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All the Life

On January 28, 2018 my mom dies for fourteen minutes. 


My sister and I are first told it’s twenty, but the doctors will later correct themselves, pleased with that extra six minutes they spared her. We aren’t sure what difference that makes. But it seems important and so we catalogue it in our minds with all of the other small accomplishments and nods of gratitude. They don’t care about the rubble they’ve made of her rib cage or the purple kiss on her sternum from the six adrenaline shots they planted straight into her heart. She’s alive and that’s all that matters.


No one talks about the fact that it might have been their fault in the first place. That, having extubated her from a ventilator too soon, while her pulse was surging above 150 and her blood pressure was rising and dropping in epic peaks and deep valleys, the doctors may have caused her heart to work itself into a frenzy it couldn’t sustain. Instead, we’re expected to be grateful, and we are, and so we thank them instead of questioning them. My sister and I nod our forty-something heads, our eyes wide and brimming with tears, and we thank them. I’ll say upfront, she’s fine. In fact, she has no permanent damage, physically or mentally, from her prolonged time on the other side. She also has zero recollection – there was no walking into the bright light, no beckoning from dead relatives – just a long and vividly detailed dream in which she was quite convinced upon waking up in the ICU days later that she had taken a vacation to California with family members who are most definitely alive and well.


Mom is not a sickly person. At age seventy-one, she works full time as an attorney, exercises regularly and recently climbed Machu Picchu with her best friend from college. But she came to the hospital, after dialing 9-1-1 for the first time in her life, alone and ill with a particularly aggressive flu she’d let linger too long. And the doctors saw her as frail, too thin, elderly. I’m sure they noticed her twisted teeth and the gap in the back where she’s still struggling to decide if the cost of the implant is worth it or if she should put that money towards a trip to see the Great Wall of China. They had no way of knowing that she was a single mother who put herself through law school and formed her own legal practice, helped her daughters pay for college, and was only recently financially stable enough to start taking proper vacations for the first time in her life. We would fill in these details later, but I know what they must have thought when they saw her and I know that affected their judgment on how to treat her. Their initial questions were a giveaway, like, Does she have health insurance? Within a matter of hours of entering the ER, her flu formed sepsis and when the doctors gave her fluids for that, her lungs filled and her heart could not pump them clear and so she also formed pneumonia and went into respiratory failure, landing herself on life support and in an induced coma.


There is a lot of confusion among the doctor team about the sequencing of this, which is of continual annoyance as we try to puzzle together a timeline of her illness. Two days before coming to the ER, she had power-walked six miles with my aunt; the night before, she and I had texted about vintage pie plates. During none of this was there any mention of not feeling well, but once we crack into her phone, we find many text exchanges with her assistant where she lays out quite clearly just how awful she’s feeling. I feel selfish for my own messages to her. My last one sits unread, Hey, everything okay? It’s from Monday morning, when I hadn’t heard from her in a day and I think about how a small ripple of concern had weaved into my mind, but I had swept it away, figured her phone was broken or she was busy. It’s not unlike her to hide issues from us. She doesn’t like to come off as fussy. A year before, she informed us weeks later about a fall while taking down Christmas decorations that busted up her arm and shoulder, landing her in surgery to install several metal rods. No big deal, she said.