bet dress."

I was now officially frightened. I watched as my mom walked very slowly to her room, entered it, and then slowly pushed the door shut. I waited.

Finally, the door opened -- slowly. My mom came shuffling out, wearing a pair of gym shorts and one of my old hooded sweatshirts. Her left arm was sticking out of the neck-hole of the sweatshirt, the kind of thing someone playing the part of a drunk in a movie would do. My mom walked into the kitchen again and attempted to open the refrigerator. She had the same problem with that as with the cabinet under the sink, pawing at it over and over again, in slow motion, as I stared, frightened beyond belief.

I began to panic. What is going on? Is she really just tired? Is something wrong with her mouth again? Is she joking around? What the hell is wrong with my mom?

I didn't know, so I asked. "Mom, what's wrong?"

She didn't respond and just kept trying to open the fridge. "Mom! Mom! Look at me, Mom! Stop doing that and look at me!"

Nothing. Just more pawing.

I grabbed her by the arm and tried to get her to look at me. She started staggering, but just kept trying to open the door. I somehow managed to get her away from the mystery that was suddenly the fridge door and over to a kitchen chair, where I sat her down, like a rag doll. I didn't know what was happening, but I knew it was something, so I picked up the phone. My call should have started with 9-1-1, but it started with 6-1-2.

I called my father, who lived a half hour away, because I didn't know what else to do. He answered on four rings, obviously still sleeping. As he did, my mother started to get up from the chair I had placed her in. Stuck, holding a phone connected to the wall, I stared as she tried to crawl to the refrigerator. I don't remember what I said to my dad, but he obviously heard the panic and fear in my voice. "You have to call 9-1-1 right now!" he told me. So I did.

Drooling. Slurred speech. She can't open the fridge. Or the cabinet under the sink. She tried to put her clothes on, but her arm is sticking out. The operator listened and then asked for my address. "Stay on the line, an ambulance is on the way."

The operator asked me questions that I don't remember, and told me to do things that I didn't do. Every few seconds I would put the phone down on the kitchen counter and grab my mom by the arm, telling her to sit still. She didn't listen, or probably didn't even hear. I tried to pick her up off the hard tile floor, but I couldn't.

I stood in the kitchen, the 9-1-1 operator in my ear, staring at my mother, as she sat on the tile floor, struggling to open the door to her refrigerator. I stared, eyes wide with fear, completely helpless, tapping my foot against the floor, as I waited for help.

* * * * * * * * * *

"Do you wanna ride with us or drive yourself?" a paramedic asked with his hand on my shoulder, as two others carried my mom out of the kitchen, down the stairs and out the front door. I tried to remember where I put my keys, but I couldn't. I tried to think about how to get to the hospital, but nothing came to me. I muttered something about driving myself.

"Grab some clothes for her and jump in the front with me," he said, obviously noticing my lack of movement. I went into her closet and tried to think about what a woman would want to wear in the hospital. What goes best with one of those gowns that button-up in the back? I decided on a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt and made my way outside, where the bright morning light made my eyes slam shut immediately and then reduced me to a squint.

I started walking to the back of the ambulance to check on my mom, but the paramedic stopped me and told me to get in the front, because they were leaving. Just then I saw our neighbor from across the street, Lori, in our driveway.

"What's going on?" she asked frantically, her hands waving in front of her. I waited for the paramedic to answer, but he didn't.

"My mom ... she ..." I tried to find the end of that sentence somewhere in my head, but it wasn't there. I hopped up into the front seat and said, "The front door ... the dog ... her office ..." Lori seemed to understand, although how I'm not sure. The door slammed and we were on the road.

I heard the same sirens that had announced the ambulance's presence a few moments earlier. I felt almost embarrassed, as if I were to blame for waking the whole neighborhood at six in the morning. As we hit the highway I remembered how I always imagined driving in an ambulance or a police-car with the sirens on must be so fun.

The driver had been talking the whole time. I was twisted around in my seat, my head pointed to the back, where my mom was lying. I didn't know what to do. I felt like I should yell something to her, to let her know I was with her, that she wasn't alone. I didn't know what to yell and I didn't think she could hear me anyway.

It wasn't real. I wasn't in the front seat of an ambulance speeding past cars on the highway as its siren blared. My mom wasn't in the back, with who knows what wrong with her. There wasn't a paramedic next to me, trying to make small-talk about early morning traffic.

The siren stopped as we pulled up to the emergency room door. I moved to get out and the paramedic told me to "wait here for a second while they take her in." I heard that and my mind started racing. Why don't they want me to see her? Is she unconscious? Is she already dead?

The paramedic escorted me into the waiting room and quickly disappeared down a long, white hallway. I found a chair and sat down, surrounded by other chairs, stacks of old magazines and little else. There wasn't another person in the entire room. Even the receptionist's booth at the other end of the room was empty. Where are all the other emergencies this morning?

The buzzing of florescent lights and the tip-tap of shoes on the tile floor from the hallway just outside the room echoed in my ears. I found a copy of Sports Illustrated that was only a few months old and opened it up to an article. After a few minutes I realized I hadn't gotten past the first sentence, so I put it down and stared at the clock on the wall 20 feet in front of me.

As the second-hand moved, much too slowly, my mind started to drift. I began to think about what was happening to my mom. Where is she? What are they doing to her? Scenes from ER started popping into my head. Defibrillators and rib-separators and doctors rushing in and out of the room. After a while though, I began to think about myself. It is amazing how quickly someone can become selfish, in even the worst situations.

How much longer am I going to be sitting here, alone? I looked down at my feet and saw bare skin. I was wearing my sandals. I leaned my head back to look down at the rest of my outfit and saw a pair of dirty blue sweatpants and a dark blue University of Michigan football jersey. My hands instinctively moved to my head, where I noticed a surprising lack of a hat and a severe case of "bed-head."

I must look like a mess. I wanted to go back and start this morning over again, so I could get dressed in better clothes, put on real shoes and a hat to cover my hair. I wanted to grab better clothes for my mom. She wouldn't want to wear jeans and a baggy sweatshirt when she left this place. Is she going to leave this place? Where is she? My mind was racing again and that damn second-hand was barely moving.

I was suddenly no longer alone in the room, as the receptionist's booth filled with two large women. One wore a headset and the other sipped coffee from a giant red mug. They talked softly for a moment and then began to laugh. I stared. One of them noticed me looking at them and slowly stopped laughing. The other noticed her and then looked over at me. I could tell they felt sorry for me. Or maybe they just felt strange laughing while someone with an emergency stared on.

The woman with the giant red mug waddled out of the room, leaving the woman wearing the headset alone with me. She gave me one of those lip-clenching, eyebrow-raising smiles that people give when they pass someone on the street who they sort of recognize but don't want to talk to. I just stared. She began to talk into her headset, which broke my trance. I realized for the umpteenth time that it wasn't a dream.

I brought both hands up to my head, rubbed my eyes, and ran them through my hair. Then I brought them back down to my face, which collapsed into them. Will Lori know to take the dog out? Will she feed her a bowl of dry food with cheese on top? Will she wait around to take her outside? Does she know to give her a biscuit afterward? I took my face out of my hands and looked up at the clock again. I didn't even remember what time I got there, so I wasn't sure how long I had been sitting in the chair. I guessed about a week.

Will my mom need physical therapy? Who would drive her there? Would I have to quit school to take care of her? I could find a job, but then I would need to hire someone to be with her during the day. I should call her office; she is usually there by now. They probably think she's dead.

Does the hospital call the funeral home for you? Would I move in with my dad? Maybe my aunt and uncle would be better. No, they have their own kids, they don't want me. I could sell the house and get an apartment, but I would need to find one that allows dogs. How much does a funeral cost?

A woman came walking into the waiting room and sat down next to me. She put her arm on my left shoulder and said something. I looked over and saw my grandmother. I wasn't sure what to say. My grandma asked me what happened. I told her all I knew, which wasn't much. She said she'd be right back and then got up and walked to the laughing receptionist with the headset.

I had been just sitting here for three weeks already and my grandma is here for three minutes and she is doing more than I am. I should have talked to the receptionist right away, when I first got there. I should have spoken to someone who knows something. I should have ... I should have done something besides stare at a clock.

"Someone is going to come speak to us in a few minutes," my grandma said, slumping back down into the chair to my left. And so we waited, staring at that clock together. I wondered if she noticed the same problem with the second-hand moving so slowly. There is very little to say to someone in a situation like this, even someone you know so well. Small-talk is out of the question and you both know that. "Did you see the Twins game last night?" would be a pretty deplorable question at this moment.

It wasn't "a few minutes," but someone did eventually come to speak to us. She took us into a separate room, attached to the one we were in, even though there wasn't another person besides that headset-wearing receptionist around. She told us they thought my mom had suffered a stroke and that the doctors were helping her right now. A doctor would come get us in a little while and bring us to go see her. My grandma asked other questions and got other answers that I didn't hear.

The woman left the room and told us we were "free to sit here as long as we wanted." As if that were some sort of special treat. The clock was in the other room and so was the headset and the receptionist. My grandma pulled out her cell phone and asked if I had called my mom's office yet. "No. I only know her direct-line."

She started to dial. My grandma put the phone to her ear and gave me a long look. "Yes ... hi ... this is Judi Gleeman's mother ... she won't be in today." There was a long pause, at least five beats. "No, everything is fine, she just won't be in today ... thank you." She hung up.

"I didn't want to tell them what was going on. No sense getting everyone worried when we don't know anything, right?" We don't know anything. Where is that doctor? Did something else go wrong? Why hasn't he come to talk to us yet?

There was a knock on the door and a man entered. He wore a long, white coat and dress shoes. This must be the doctor. A few words were exchanged and my grandma and I started to follow him, out of the side room, out of the waiting room, past the receptionist in the headset and down the long, white hallway. Like a party of two following a hostess to their table at a restaurant. "Right this way. Your waiter will be with you in a moment. Can I start you off with some drinks?"

We got to the room and the doctor quickly walked inside. We followed, slowly. My mom was there, propped up on a gurney. Her eyes were open and she smiled at me. The kind of slow, child-like smile someone gives you if you wake them up to tell them good news. "Hewwo," she slurred.

"Grandma is here too," I said, nodding to where my grandma stood, a few inches from me.

"Dokay. Bid you ball my boffif?" One side of her face was completely motionless and her left arm lay limp on the side of her body. Is this paralyzed?

"Don't worry about your office," my grandma said, much too loudly. I could see tears welling up inside her. I forgot she hadn't seen my mom yet this morning.

My mom just kept smiling. "Day bed I dad a droke. Ben do belleeb dat?" I couldn't.

A nurse stood next to my mother and flashed a fake smile to my grandma and me. My eyes wandered. My mom had all kinds of tubes in her arm and in her hand. There was a machine in the corner of the room making a slow beeping noise every few seconds. The florescent light above us flickered and then continued to buzz. The doctor stared at a chart he was holding and then told my grandma and I that my mom "needed her rest" and that they "had some more tests to run."

We left the room slowly as my mom smiled. I lingered at the door, looking back like a kid in the backseat of a car that was driving away from Disney World. We made our way back to the waiting room. As we walked past the receptionist's booth, I said hello to Ms. Headset and we sat back down in the same chairs. My grandma and I both raced to see who could lie to the other one sooner. I won.

"She looked pretty good."

"Yeah, she was awake and ..."

"I knew she'd be worried about work."

* * * * * * * * * *

My mom left the hospital a few days later. They said she made a "quick recovery" and that they weren't sure exactly what caused her stroke. I had asked one of the doctors whether or not he thought it was something that would happen again, hoping he would tell me not to worry. He said he didn't know.

I continued to stay awake through the night for the rest of the summer. I sometimes walked into my mom's room while she was sleeping, just to make sure she was okay. For a short time, I drove her to work in the morning and picked her up when she was done. After a while, she wouldn't let me do that any more.

During the day I would IM her on the computer and wait nervously in the seconds it took her to respond. A few times each day I got scared as she seemingly struggled to do something or her speech sounded strange to me for a moment. Gradually though, things went back to normal. I guess you sort of forget what happened after a while. I stopped watching her every move and stopped being nervous about everything she did. I went back to school in the fall, moving out of the house and into a dorm.

It's more than a year later now. My mom gets "stroke magazines" in the mail. She has to take a whole slew of giant pills every morning before work. But she goes to work. Sometimes she gets tired in the middle of the day and she takes more naps more than she used to. Her speech is fine, but some days she has problems using her left hand. She can grab stuff, but when she tries to move the TV table it always slips out of her hand.

But when she laughs at that, I laugh at that. Not because it's funny, but because it's better than the alternative. It's better than what I saw that morning, better than sitting in that waiting room, staring at that clock. Better than what I saw when the doctor brought me into the room to see her, better than the life I imagined her having at that moment. Better than no life at all.

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