Cinnamon Brooms and Comas

Cinnamon brooms in the grocery store are how I know it’s time. The smell hits me like a wall every year. It’s so strong and it’s supposed to be pleasant, but it’s not, not any more. It used to be, I used to be excited when the cinnamon brooms were in the grocery store because that meant all the good things. Cooler weather, pumpkins, scary movies, candy pumpkins, Thanksgiving, cranberry sauce. It still means those things, but I have to fight for those things to be at the forefront. Because cinnamon brooms also mean choking, vomit, early morning calls, hospitals, comas, hospice and unplugging. Cinnamon brooms mean holding your baby as his first father dies. It means crying in the shower but holding it together for everyone else. Writing a eulogy for a 33 year old man. Picking out flowers and pictures. Asking for memories so you can share stories with his son who won’t know him. Cinnamon brooms mean all of those things. If I’m lucky, it means more of the good, and not so much of the sad. This year will be nine years of the cinnamon brooms causing anxiety instead of anticipation. Every year the anticipation gets a little stronger and the anxiety a little less. But the smell is always as strong.

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This post was written as a Just Write post because sometimes it’s better to just let the words come without editing, rewriting, or checking yourself. Go read some of the other Just Write entries over on Heather’s blog.

Widow Wednesday: Giving Up Hope

Several months ago, when I was dropping the kids off at my Grandmother’s house, my attention was caught by a story on the TODAY show. The story was about a person who had woken from a coma.  I tend to notice all of those stories, but then this had the phrase I hate. The patient woke up when, “the family was just about to give up hope”. This isn’t just a pet peeve. This phrase cuts me to the core every single time I hear it. There are so many things about the phrase that get me. And I’m not going to claim that any of them are rational. I know those stories aren’t about *me*. Regardless, they get me. So, if you can’t put up with some crazy, you should stop reading here.

When a person wakes from a coma, just in the nick of time, and the family never gave up hope? It implies that I did, and if I hadn’t, Mark would have woken up. Because, you know, just a little more hope would have turned those black brain scans back to ones full of light and activity. A little more hope would have cleared his lungs. A little more hope would have made it possible for him to swallow without choking to death. If only I’d had more hope.

Mark’s dad, Larry, literally never gave up hope that Mark would wake. We were at the hospice unit where Mark would die in 8 days and Larry was still urging Mark to wake. It got so painful that I asked him to stop when I was in the room. I just couldn’t hear it. So, if just having hope wakes someone from a coma? Larry would have been enough hope for all of us.

I hear “hope” and “faith” the same way. If only I’d had more hope/faith. Which means what? I didn’t pray right? The hundreds of strangers lifting Mark up in whatever prayer/thoughts/pleading to their own personal God or high power didn’t count? That’s what I hear when someone says they had faith.

I know. I know that, logically, nothing would have changed if I’d had more hope. I think it hurts me to hear that phrase, too, because if Mark had woken up…he wouldn’t have been Mark any longer. He would have been a shell. Probably. At some point, I knew it was better to let him go. His body could have lived on life support and in a coma for a long time. He had already fought of lung infections that would have quickly killed older, sicker patients. But we had talked about it and I knew he wouldn’t want to live like that. But, if I’d had more hope, and he had woken up, I would have sentenced him to a life trapped in a broken body and mind. Probably. But, I’ll never know for sure.

You can’t imagine how hopeless that still makes me feel.

Widow Wednesday: Movies Lie

In real life, comas aren’t like they are in the movies. That may not be a surprise to you, but it was to me. I was shocked by so many things when Mark got sick and during his time in the hospital(s). Like his coma. They said he was in a coma, but I didn’t believe them for a few days because it didn’t look like comas look in the movies. I know. That’s stupid, right? To be surprised that reality wasn’t the same as it was portrayed in the movies or on television? Crazy! But I had nothing to compare it to, so I was confused and disbelieving.

I wasn’t there when Mark went into the coma. It was early in the morning, while we were getting up and getting ready to head to the hospital for our daily visit. I got the call to come up to the hospital right away as he had been choking and when I got there, he was in the coma. Coincidentally, as I was walking into the ICU for the first time to see what was going on, I heard the family of another patient being told that he was out of his coma. I thought, “Huh, that’s good.” I had no idea what an enormous moment that could be. Why? Because people come out of comas all the time in movies. And they look good when they do.

The first day of Mark’s coma was the last day we had any contact with him. The fact that he was tracking us with his eyes and squeezed our hands in response to questions and prompts probably didn’t help my impression of what a coma was. But the first day was it, there was no more reaction from him that we could tie to a prompt or question or anything in the environment. So he should be peaceful and still and quiet. Because that’s what comas are like in the movies. But he wasn’t. His eyes were open, his body twitched, and for a few days his body seemed to be fighting. He was combative. Which is not what a coma is supposed to look like, right?

At one point the doctors had to order restraints on his arms because he was jerking so much they were afraid he was going to pull out his IVs. Who has to have arm restraints when they’re in a coma? It turns out that quite a few people do.

Almost six years later and I still get mad when I see a coma in a movie. I almost always say, under my breath, “That is such a lie.” It’s possible I’m slightly pissed at movie comas. But check it out, smart scientists are too. Seriously, though, you should read that article. It’s got some good information and definitions and it proves I’m not a wackadoo for being mad at movies. A few months after Mark died, I remembered that patient who had come out of the coma the day Mark went into his. And I was truly amazed at the miracle that that man waking represented. But I was still mad.

The Real Day

The death certificate says that Mark died was November 19th, but it’s wrong. The real date is October 19th. My Mom and I were getting ready to go to the hospital and my phone rang. When your husband is in the hospital, and not doing well, you don’t want your phone to ring at 6:45 in the morning. Nothing good can come from that.

The voice on the phone said, “Mrs. Deer, your husband is on his way to ICU. He had an episode where he was choking and he’s not breathing on his own. You need to get here as quickly as you can.” The baby was wearing his fuzzy footy pajamas, the ones with two shades of blue stripes. They were too big on him, but he was growing so fast that I had gotten the next size up so he would grow into them.

As soon as Mark’s parents got to our apartment, we all left for the hospital. The motel where they were staying was only a block away, it only took a few minutes for them to get there, but it seemed like hours. I had forgotten to ask the voice on the phone which floor ICU was on, so we wasted precious moments going to the floor he had been on to find out where he’d been taken.

There was a doctor in the elevator. It turned out to be the baby’s pediatrician, making his early morning rounds for the women who had just given birth. Checking on his new patients, the newest lives in the hospital, while I was making my way to my dying husband. Just 4 months earlier the same doctor made rounds in a different hospital on the other side of town to check on our baby after he was born. Strangely, my manners kicked in, and I introduced him to Mark’s parents and my Mother. He said, “What are you all doing in the hospital so early?” I said, “My husband is here.” He just looked at me. I think, now, that it was shock or confusion. He got off the elevator on the floor before us and I was mad that he made the elevator stop again.

There was nobody in the lobby of the ICU. Nobody to ask what to do. You aren’t born knowing how to navigate a hospital. The ICU doors were closed, locked. I think I banged on the glass window. A crazy woman holding a 4-month-old boy in blue footy pajamas. The doors opened, I rushed inside and told them I was there for my husband. I can imagine how I looked. Panicked. Resolute. Stupidly hopeful that if Mark was in the ICU they could save him. The nurse said, “Mrs. Deer, your husband just got here, we’re getting him settled in. We need you to wait in the lobby for just a few minutes until he’s all set up. And you’ll need to leave the baby in the lobby with someone.” But Mark needs to see the baby.

They called me in. Just a few minutes later, but it’s amazing how often you hit time warps when you are waiting in the hospital. They called me in and my Mom stayed with the baby so Mark’s parents could come back with me. “As you know, Mark was having trouble swallowing the past couple of days. At the shift change this morning, when his day nurse came in, Mark was blue and breathing shallow, quick breaths. The nurse performed CPR. He is intubated now, the ventilator is breathing for him. We’re assessing him now, we’re not sure how long he might have been without enough oxygen.”

Too long. He was without oxygen for too long. His brain was damaged, there would be scans and tests and more scans. Twenty-two days of trying to figure out what was wrong with him. Why he wasn’t waking up when his body was perfectly healthy. Fighting off lung infections that would have killed older, less healthy patients. Twenty-two days of fighting.

But it was that first day of the coma that he slipped away. It was that first day, when Mark’s eyes were still mostly focused and were tracking us still, that I held up our sweet baby so he was eye-level with Mark and said, “You see our son? He is so lucky you are his Daddy. So lucky.” Mark smiled a little. It was that first day, when I told him, “You know how lucky I am that you are my husband? You *know* how much I love you?” Mark smiled a little and squeezed my hand.

He never responded again after that first day. Twenty-two days of scans and tests and biopsies and pissed-off doctors, and none of it mattered after that first day. His body was alive for 30 days after that first day, but Mark was gone. But he squeezed my hand and smiled at his son before he left.

Reason 8,237

Would you like to know Reason 8,237 why I love my husband? Today we watched “Steel Magnolias,” and somehow I forgot about the hospital scene where M’Lynn is by Shelby’s side. But William knew what was coming up, and without my noticing, he moved to sit next to me so that when M’Lynn is holding pictures up to Shelby and demanding Shelby wake from the coma, my husband was sitting next to me holding my hand. Because he knew I forgot about the scene, and he knew that that was how I spent many hours when Mark was in the coma. And he knew my heart would be pounding and I would be crying. If we’d been home, he would have changed the channel for me.

That’s Reason 8,237 why I love my husband.