Meredith Kachel/Antonio Manaligod/Dose

The Month I Died: ‘Mother’ Is A Verb

Before my coma, I actually believed everyone had a mom like her.

Two years ago, comedian Dave Maher woke from a monthlong coma. This is his story, told in ten installments.

My coma was not mine alone. In a practical sense, I didn’t consciously experience any part of it. The coma was the experience of my friends, my comedy community and my family.

When I got out of the hospital and understood how completely my mother, Catherine (aka Katie), had dedicated herself to literally bringing me back to life, I felt humbled. Yes, I had taken her for granted, but it was worse than that: In my ignorance and entitlement, I actually believed everyone had a mother like her.

Keeping vigil, keeping the faith

As a kid, I loved my mom, but that love came with judgment. She was a constant presence in my childhood, but I came to see that reliability as boring. “Thorough” was a word she used a lot. In her care for my siblings and me, she paid attention to every detail. She taught us to brush our teeth and tongues so thoroughly, I still gag a bit every time I brush.

She held us to rigorous standards of excellence, which I blamed for my own perfectionism later in life. When I rebelled against the evangelical Christianity of my upbringing, my mother’s steadfast faith stood as synecdoche for all that was backward and unquestioning about it.

My mom’s faith kept her present with me during my month of balancing on the precipice between life and death. She kept vigil by my bedside every day. She played Christian songs she found soothing on a little speaker, singing along to them in between prayers of thanksgiving to God and imploring divine protection and care. Even when my family thought they might have to take me off life support, she never stopped believing in a miracle.

Throughout the ordeal, her faith stayed strong. My friends commented on the intensity of her eyes. I don’t know whether that look arose as a result of her steadfast belief in my eventual recovery, or if it was a reflection of the deep, unwavering love I hadn’t fully appreciated before. I do know I’d long been labeled “intense,” a quality I thought I developed in school through late-night, intellectual conversations and my passions for art and capital-T Truth. I now know I get this from her.

Tremor temper tantrum

After I woke, It took me awhile to process what had happened, and it took even longer to accept responsibility for the neglect and denial that put me into the coma in the first place. I spent a long time simply feeling confused and upset and still too stuck in my historically selfish mode of operation to consider the impact of the trauma on my loved ones.

Thus, I did not think immediately about how my coma affected my mother. Was she scared? Upset? The thought didn’t cross my mind. I didn’t feel guilty because I saw myself as the victim.

Yet at every step, my mom stayed present, even when my feelings of victimhood overtook me.

One day, my mom sat beside my hospital bed, trying to access my bank account. Typing on my phone was nearly impossible as a result of the intention tremor in my hands, one of the many physical symptoms I suffered. Compounding my frustration was the fact that I found all my accounts locked — my email, my bank account, the third-party HR company that managed my company’s employee benefits. I thought I had suffered some sort of amnesia that only applied to internet passwords. My doctors assured me such amnesia does not exist.

Frustration at my helplessness boiled into rage that day. I watched my mom sitting there, incorrectly following my directions for resetting my password. My hands were too shaky to snatch my phone away and correct her mistakes, and I snapped.

I grabbed a pillow and screamed into it, “Ahhhhh! Shit! Motherfucker!” It was a tantrum unlike any I’d had since high school. (A more mature adult would probably date their last tantrum much further back into, say, their toddler years.) The nurse standing nearby slowly backed away, saying, “I’m going to let you two be alone for a bit.”

When she left, my mom looked me in the eyes and said, “That was unacceptable. I know this is unfair and you’re suffering, but that doesn’t exempt you from acting like a human being.” Her rigorous standards remained intact, and they were appropriate. She had given me my first lesson in post-coma humility.

Clear eyes, full heart

It wasn’t all tough love from my mom. She knew when and how to comfort me when I needed it most. As I recovered in physical rehab, getting stronger and weaning off a lengthy list of meds, I received more miraculous news: I no longer needed dialysis to do the job of my kidneys, which had gone from non-functioning to operating at full strength in weeks.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have long to bask in this miracle before a surgical resident showed up to remove the dialysis tube from my neck. He arrived holding the longest, sharpest needle I have ever seen.

Now, I am not afraid of needles. As a type 1 diabetic, needle-phobia would be beside the point. But something about this needle was different. As I felt its sharp pinch in my neck, the resident said, “This is the numbing shot.” That’s right: This death-poke was merely intended to mask some further, unspeakable pain.

I finally felt the thinness of the partition between life and death that I’d touched throughout my entire coma ordeal. It was the most clear-eyed, scariest moment of my life. Of course, my mom was at my bedside, and I reached for her hand and clasped it tightly. I looked her directly in the eyes and asked with genuine fear, “Mom, am I going to die right now?” She looked back with all the intensity and compassion she contained and said, “No.”

That’s when I began to see she was not only a “mother” in the biological, noun sense of the word. “Mother” is also a verb, and she mothered with the absolute best of them. She took me to every doctor’s appointment, brought me blankets when I was cold and special-ordered the strawberry smoothie from Panera Bread that I liked so I could have it every morning when I woke up in the hospital.

One more lesson

In January, she drove me home to Chicago from Cincinnati so that I could make it to a show where I was scheduled to perform a piece about my coma. It’s a 5½-hour drive, mostly through Indiana, and we fought in the middle of it because, at the time, she objected to me airing something so personal to our family. I don’t want to blame the state of Indiana for our fight, but it is very desolate. There’s not a lot to do in the car other than pick a fight with the woman you now realize is the most important person in the world to you.

At the end of the ride, we hit standstill traffic and I asked her a question to relieve the tension. I asked her how she was feeling.

“Not great,” she said. “This was around the time of day we came to visit you in the hospital when we first found out you were there in October, and I kind of hate Chicago right now.”

I was still just beginning to take responsibility for my part in the pain of the past few months, and in that moment, I contemplated the extent of her contributions to my recovery. I offered a feeble apology: “I’m sorry I put you through all this.”

She looked at me and — almost dismissively, as if the thought were absurd—said, “Oh, David. You didn’t put me through anything. This is just a thing that happened, and I went through it. It’s just not over. Not yet.”

If real friends show up when shit goes down, she was the realest friend I had. Whether I was unconscious or awake, self-pitying or afraid, she showed up. Staying present, thoroughly and in faith, she kept moving forward.