Archive for the ‘Tall Timbers Anthology’ Category

Olympic Mts for Class

Chapter 22

Mom was in a coma, induced into it by her own carbon dioxide, and helped along a little deeper by drugs. A ventilator breathed for Mom. Dad was weak, couldn’t walk. If Mom lived, I’d have to move their things out of Assisted Living and into a nursing home again. My friend thought I called it Insisted Living, and after that it was our joke.

I looked at Dad and wondered if he was remembering the same things I was. Their dates, their wedding, fixing up their little house, trips to Reno.

I could see the circle of life spinning out of control, a sickening, dizzying vortex that made me lose my balance.

I waited at Mom’s bedside. As I gazed at the monitors and tubes, I saw thankfully that the machines were in control, not me. What could I do but wait? I touched, I sang, but Mom didn’t know I was there. I remember thinking, once my parents are gone, I’d move up a notch to the oldest generation. Was I ready for that?

The nursing home van brought Dad. His head was barely strong enough to lift up and look at Mom. “I miss her already.”

I slept for a week on a sofa in the fourth floor waiting room. A nurse on the 4th floor showed up one day with towels, shampoo, soap, and a toothbrush. “Come with me,” my conspirator whispered. I followed her into a huge former shower room, now a storage area, and I realized she’d snuck me in so I could clean up. Being clean feels so good.

That’s the way it was in the cancer ward, where they put Mom though cancer was the one thing she didn’t have. Her doctor had set her up in the best place possible, and I knew it was as much for me as my mom.

I shut the lights off in the waiting room and curled up with my one blanket on the sofa. I conjured up the Olympic Mountains, knowing I wouldn’t hit the trail now for a long time. Go to your happy place.

Funny how you can look at the mountains and only see a one-dimensional snapshot. You wouldn’t know there are trails, rivers, fungi and the stunning texture of tree bark. You can’t see the people – people like me swigging down their water, sitting on a rock. Or people climbing The Brothers – way up high, hanging their food, shifting their big packs. All the beautiful details, things you can’t see when you only look at the big picture.

Maybe God hadn’t abandoned me. Maybe God was in the details and it’s up to me to see it for what it is.

The next morning I woke up and there was a note from my brother in my shoe. He had been here while I slept. He’d sought me out and left me a note of encouragement. The fourth floor was full of miracles.

And I was refreshed and ready to see what was around the next bend on my journey.

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Chapter 21 

Once again I was trudging down the big empty cathedral-like halls to meet Mom up on the 4th floor where they put her after doing time for eight hours in ER. That night, I laid my hands upon her head and prayed right out loud. Maybe I had the power, who knew? Who is to say where the human dimension leaves off and something divine kicks in.  I’ll put it this way: I dredged up any power I could find and used it. I prayed to all the gods, knowing no one would hear me because I don’t believe anymore. I was on my own.

There was a lot of waiting. I held her hands. I looked out the window at the gravel and asphalt “garden” someone thought was a capital idea for a hospital rooftop, and hoped she wouldn’t die in these surroundings.P1110067

I closed my eyes and leaned my face against the glass. I imagined myself floating in the cool shade, the tall timbers standing guard.

I asked my ancestors for guidance. Am I supposed to be here when it happens? Can I make that happen? Will I go crazy from grief?

I opened my eyes as raindrops ran down both sides of the glass, my reflection and I looking at each other, searching for answers.

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Chapter 20

I was on the road again. It was Mother’s Day and for the first time, I made an appointment with Mom to celebrate Mother’s Day before noon.

At 10 am she was in her housecoat, all propped up and smiling because she loved me and felt loved on this, likely her last Mother’s Day, according to her pulmonary specialist.

I knew it was really hard for her to get going in the mornings and do her makeup and hair. I sat on the rug and started pulling gifts out of a bag. Mom drifted off to sleep. Wake up Mom, it’s Mother’s Day. I can’t stay awake she said, embarrassed.

Her main gift was an angel doll to watch over her when I couldn’t be there, something to give her comfort. I wondered why I believed it as I crumpled up the wrapping paper. Mom fell asleep again. I called a nurse from the nursing home wing who grumped,  “It’s not my job to be down here in Assisted Living.” She thought Mom’s blood pressure was ok, but the hair on my neck was standing up.  Mom was asleep again and something was horribly wrong.

“Mom!” Now she wouldn’t wake up at all. I grabbed the phone and called 911. Carts clanked down the hall and nurses aides exchanged pleasantries with each other as if the world weren’t ending. I rushed to the door and propped it open, then raced back to cradle my mother.

I could hear the sirens. Always bad news, always. The truck rolled up and familiar paramedics hurried in. My high school classmate, as usual, was among them. His spoken words: “Hi Vickie.” His unspoken words: My God, how do you do this.

It wasn’t uncommon for Mom’s painkillers to back up in her system unintentionally. Other times, she just plain overdosed on the narcotics she took for pain. Whenever she was in a stupor like this, they injected a drug called Narcon. If it’s an overdose, you’ll jolt awake when the Narcon hits your system.

I stood stone faced, thinking how unnatural it was to worry over a 78 year-old woman having an overdose. I didn’t even ask any questions because I knew the whole drill. My paramedic friend’s knowing look said we’ve been here, done this.

But on that day Mom was clean and something was different. They packed her into the ambulance and I jumped into the car and raced off through the wall of rain to the hospital 3 blocks away.  I wondered what would happen if I got stopped for speeding or driving erratically.

Sorry, Officer, my Mother is dying. Mine has to be the last face my parents see or they won’t die good. Without me, the doctors might not hook them up, or pound on their chest. As you can see, I am fully prepared and have all the documentation I need to justify my driving behavior. Here’s the Directive to Physicians, Power of Attorney, medication and allergy list, all right here. Without me, the whole thing is screwed up. So, please let me go—-

No one ever stopped me, though I wondered every time if they had a protocol for people racing to the hospital.

I was in a familiar routine. It was crying, praying time. My prayers now ended with, “please don’t let her die, goddamn it.” My hands clenched the steering wheel, my face was wet, and my nose was running. Rats ate at my stomach. The stress and exhaustion must have brought on the tinny music playing in my head. Park car, hit inner ER door button with authority. Drag ragged meds list out of purse, explain terminal lung disease again. Thrust the living will into their hands, the living will they never keep on file, and wish I had warmer clothes. This is what I do.

Hours dragged by. I leaned my head back against the cold wall and took occasional notes. The beeps of the heart and lung machines grew faint. I let go of the hospital and went through the fog to our home. Five year-old Vickie was hanging upside down off her bed, finding faces in the knotty pine, and listening to Paul Anka on the old wire radio.  Life in the little house danced across my dreams in slow motion, with a tinny musical score from a hazy dream-Victrola. I tucked tooth fairy quarters into the knotholes I could reach in the stairway that led down to the basement.

In my hospital chair I sweated and twisted and kicked, heart pounding hard in real time as I was hoisted up to the dirt place by the furnace where the basement was not all the way dug out.  I stumbled across the uneven dirt with my arms outstretched like a blind man, trying to outrun the rats that got away from the peanut butter jar traps, and at last, reaching the other side, flung myself I down onto the floor, my first taste of a lifelong phobia of confined spaces.

Then, molecules of bubbly water spread pore by pore over the basement floor, puddling in the low places on the sloping concrete. The dreams that chased me occasionally were running unchecked into each other. I watched from the basement doorway, told to stay back. Dad and Billy plopped down towels that went “smack!” in the water, trying to mop up the overflow from the washing machine. Mom was in the hospital and no one knew how to properly use the washing machine.

Then Mom was home, in the kitchen. Streak by streak, I watched Mom paint the kitchen pink in perfect choreography as she has for nearly fifty years on nights when I was stressed or really, really tired. She hung a red clock on the wall for a final touch. While Mom painted, I scraped a chair covered in vinyl that looked like gray ice cubes over to the dinette window and watched a deer slowly eat Mom’s sweet peas off the vine, inches from my face.

“Do you need anything? Can I get you anything?”

My neck was stiff from the odd angle of my head, and a woman’s face was close to mine.

“What?” I said as I struggled to sit up. She offered me some coffee or a soda. Oh, I’m still here and Mom is still alive.

That day’s lesson: More than I ever wanted to know about how your lungs may be able to breath in and out, but on a bad day, the carbon dioxide stays in your body, saturates your tissues, and anesthetizes you right into a coma. It’s called CO 2 Narcosis. The one little part of my brain that was not numb from exhaustion and worry said it was a bad day indeed when narcosis is in the name of the disease.

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Skokomish River

Skokomish River


I jotted a note in my spiral notebook about Dad being frail, really frail. He hadn’t eaten for 10 days. Really Nice Doctor had said it was all over, but Nasty Doctor With No Bedside Manner said he’d make it.

This whole thing was a study in role reversal. Nasty Doctor said what I wanted to hear, Nice Doctor had no hope. My parent was my child; the child was in charge of everything. Every trip down the hall was like walking through a minefield. What would happen next? Was I supposed to make everything happen or what would happen if I just sat down and didn’t move?

Nasty Doctor’s nurse told me he takes it very personally when a patient dies. It’s his ultimate failure, she told me, and so he waxed on that my Dad would make it. You can’t be godlike if you can’t make them live or some such thing.

I have too much power. “Vicki? This is doctor So and So. Your Mom/Dad can’t breath/ keep their blood pressure up. They have heart/and or lung failure today. Make a decision (now): Do you want us to intubate or let them go?”

My whole family must have been out to lunch when caretakers learned what life support is all about. I was pretty sure that when Mom and Dad made out Living Wills, they meant for me to unhook them if they were beyond brain-dead, not when they’re half in, half out. I was not qualified to make decisions in the gray area. I had no training for this.

Every time the hurry-up-make-a-decision-call came, I opted for life support. It’s what they expected me to do, and it was the safe, only reversible choice.

I missed as little work as possible during these times, trying to hold everything together. I felt like Clark Kent. I’d save a life then go home, shower and dress for work. One morning, without one wink of sleep, I walked into my job and did an impromptu, televised presentation in front of a hundred people.

The most work I missed was during the period Dad was in a Seattle hospital for a risky heart bypass, the one that caused his kidneys to fail. I was going to night school to finish my 2-year degree. All that stood between me and that piece of paper was three Math classes. My best effort included doing homework on the ferry, in the hospital cafeteria, and at Dad’s bedside.  Although I did my best, faxed my assignments in, and left phone messages to update my teacher, I missed the final test because my Dad was unconscious. I received an “F”. Funny how I held people’s lives in my hands on a moment’s notice, yet I wasn’t capable of passing Math 94.

Screw school. I quit school forever, then and there.

P1110095 blog onlyI took a break from all the stress, reloaded my ten essentials, and headed up the Skoke. The long drive just fueled my frustration. When I finally hit the trail, I was too tired and pissed off to go very far. I stopped near the Dolly Varden pool and with a mighty swing, smashed a rock into it’s stupid tranquility. As I watched the flora race away from the watery crater, I concluded I was indeed a tiny god, full of wrath.





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Chapter 18

Dad was finally taking breaths. It was days before his 75th birthday when he went off life support and continued to live. His eyes had been open for three days, and for three days he’d been narrating the scene outside his window.

“What are you watching, Dad?”

“Workmen,” he answered. “See them?”

Dad didn’t make eye contact with the nurses or me. He was busy watching men in white coats trimming trees outside his window. Only Dad could see them. They had a truck, according to Dad. I had creepy feelings. Were there ghosts and angels here? I always thought I was sensitive to spirits and other things not quite of this world.

“Do you see your mother?” I whispered this in all honesty.

“Of course not!” he said with disgust. “They’re out there working.”

I waved. Perhaps there really were angels out there, waiting with their chariot to pick him up. I played along. He was quiet for a while, listening to their conversation. I thought they were calling to him. After all, he hadn’t eaten in eight days.

Was it time to go towards the light? Do people ever go into the tunnel with their living eyes open? I was quiet, too, straining to feel the presence of the Angel of Death, who must be watching my Dad carefully and waiting for his moment. I was looking in all corners of the room with a knowing look, just to spook the Angel so he’d think I could see him.

What were they doing now? I thought the chariot was waiting at the curb and the dying were about to depart.

“Dad, what’s happening?”

“They’re looking at you.”

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Chapter 17

My windshield wipers couldn’t keep up with the water on my drive across the west side of town and over the bridge. The puddled water slopped up my leg on my sprint across the parking lot to the ER. On my way down the hall I glanced at the bored/stressed people waiting in the ER with some small regard to what their situation was. They looked back with the same slight interest. The difference was, they just sat there. Me, I knew the drill. The ER receptionist knew me by name and ushered me through. I hit the wall door opener with authority and marched right in to the inner exam area. I had been here so many times in my work clothes that people thought I worked here. Even people who did work here.

Emergency rooms are cold. The doors open and close all night long. Everyone sits there for hours, cold and hungry. When you get sort of lucky, your patient gets called back into the inner exam area, Trauma rooms 1-9. On any night, after about four hours people start standing in the doorways, as if a doctor will walk by and say, “OH! There’s a patient in there? Well, if I’d have known that…!” But I was a regular here, and I knew it didn’t work. You would remain cold, tired, hungry and worried. And one thing was certain: It was a big secret as to where hot coffee lived.

Harry couldn’t breathe. His pale face surrounded panicked eyes, his usual calm gone with his breath. Should I pray? Would God listen to me now?

He had pneumonia. No guilt there. He told me he was freezing in that Assisted Living apartment where I made him live after he tumbled down the basement steps. They were telling me it was time for a ventilator and I panicked from confusion. Wasn’t that life support? We had an agreement, a Living Will. Those helpless eyes looked at me with such trust. Dad’s eyes were huge and I think mine were huge in return. The doctor repeated: Did I want the ventilator? We’ll do what we can and undo it later if I made a wrong decision. The chicken way out, but the best I could do in nano time with those helpless eyes asking me to take care of everything.

The first thing I learned about ventilators was that you have to be heavily sedated or they can’t put it in. He was out in a flash. More panic: What if these are Harry’s last moments of life, and we can’t say goodbye? P1100894 new pathTo be unconscious was blessed relief for him, holy hell for me. As if to make up for his suffocation, I started breathing faster and faster. I leaned in to where my breath would have mingled with his, if he had any. I was as close as cold is to ice, but I couldn’t reach him to let him know I was doing my job. I’m sorry, Dad. I didn’t know you were going to get pneumonia. This is a new path for me. I don’t know my way.

I thought of the night two weeks earlier, when he fell down the basement stairs. I’d taken Mom to a nursing home and took a week off to convince Dad that he needed to join her. He wouldn’t listen. Instead, he fell off the top step, crawled through the basement to his car, where he opened the door but could not pull himself up to reach the horn. He cried for help for three hours before a passerby heard him and went to a neighbor’s house to inquire about the noises coming from the garage at the little white house with shutters.  Leaving my card with a few neighbors in case of another emergency paid off.

I raced up the street in my Honda and swung around the corner to find a crowd gathered. My brain snapped a photograph in the time it took to register the pajamas and robes and slippers on people I’d never seen dressed in their nightclothes. It only took a second to realize they never come out for heart attacks anymore, but they’re out this time because someone’s trapped. Two or three ambulance rides a week for the last year, but on that night the marquee was all lit up and they were all going to watch the drama play out.

Ambulances were waiting. As I unlocked the front door and ran in, I was dimly aware that a cheer went up. I leapt down the basement steps. Harry, Harry, where are you? I found Dad on the floor of the garage, bleeding but conscious. I opened the garage door for the stretcher while a team of paramedics flew down the stairs behind me. Like angels, only real.

Two weeks later I could say for certain that our old basement floor had no heart for the man who religiously swept it and I had no religion period.

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Chapter 16

Old people save everything. I was an archaeologist, digging through the basement of the former dwelling of Mom and Harry. What did this eclectic pile say about my parents? These were a few of the artifacts of Harry and Adella’s life:

–        14 empty candy boxes

–        23 empty margarine tubs (in case they paint)

–        2 bags of old, dusty beer bottles Mom hid from Harry about 20 years ago

–        A pile of old clothes that filled half the spare bedroom in the basement (including my cousin Sue’s prom dress circa 1963)

–        Two drawers full of old purses from the Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter eras

–        One drawer full of hot water bottles and broken heating pads

–        One drawer full of folded up, used plastic wrap and wads of used string

–        Three and ½ pounds of narcotics hidden in shoes (properly disposed of for free courtesy of the pharmacy that sold them to her)









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