Brain bleeds for breakfast.
I come downstairs one morning and find a piece of burnt toast on the kitchen counter. It’s torn roughly in two and crumbs are everywhere. There’s a broken plate nearby and a knife with butter is on the floor.
My mom is on the phone, whispering hysterically into the receiver. For a moment I think she’s heard bad news. I try hard to listen to her whispers. What’s she saying? Is she crying?
A thought occurs,
like some absurd but true epiphany from a dream: Maybe my mom is speaking a language beyond words?
I walk into the living room, where she’s perched on the couch, rocking back and forth, her brow twisted in pain and confusion. Beyond upset. She looks destroyed. I’ve watched for 10 years as she lived with cancer. Watched as her mother, father, brother died while she went through chemotherapy. Watched the bone marrow extractions. Watched the drainage tube being installed in her abdomen to syphon off the fluid. Watched the drainage tube being installed in her back to syphon the fluid off of her lungs.
One time, while driving home from the cancer center,
she told me that her doctor said there was nothing left to do. That it was time to give up. And all I could do was sit there and watch.
But now she’s lost it. Raving gibberish into the phone. I pull the receiver from her hands and she doesn’t resist. When I ask her who she’s on the phone with she looks at me like I’ve asked her some profane riddle. Her jaw drops in confusion. Nothing comes out.
She grabs her notebook and writes two quick words, then thrusts the book at me. I take it and look at what she’s written:
Oh mom, I’m sorry.
I can see you smiling on the beach, in the redwoods, at a picnic table in a bright red blouse, laughing and joyful with my aunt, swelling with emotion whenever you heard What a Wonderful World. I hear you exclaiming, “Hey, J!” whenever I enter the room. I can even see your teeth clenched together in that uncontrollable rage I know so well. I can hear your laugh.
Now, though, I can’t understand anything you’re saying, and you can’t understand me. Your body is wasted. You couldn’t even make yourself toast.
As my mom shakes and cries, I put the phone to my ear.
“Who is this?”
The woman on the other end seems surprised to not have gibberish being yelled at her anymore.
“This is Teresa at Colorado Medical Supplies. I called, well, I called because… Is that your mother? Is she ok?”
“No. I think she’s had a stroke. Can I call you back?”
“Well the reason I called is that your mother’s almost out of drainage bags and we need to process a new order. Let’s just confirm that order right now and then you get your mom medical attention.”
I end the call and then tell my mom that I’m calling 911, that’s it’s going to be alright. Then she yells the first word she’s uttered since toast:
“NO! NO NO NO! NO NO NO NO NO!! NO!!!!!”
She cries hysterically and screams again, “NO!!”
All she does is cry and say no, but I can hear her telling me “you don’t know what it’s like! All the time in the hospital. They take so much from me. They treat me like a failing machine. I can’t sleep in there. I’m in pain. My life is ending and I can’t even sleep through the beeps and the hourly checks and the prodding and the questions. I can’t do it! You don’t understand!”
I let her calm down. She has a few words left. She tells me, “no,” “my sister,” “wait my sister,” “my sister, wait, wait, my sister.”
Her sister, an oncology nurse in Florida.
I call her for advice. She says maybe it’s a medical reaction. Probably not. She tells me to have my mom lay down. Wait it out for a couple hours. She calms down even more, but the symptoms haven’t faded.
She finds a few more words. We agree, she has had a stroke.
I beg her to go to the hospital. I threaten to call 911. They’ll make her go. She wails. I beg. She wails. I punch a hole in the kitchen wall and scream.
She says, “J, J, J, help this,” and she points frantically at her checkbook, “help this, help help help this!”
She wants to balance her fucking checkbook.
So we spend an hour logging receipts. I write a few checks for her in my sloppy, post-dyslexia handwriting. She seems sort of satisfied. Barely in control. Crippled after toast, but not defeated.
48 hours later I drive to the airport with my mom and we pick up my aunt. She is a nurse, and she’s conceals her shock well. But there’s no denying it, this is a funny and fucked situation.
It’s been over two days since toast, we never went to the hospital. My mother confused but defiant. We all drive to the hospital together and they send her for an MRI. It’s probably the 20th MRI she’s had in her life. Yet when she emerges from the procedure, she’s crying hysterically, like a frightened child. In stroke-broken sentences, she says she thought they were shooting her into space. She looks at us with deep confusion, as if we had ordered her execution by rocket ship.
Later that day,
while laying in her hospital bed, she grabs my hand and tells me, “it time for plan.” She says, “sorry, so sorry, try hard so long so sorry.” No one else in the room has any idea what the plan is. I know exactly what that plan is.
When she comes home she’s able to tell me, “you were so mad, so so mad. Punch wall!” I realize that she’d never seen me so angry.
She tries to tell us what she wants to eat. Draws sad little pictures of round speckled things. I spend twenty minutes trying to guess what it is. Finally I say, “sushi?” And her face lights up. Yes, she wants sushi!
But then we get the sushi and she tastes it and it turns out she doesn’t like sushi anymore. Everything changes after toast.
She makes tremendous progress and nobody is surprised. She’s always defied the odds. She can speak again, she’s herself again. Still, something about that morning lingers, and I get angry when she asks me to show her how to use the computer. “J, I had a stroke, I don’t remember!”
And then one morning I come downstairs and smell toast.
My mom is on the couch with her breakfast. She sees me and exclaims, “Hey, J!” I ask her how she’s feeling and she tries to stretch her body up toward the ceiling, but she’s bound into hunched shoulders and stooped spine by calcified tubes winding through her back and belly. She says, “I can’t… wait — when I get these tubes removed I’m gonna stretch alllll the way out. Oh, it’s gonna to feel so good!”
I look at her, she’s smiling in a way that only a handful of insane people can smile. She’s months away from death and still in love with breakfast, with the thought of stretching. And all I can think is that the entire house smells like toast.