On October 7th, I almost lost my best friend, my rock, my mother.
As I was leaving my usual 9 am boxing class in Santa Monica, I called her to check-in, see what she was up to, and in all honesty, complain about how sore I was already. To my surprise, although not completely shocking, my sister Traci picked up the phone. “Cortney, where are you?” she asked sternly. “What? Why? I’m leaving boxing,” I responded, wondering why she sounded so serious on a Saturday afternoon. “Ok, mom had a cardiac arrest, we don’t know why or what caused it but…” as she continued to explain, I froze.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always viewed my life as a movie. A drama on some days, a romantic comedy on most, but a movie nonetheless. On long runs in Valley Green during high school at Griffith Park during graduate school, or even driving along PCH with the perfect soundtrack today, I imagine and recreate both silly and realistic scenes with people in my life. Sometimes I’ll merely laugh at myself and how ridiculous I sound, others I’m motivated to make the moves I once backed down from, or dreams that seem reachable, a reality. But this scene was my worst nightmare realized. My biggest fear was playing out in front of me and I didn’t know how to handle it.
That Saturday afternoon my mother and sister had plans to run a few errands with my nephews Caleb (3) and Carter (1). Traci arrived at our home around 12:30 pm. When she walked into the house my mom was going about her normal routine, straightening up while talking vibrantly on the phone with her friend. She had a 2 pm hair appointment, however, and being the unwaveringly punctual woman that she is, that meant they would need to leave soon. As Traci was preparing to make sure the boys were buckled in and ready to go, Caleb had to use the bathroom. So, my mom, also being the incredibly efficient woman that she is, decided to start a load of laundry while waiting for him to finish. Soon after, Caleb ran back out to the car. After 5 minutes or so, Traci wondered why my mom was taking a while and decided to go in and see for herself. After calling out for her twice with no response, Traci walked into the laundry room and found my mom unconscious, face down on the floor, lying in a pool of her own vomit.
After rightfully panicking for a second, Traci, being the fearless and fervent family physician that she is, called 911 and began CPR while on the phone with the first responder. The cops arrived first, shocking my mom twice. Then, EMS arrived and shocked her two more times. After four shocks, they found a faint but noticeable pulse and immediately transported her to our local hospital. I called my mom about 10 minutes after everything had happened, hence the seriousness in my sister’s voice. She relayed the events, said she was on her way to the hospital along with my dad — who arrived home to the chaos after a few errands — and promised to call me every hour or so with updates.
As I hung up the phone I pulled over, parked, and wept hysterically. Then, wiping my eyes just enough to see the road, I called Southwest Airlines and sped home as I (irresponsibly) texted my bosses and booked the next flight to Philadelphia.
I talk to my mom daily — morning, noon, and night — about everything. Just a few weeks prior we were talking about life and all of its hardships — a result of her consistently picking up on my palpable unhappiness for months — particularly loss. Unlike me, my mom is far too familiar with both. Her story, although triumphant, is a difficult one. From losing her mother at 11 and her grandmother at 13 to growing up destitute in and out of foster homes along with her 10 siblings to most recently grieving the death of her youngest sister in August, my mom has faced difficulty and death her entire life. As a result, and due to her unshakeable faith, she is quite comfortable with it, regularly singing to those in hospice. Aside from a camp friend’s untimely passing in 2014, I had never lost anyone close to me, and would often have anxiety, knowing it was only a matter of time. As I meandered through security at LAX, arrived at my gate, and sat down on my first plane, I was stricken by fear as I wondered, “Is this it?”
As I scrolled through thousands of pictures from family vacations and holiday dinners all I could think was, “What if she never sees me get married?” something we regularly discussed. As I arrived at photos of her with Caleb and Carter I cried thinking, “What if she never gets to see and spend time with my kids?” As I watched videos of us laughing I thought, “What if her last memory of me is me feeling lost, distraught, and depressed?” I tried listening to music, and while age-old Gospel songs helped, they also hurt as they instantly reminded me of our family tradition of singing around the piano every time we’re together. Or, I’d hear Eva Cassidy, our favorite singer, croon “You’ll remember when the west wind moves along the fields of barley” in her stunning “Fields Of Gold” cover and weep as quietly as I could. What would my life be without my mother? What could it be? Thinking about it was inevitable. Considering it was impossible, so I cried. I cried, assured kind passengers that I was okay, slept until it was time to change planes, and cried some more. In between the tears, however, I shocked myself for a second thinking, “Well, if this it, I did have 27 years with her. Not everyone can say the same.” Little did I know, this wisdom and maturity — an unmistakable growth I had long been praying for — would set the tone for the next two grueling weeks.
After being airlifted from our local to a more accommodating hospital, my mother was placed in a medically induced hypothermic coma (or targeted temperature management) to help improve neurologic function after cardiac arrest. Covered completely in cold packs, her body temperature was lowered to 32 degrees, while she was temporarily paralyzed so that she wouldn’t shiver and expend more energy. Thus began the waiting.
I arrived in Philadelphia at 12:00 am EST to my dad and brother, Jonathan. The 40 minute car ride was quiet, almost silent, but it was also the first time that I had felt a sense of peace since hearing the news. I had no idea what was next, or what was going to happen, but I was home. That’s all that mattered.
I woke up around 6:00 am, a bit restless due to shock and jet lag, and decided to go for a quick run to attempt to combat it all. It was raining; I was wet, cold, delirious, and stiff, but couldn’t get over the overwhelming sense of calm I felt, even amidst a brief cry during mile two. Then, my sister called me. As she shed some tears of her own, we decided to meet at her church in a few hours, despite wanting to go straight to the hospital. Not only did we know that’s what our mom would have wanted us to do, we also knew that’s what we needed, more than anything.
I drove in silence, drifted a bit — a perfect setting for S. Carey’s “Brassy Sun” — and tuned into my surroundings. About 5 miles away from the church I noticed that the license plate of a Mercedes in front of me read “Seek Ye.” My stomach sank. In addition to looking at pictures, I read through all of my text messages with my mom in the last year while on the plane. Just three days prior she sent me a typical encouraging text that said, “Hey, Cortney, I am going to give you something God gave me when I was 16 years old. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and all things will be given unto you.” God has everything under control!” Peace. It was all I could feel. I drove behind that Mercedes until I pulled into the parking lot of my sister’s church.
As Traci sang with the worship team while I clapped along next to brother-in-law, Shawn, I continuously wondered how I was standing, singing, and even smiling at some points. My mother has spoken about death quite plainly, without fear or reservation, my entire life. About how much she looked forward to being with the Lord in heaven, reunited with the many loved ones she had lost. It always made me a bit uncomfortable even though I got used to it. And, here she was, staring death in the face, and I wasn’t completely broken, crumbled in a corner. I was filled with wonder — mostly why and how this happened — but still standing. I couldn’t comprehend it.
After service, my sister and I drove to the hospital — the second of many long and eerily quiet car rides. As I walked onto the floor of the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit (CICU), the unmistakable peace I’d been feeling disappeared for a moment as I stopped outside of my mom’s room. Up until that point, every detail was relayed to me, left up to my imagination. Now, it was time to witness it first hand. After a few deep breaths, I walked into the room and stared at my mom’s painfully recognizable face — her eyes closed, hair sprawled out on the pillow, tongue bruised and sticking out of the left side of her mouth, while multiple tubes stemmed from her throat and arms. Beeping. Pumping. More beeping. Constant noises from machines tracking her temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure filled the room along with sounds of her chest being pumped with air. She wasn’t breathing on her own (intubated). By no means did she look like a vegetable, but she didn’t look like my mom either. As I touched her hand it felt like ice — cold enough to cool a hot beverage — and lifeless, as it couldn’t hold onto mine in return.
I stared at her deeply for a second and then started talking. For the rest of that day, we sat by her side, staring, singing, praying, and talking. The laughs were few and far between but the room wasn’t completely devoid of them. We spoke and moved as if she was there, sometimes adding in a witty remark she’d make if able. We wanted to present a united, hopeful front. We sought to fill the room with belief and joy. The belief that this wasn’t the end. We claimed healing in the name of Jesus repeatedly, especially when led by my sister’s pastor who visited early that evening. As time passed, we did all we could — wait — before visiting hours ended. No one wanted to leave, but we also knew nothing was going to change overnight, even as she was slowly but surely warmed back up to standard bodily temperature. So, we thanked the nurse on call as she gave us the number to reach her at any time, promised to keep us apprised of any changes, and went home. Another long and eerily quiet car ride.
As I got into bed that night, I stared up at the ceiling in the dark and thought, “What happens now?” Logistically, I knew it’d be good to get in touch with my mom’s employer and church — including her favorite devotional team, Insight for Living — as my sister had proactively reached out to close family and friends. Spiritually, I knew the best and only thing to do was talk to God.
I’ve grown up in church my entire life, went to Christian school from Kindergarten to 12th grade, was baptized at 13, and had discussed Christianity, particularly what it means to have a relationship with God, with my mom for hours on end. She always stressed the importance of a relationship rather than “pulling Him off of the shelf” in times of need or trouble. She encouraged me to talk to Him as if I would to her — candidly, honestly, and openly. So, I did. I had before, many times, but this would be the first where I felt deep down in my bones, that He was listening. That this conversation was active and only just beginning.
I talked, asked questions, paused in doubt, expressed my fear and frustration, and ultimately prayed for healing [for my mom] and peace. The peace beyond understanding that I had always read about in the Bible, heard in sermons and others’ testimonies. Peace. Something I had almost forgotten how to feel through years of school and work environments that bred stress and anxiety. Peace. The one thing that could carry me through this nightmare. Peace.
I was the first to arrive at the hospital Monday morning. As I walked to my mom’s room with a bag I’d packed the night before — I had no intention of leaving the hospital that evening, after all, I wasn’t sleeping at home anyway — she stared right at me with watery eyes as her new nurses checked her vitals. As I put my bag down and exchanged pleasantries, I asked for a full update on how she was doing. She had reached normal temperature and was responding well. Thank God. I was then given the okay to set up some of her music and read/talk with her. So, I put on one of her favorite worship CDs, read some devotions, and ran through my day as I would, every day.
Monday was particularly hard as now that her body was warm, she was also being weaned off of sedatives and therefore beginning to feel. Considering the severity of the treatment, and the fact that she was still intubated, discomfort was not only expected or noticeable but especially hard to communicate. Knee-jerk movements and moans were common, and particularly painful to witness, but not necessarily a bad sign. The best signs were her responses to commands like, “Kathy, squeeze my hand,” or “Can you wiggle your toes”? After a few doubtful responses, she obeyed, convincing the doctors enough to extubate and allow her to breathe on her own (with the help of oxygen). That would be the first of many victories to come.
Around 3:30 am Tuesday morning, as my sister and I were sleeping in shifts, I heard Traci laugh and say, “Good!” with a palpable sense of relief. My mom had verbally responded for the first time with the words yes and ok. I instantly woke. And, just two hours later texted my concerned friends with trembling hands to tell them she not only spoke but told me she loved me. Peace. Not only was it still there, but now more pronounced than ever.
By Wednesday morning my mother was fully awake, in the sense that she was able to engage in a conversation. Albeit brief, and her memory feeble, but she was talking somewhat continuously. As expected, she struggled with not understanding what happened or where she was. “Traci fell out,” she asked? “No mom, you fell out, and Traci found you,” I’d respond. “Oh my God, that’s horrible,” she’d say before closing her eyes for a few more minutes, only to wake up and ask the same questions. She asked, and I answered. I answered, and prayed — prayers of praise and thanksgiving that my mom was still here, that she was not just awake but talking so soon.
The next several days and nights — I stayed by her side every evening — were long, and while they included a few disconcerting hiccups like spiked fevers and a horrible allergic reaction to antibiotics — yet another thing to compromise her comfortability — the miraculous improvements shook the floor, doctors, nurses, and faithful loved ones alike. Peace. It was still there, even in a scary moment to come.
As my mom continued to heal she started resembling old behaviors and patterns. A notoriously early riser and an avid walker — she’s walked about 40 miles a week (every day except Sunday) since I was born — between the hours of 2 am and 7 am, before the doctors made their rounds, she would often wake up, either due to discomfort or determined to go on her walk. “I need to get up!” she’d say. “Mom, no, you can’t” I’d respond. A brief tiff would ensue, true to form, as she still struggled with understanding what happened and therefore the magnitude of her condition before the nurse would intervene per my request and essentially back me up. “Not yet Kathy,” they’d say, “But soon”. Her independence and resilience that had carried her through life thus far didn’t deplete for a second. She wanted to do everything on her own, including using the bathroom. And, sometimes, like that Thursday morning, she’d let me help, alongside the nurse.
I stood by her right side as a nurse stood by her left to ensure stability. Everything seemed fine, but as I looked down it appeared as if she started to lose consciousness. “Mom,” I yelled! “What’s wrong?” As the nurse noticed my concern and started urging her to respond, a team of fellow nurses and doctors rushed into the room ready to revive her. In my hands. She started to pass out (again) in my hands. But still, I felt peace. The second time that overwhelming sense of peace started to drift happened that evening after we transferred my mom to a different (even better equipped) hospital.
A new nurse came in to check her vitals and go over Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) protocol. Following an earlier dose of Percocet my mom responded freely as I tried to talk over her. “No, you don’t need to keep me” she said softly. “Yes,” I shouted! “Mom, stop it, you don’t know what you’re saying.” I had my sister on speakerphone as my mom continued to calmly state her reasoning. “If it’s time for me to go, Cortney, it’s time. And, it’s okay,” she said. After the nurse left, agreeing to accept me and my sister’s responses due to the uncertainty of mother’s mental state, Traci said, “Well this is a conversation we need to have as a family,” before we hung up. As my mom quietly looked up at How To Get Away With Murder on TV, I looked out the window, silently brushed my hair, and shed a tear. I knew how my mom felt about death — always ready to face it with dignity. I knew that would be her exact response to such questions. But, selfishly, I wasn’t ready to let her go, and I didn’t think God was either. Did I genuinely feel peace with the entire situation, or was I just (surprisingly) calm, cool, and collected because my mom was still by my side? Was I truly at peace with whatever the outcome might be? Or, was able to comfortably breathe because the outcome, so far, was everything I could hope?
Today marks one month of my mother’s incident. Last Monday she returned to work with some new hardware — a defibrillator in her chest to prevent a cardiac arrest from happening again — a bit of nerve and skin discomfort (due to the allergic reaction) she was slowly but surely adjusting to, and an easily recognizable and infectious smile. Three days later, to my dismay but overall pride, she walked 4 miles with my brother. Two days after that, she walked 6 with my dad. She’s not just still here, or standing, but in her right mind, attempting, and often achieving, to live the same life she had before it was compromised just weeks ago. I had no doubt this would happen, especially after staying with her both in and out of the hospital, where her reigning goal was independence. But to hear it, and witness it daily, is something entirely different. I have my mom back. She has her life, and therefore, I have mine, but things are different.
I know without a shadow of a doubt that God answered my prayers for peace and healing. What I am still trying to determine, however, is what He was trying to reveal to me with that stunning and steadfast peace. I think on this daily, but thus far believe He was showing me who He is, as well as who He wants me to be, including how I tackle this life.
Several months prior to my mom’s incident — that doctors are still trying to comprehend the cause of — I was struggling with depression. I was frustrated with myself, everyone, and everything around me. I had succumbed to self-doubt, constantly comparing myself to others, self-deprecation, wanting to change so many things about myself but putting in little to no effort to do so, and more. I was existing, not living. I was going through the motions, waking up each day with little to no joy or gratitude. I expected each day to come, and for it to be devoid of meaning. I cynically “hoped” for things to change, but lacked action. I prayed for direction and for peace, but didn’t believe that either were likely. It wasn’t until I had no choice but to lean on God and His word, that I understood the power that He holds, and that I too am able to grasp solely because of Him.
As I reluctantly flew back to Los Angeles — I wanted nothing more than to stay on my mom’s side as she reacclimated to life — I couldn’t help but feel different. My perspective and priorities had changed. Sure, I’ve had moments of doubt, feeling down and distraught, but not in the same capacity. I don’t just ask for things to happen, I listen, fervently for whether or not they should, and if so, what my proactive part in initiating them is.
A week or so ago I went on a run on a gloomy (my favorite kind in LA) Sunday afternoon. I’d plan to do just a couple miles but as the automated voice on the Map My Run app said, “4 miles,” David Ramirez’s “Time” played from my Miles and Miles playlist — comprised of tunes that always make me ponder — I kept going. I wept as I huffed and puffed around the Silverlake Reservoir. “Time, time, time, I got nothing but, time,” he sang. Time. Despite occasionally stating cliches like, “Life is short,” I subconsciously felt time was infinite. In fact, I’d often wish my time here was a lot shorter than it had been. As Ramirez continuously sang, “I’ve got nothing but…” I thought, “Peace.”
See, peace gives us so much. It completely alters the way that we think, see, move, approach our surroundings, and tackle our everyday lives. The peace God gave me revitalized the way I viewed time. I shifted from a horrible combination of expectancy and wishing for less of it [time], to realizing how much of it I already had, to vowing never to take it for granted again. Peace. Time. With each breath, I smiled and shed a tear because it dawned on me that the peace you feel in a brief moment is worth more than one hundred years of frustration and doubt. Peace without time is manageable. But, time without peace is agonizing.
Throughout my worst nightmare, I was given peace. That peace forced me to trust in God fully, and reevaluate time and therefore my life, and what it means to live. As a result of that peace, that trust, and reevaluation, this movie is going to play out a lot differently than I’ve imagined. I don’t know what genre or scene is next, but I do know my role.
On October 7th I almost lost my best friend, my rock, my mother — and as a result, she gave me life, again.