BREACH OF INNOCENCE
My first recollection of seeing a dead person in a coffin was before grammar school. With a large family like ours, it wasn’t unusual for a close or distant relative to pass on. I never really knew them other than they were part of our family, were elderly and/or had been extremely ill. Whether I wanted to or not, I was dragged along with everyone else to every passing. Even after attending a number of them, they still made me feel creepy and uncomfortable. But it wasn’t until after my own mother’s passing that I realized just how painful losing someone that close can be.
I was 15 when Mom passed away unexpectedly and too young to understand the full extent of what had been suddenly snatched from my world. Maybe the sheer innocence of it all is what made me believe parents just don’t up and die for no reason. After all, Mom was only 55 years old and not that sick! Parents bring you into this world so you automatically expect they’ll be around to see you grow up, get married and have children. Or maybe I truly believed that death could only happen to other families and not ours.
Mom had always looked healthy enough, rosy cheeks and all. A bit overweight but her excellent home cooking plus 8 kids probably played a major role on that front. She was never one to complain about anything. But after several weeks of mentioning frequent cramping and painful stomach bloating we all began to worry. Not fond of doctors, she did not believe in seeing one for what she called a ’little’ problems. Left alone, she believed all aches and pains would go away on their own.
My father, as well as the rest of the family, begged her to seek medical attention. We nagged and nagged for weeks before she finally gave in and decided to see Dr. Jacobs, our family physician.
Dr. Jacobs’s initial examination showed the likely cause of Mom’s discomfort: an intestinal blockage. He believed a simple operation would make her well again. His recommendation was that she discuss his diagnosis with a gastroenterologist as soon as conveniently possible.
Staffed with mostly general practitioners and relatively few surgeons and specialists, our town’s antiquated 200,000 plus square foot hospital didn’t seem like the right kind of place for Mom to have her operation. And besides, most medical professionals working in the facility were so overwhelmed with their existing patients they hardly had time for new patients.
Although fully capable of providing acceptable healthcare services to its 17,000 or so townspeople, as well as those in surrounding communities, the facility nonetheless lacked the expertise of specialized doctors and state-of-the-art equipment. But just over 100 miles away, Hanover Clinic was touted as one of the best facilities in the region. It not only housed some of the nation’s top surgeons but the convenience of its locale would also make it possible for everyone in the family to trek back and forth easily enough.
Although Pop, as well as the rest of us, cringed at the thought of Mom going under the knife, we felt choosing the best doctor and hospital around would at least give us a comfort level we could live with. The family consensus was unanimous: Hanover Clinic was the one and only choice.
The appointment day came and Mom once again was given an opportunity to describe her symptoms to Dr. Brown, one of the hospital surgeons. She fully expected and was not disappointed when he ordered a full gamut of laboratory tests. The results only reinforced Dr. Jacob’s prior diagnosis.
Although the surgery was not urgent or dangerous, it was Dr. Brown’s professional opinion that Mom schedule the operation sooner rather than later. With nothing short of an excellent prognosis, and a nod from Pop, Mom opted to go ahead with the procedure done.
On a bright, sunny Saturday morning in April, and within weeks of Doctor Brown’s visit, the surgery was performed. Just as the doctor had predicted, the operation was a great success. Mom would make a full recovery and return home in a few days. Ecstatic all went so well and assured by Nancy, the floor duty nurse, she would receive nothing but the best of medical care, Pop and I agreed to leave so Mom could rest. We made plans to return the following day.
Just as we were getting ready to leave the next day, and less than 20 hours following the surgery, Pop received an unexpected and disturbing phone call from Dr. Brown. He was calling to say that for some unknown reason Mom had developed blood clots during the night. No one had noticed the problem until that morning. He was calling Pop to express his deep concern.
‘We noticed the clotting soon after we moved your wife from intensive care to a semi-private room,’ I overheard Dr. Brown say to Pop as both our ears competed for his every word. ‘Following the surgery I strongly believed your wife’s recovery was right on target. During my checkup this morning I realized something had gone wrong.’
Confused and visibly shaken Pop asked why no one had called him any earlier. With an apologetic tone to his voice Dr. Brown added that some amount of clotting after surgery is common. ‘The blood thinners we gave your wife as soon as we discovered the clots,’ Dr. Brown continued to say, ‘should have resolved the problem, but so far it has not. To be quite honest, your wife is not responding well to any medication we have given her thus far. The prognosis is not good.’
With a deep sigh in his voice, as if to express his own level of frustration, the doctor added ‘I haven’t given up hope yet but my worst fear is that if she does not improve soon she may not survive the day. My advice is for you and your family to come to the Clinic as soon as you can.’
In shock, over what the doctor had just said, I took a few steps back from the phone. For a few seconds my brain was having a difficult time processing what my ears had just heard. With both hands cupped over my mouth, I held my breath as if unwilling or unable to exhale. ‘Surely, the Doctor was just being overly cautious’, I thought to myself. Anytime now he is going to tell Pop that everything is going to be okay despite the clotting problem.
While waiting patiently for Pop to end his conversation the thought of Mom not being that ill echoed itself over and over again in my mind. Come on, now! There is just no way Mom could be dying!
Right before my eyes I saw Pop’s ruddy complexion turn a pallid white. His bony right hand, wrinkled from years of hard labor as a tinsmith at the local paper mill, clasped the receiver so tightly he seemed to be choking it. The worried look on his face told me all I needed to know.
Always so stoic in nature, Pop was never bothered by anything except the constant yelling and screaming of us bratty kids. But the pain in his eyes at that very moment is something I will never forget. Tearing up, he clumsily hung up the phone and said, ‘We have to leave for the Clinic right away!’
I pulled Mom’s address book from the dining room credenza and handed it over to Pop. His hands trembled as he dialed each siblings to let them know about the deteriorating crisis. He ended each call with a desperate ‘We don’t have a minute to waste.’
At the time, Tim and I were the only 2 kids living at home. Six brothers and sisters had since married and started families of their own. Three years older and an avid sportsman for many years, Tim was off rabbit hunting with friends when the news of Mom’s ill health reached us. With no way to get in touch with him, as he often traveled into dense forests to find the perfect retreat, he would be the last to learn that Mom had taken a turn for the worse.
Two older sisters, Jeanne and Laurie, along with their spouse, Roland and Brad, said they would caravan with Pop and I. Pat, the eldest sister, along with her husband, Ray, and three older brothers, Allen, Roland, and Emmett, agreed to meet outside of Mom’s hospital room.
From Barlow, it would take just under 2 hours of driving to reach the Clinic.
With his eyes glued to the road as if in a trance Pop continued to drive at almost reckless speed. Nary a word was said until we reached the halfway point around Easton.
In an attempt to break up the dead calm in the car I asked, ‘Isn’t it possible Dr. Brown was exaggerating her condition and Mom will be fine by the time we get there? Right, Pop? Maybe he just wants us all there so we can offer Mom support’. But the rambling questions went unanswered. The one person who could give me reassurance that everything was going to be okay was too wrapped up in his own pain to say anything. Shaking his head side to side, he seemed to drive as if his own life depended on it. The pitiful look on his face summed up what he must have been feeling inside and the reason why he didn’t feel much like carrying on a conversation, not with me, not with anybody.
Today’s weather was no different than any other spring day in northern New Hampshire. Crisp temperatures with gray, somber overcast was typical for this time of year. The roads, still slippery from melting snow and ice, showed only a sprinkling of salt and sand. Nonetheless, we managed to reach the clinic in record time.
Just as we neared the corridor to Mom’s private room, I overheard Nancy, the floor duty nurse, give advice to my sisters and brothers. ‘For the immediate family,’ she said to those waiting to see Mom, ’no more than 2 people are allowed in the room at any one time, and only for only a few brief minutes.
As soon as the nurse spotted Pop’s snowy white hair, she grabbed his right arm and pulled him aside and away from the rest of us. Using both hands, as if molding an urn, she began to describe the gravity of the situation. Soon afterward, they both disappeared inside the room. Laurie and Jeanne told me to sit on a nearby wooden bench and wait my turn.
Except, my turn never came. Less than 15 minutes into the visit, Mom succumbed to complications relating not only to blot clots but an undiagnosed case of acute peritonitis – a complication impossible to diagnose weeks earlier because of the very nature and location of the festering infection. Had the doctor been able to discover the problem earlier or immediately following the operation, her life could have been saved with antibiotics.
Holding on to each other as they left the room, I watched Pat and Ray walk in the direction of where I was sitting. Unaware of what had happened, I asked if I could finally see my mother. Tears streaming down Pat’s face told me something really bad had happened.
Ray reached out, grabbed my hand and pulled me close to him. Gently but firmly he squeezed my shoulders and walked me away from Mom’s room. At first, I wasn’t sure what he was doing. Too shy to ask any questions, I assumed he wanted to make me aware of the various medical contraptions that were hooked up to Mom’s face and chest. Or, that maybe she just needed to rest before seeing anyone else.
As we strolled down the grey, faintly lit hallway Ray reluctantly told me the bad news. A nauseous, sinking feeling came over me and I collapsed in his arms. Ray carried me to a visitor’s chair where I sat numb and oblivious to everything and everyone around me.
Softly rubbing my shoulders, Ray repeated over and over, ‘Everything is going to be all right, just wait and see. Everything is going to be just fine.’ But deep down inside I knew everything was not going to be ‘just fine’. I knew my life was going to be different from that day forward.
The sense of emptiness and loneliness I felt just then was crippling. It was as though every ounce of blood had drained from my body and I could no longer function as a human being. No one that close to me had died before and I could not handle the painful and heart-wrenching feeling it gave me. The close bond and relationship Mom and I had molded over the years was now over… just like that? Worst of all, I never got a chance to say goodbye or at least to let her know how much I loved her before she closed her eyes for the last time. It wasn’t bad enough I had to live without this special person but now I would have to carry the sting of that moment with me for the rest of my life.
Minutes later, Dr. Brown gave an explanation of what he believed happened. None of what he said eased any of the pain. We were left with even more unanswered questions. After briefly discussing an autopsy with Dr. Brown, Pop, along with the rest of the family, decided to leave the hospital to start the agonizing drive back home.
Tim came home around 6 PM that evening. Pop, Laurie, and I were sitting somberly around the dining room table. I’ll never forget the rage in Tim’s eyes when he looked straight at Pop’s grief-stricken face and yelled out, ‘She’s dead, isn’t she? I just know she’s dead. Tell me!’ When Pop nodded his head, Tim smashed his fist so hard on the dining room table I feared he might have broken every bone in his right hand.
Just like the rest of us, Tim shared a deep love and affection for this special person. But most of all, he was angry at himself for having left early that morning to enjoy a day with nature rather than joining the rest of us. With tears streaming down his face, Tim cussed and cursed as he retreated to the privacy of his bedroom slamming the door behind him.
Surprised and stunned over Tim’s sudden but understandable outburst, both Laurie and I tried repeatedly to calm him down. Pop was already in enough pain and mental anguish, he didn’t need anything else in his life to make matters worse. But as much as we tried to convince Tim there wasn’t anything he could have done to change the outcome of Mom’s fate he nonetheless refused to open the door and talk to us.
Sinking to a new low Laurie started to cry. Without any explanation she quietly slipped out the front door and went upstairs to join her husband, Brad, and their 2 children, Netta and Mark.
Resting his elbow on the armchair with left hand supported his jaw, Pop never moved a muscle to acknowledge Laurie’s departure. I watched Pop as he blankly stared into nothingness. It was evident his thoughts were a million miles away and oblivious to his surroundings.
For nearly two hours after Tim’s incident, a silence as thick as the grief we were feeling filled the room. When darkness fell, neither Pop nor I bothered to turn on any lights. We both sat in total darkness for hours, too stunned and emotionally devastated to say a single word.
At some point later during the night I went to my own bedroom. Somehow I hoped sleep would eliminate some of the emptiness I was feeling inside and help me forget what had just happened. But there was no escaping reality. Whether or not I wanted to accept it, I had met death face to face and it frightened me beyond anything I had ever experienced before. I prayed even more than usual that night so I would never lose my father. To live without either parent would be too much for any one person to bear.
Several times during that first night I awoke in a cold sweat. Flooding my mind were nightmarish and terrifying dreams. Each time I felt badly for having taken so much for granted all my life. The mere thought of ever losing my mother for any reason never once crossed my mind. Up to now I had only seen older people die —like Grandma Moore who had passed away 2 months earlier. She had been living with us over the last few years. Grandma Moore was nearly 80 years old! Mom was so much younger than that! She was lucky to have had her Mom around all that time. But I’m deprived of my own Mom? And now, this once energetic and vivacious person I loved so much is gone forever? Somehow, that wasn’t fair!
For several months afterwards, countless emotions filtered in and out of my life. First, there was anger because I felt she had abandoned us, then despair because I didn’t know how to handle the painful hurt inside. ‘If only she’d come back for just a fraction of a second’, I found myself wishing over and over, ‘I would thank her from the bottom of my heart for all that she had done for us kids!’ Most of all, I yearned for one of her big bear hugs. I missed her more than I ever thought possible.