Georgia On My Itinerary

More than two decades ago, I graduated from Fitzgerald High School, which is located in a small town in the sweltering midriff of South Georgia. Next Tuesday, I’m renting a car (in Jersey – NYC rental prices are obnoxious) and driving home to attend my first class reunion since 1998. On the way, I’m also visiting my best friend from 10th grade who I haven’t seen face-to-face since 1989.

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AKA – shit’s about to get real.

I’m actually pretty excited about it – which I wouldn’t have expected even 5 years ago – but there’s seriously something about making it to 40 that changes your perspective on things in ways you never expect. (That and getting an invite with options for a 5XL-sized t-shirt, which makes me feel way better about the amount of weight I’ve put on since ’88.)

Now, seeing the best friend is one thing. She and I were that level of close that never goes away and I expect it to feel just like we’re 15 again, except she’s now a mom who teaches spin class in Dawsonville and I’m a lesbian who … does a lot of things in NYC that spin class moms in North Georgia probably haven’t tried before. Still, there’s no doubt we’re going to have a blast reminiscing about the 80’s and comparing lives and laughing our faces off.

But, because I’m friends with many of my former classmates on Facebook (and classmates.com, for that matter, though who even remembers that site?), I know … I mean I KNOW … that we have completely different views on almost every single issue there is to view. And, because I’m friends with them on Facebook, I’ve also had more than a few encounters online that might make our impending face time a little tense. (Read: awesome.)

Take B for example, my dance partner from the 1987 FHS production of “The Music Man.” Once when I posted something on FB about feeling bad for the planet but loving the warm January day, he instantly wrote, “Really? Isn’t that what you liberals call global warming?”

Excuse me? This motherfucker almost literally hadn’t spoken to me since The Music Man, we’re only friends on Facebook because HE asked ME (I think, I don’t actually remember), and he had the nerve to just jump on my status update (which was so obviously tongue-in-cheek – god knows I love the environment) and write some shit like “you liberals”?

I made a snarky comment back, but really get into it with him at the time. Since then, I’ve seen a lot of his other comments – mostly about Democrats, Obama and Mexicans – and I just know he’s gonna say something stupid at the reunion. And I hope I’m right next to him when he does. Just gimme a reason to start, B and it is on.

The truth is, I like to poke a bear. Always have. Especially a minimally-educated, narrow-minded bear who wants to engage in verbal arguments with me. Poke pokedy poke.

(Remember Old High School Friend? The one who called Obama a nigger online? Poke. Poke. Poke.)

Actually, as much as I love the poking, I try really hard not to do it. I scroll away from the Tea Party updates and anti-gay posts as quickly as I can because it’s not worth it. They’re as convinced they’re right as I am, and after 15ish years in Fitzgerald poking everyone I could about their bigotry, hatred, ignorance, racism and overall assholeishness, I know there’s very little good that will come out of it.

However, that’s online. There I can open a different window, shut the laptop, go back to Candy Crush. In person I’ve got less discipline. Not in that I couldn’t simply walk away without saying anything in person, just in that I know I won’t.

It’s like some debate switch gets flipped and regardless of how loudly my inner voice screams at me, “SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT UP!” I  keep going until somebody’s completely red-faced and furious (rarely me) to the point that the breaker trips and the switch goes back off. From there, I add one more name to the “Thinks I’m a Bitch” list, and move along with my day. It’s not my most honorable attribute, but definitely one I not-so-secretly enjoy.

Obviously, not everyone I graduated with is narrow-minded and hateful, and I look forward to being surprised by a lot of people who I’ve possibly misjudged. After all, it has been 25 years. We spent the majority of our significant formative years together and I’m curious to see how everyone’s grown … or hasn’t … since then. So, overall I’m pretty excited for my adventure.

But still, I know for sure there are gonna be some hairy moments down there, and I can not wait to get back and tell you all about it.

Last Moments

The last word my mom said to me was, “Heartbroken.” She glared at me with her devil eye – this look she had perfected early in my youth – and spat it through gritted teeth.

“Heartbroken.”

“I love you Mom. We’ll be back after we eat. I promise.”

The next time I saw her was after a 45-minute stint in the “nice room” at the ER in Tifton, Georgia.

“You guys. This is a bad sign,” I said to my sister, niece & Erica as we walked into the floral-papered room with plush leather sofas and a TV. There were silk flower arrangements on the end tables and we had a private phone. There were boxes of tissues everywhere you looked.

That afternoon my sister A and I had signed a DNR release, despite knowing Mom wanted otherwise. “This isn’t a life for her … for any of us,” I remember one of us saying.

I offered my call first – DNR all the way – to make it easier on A to say what she really wanted.

“I can take two of you at a time,” Dr. B said from the doorway. A & niece V jumped up. They needed to go first.

“Get ready. It’s bad,” A said as I got up to take my turn with Erica.

“Susan, I’m so sorry. We didn’t get the DNR from the nursing home,” Dr. B, who’d been my GP when I lived in Fitzgerald, told me.

“I understand. If you don’t know for sure, better safe, right?”

When he left us in the curtained space, I heard myself cry out for my mommy and watched my hands trace her frail, bony body.

“Mommy. Mommy. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”

When I noticed the nurse in the corner by the monitors, I asked, “Did you know her?” Mom had worked as an RN in that hospital and had gone to school with a bunch of the staff.

“Yes, ma’am. We were in clinicals together.”

“I’m sorry. This must be hard for you.” I tried to console him.

When they moved her to a room, they disconnected the oxygen and a man attached a pump bag to the tube that led to her lungs. “Isn’t that magical? You’re keeping her alive right now. That’s really incredible, isn’t it?” I asked him as we rode the elevator to the “letting ’em go” floor.

It wasn’t until I got to the sitting vigil part of the night that I allowed myself to be present in what was happening. Once we were alone – me, A, V, Erica – for the first time with Mom all together, her with a breathing tube and swollen Mickey Mouse hands, I started taking in every moment. And I remember it all.

The doctors asking us to leave the room while they removed the breathing tube (the closest they come to actually pulling any sort of plug).

A visit from S & J who prayed with us and hoped the brief improvement in mom’s heart rate was a sign she was going to make it.

The night nurse offering, “Anything, anything at all,” and his shock when we were so grateful for the thin hospital sheets and pillows he brought in.

Someone half joking, “She’s not totally dead. No need to make it feel like a morgue just yet.”

Finally, finally getting someone to explain the numbers on the monitors and what to look for … to know.

Wedging the rolling office chair — “I’m so sorry we don’t have any more without wheels” — against the hospital tray table so I could hold Mom’s hand while I slept.

Waking up to, “It’s almost time.”

Watching a last tear roll down her left cheek while V watched one roll down her right.

“I lost my mom 7 years ago,” my doctor said to me last week, as she wrote the prescription for my anti-depressants. “You eventually stop remembering the pain of those last moments and start remembering just the good stuff. It’ll get better.”

The thing she doesn’t understand is … I don’t want to forget.

Why We Need AED Stations

Yesterday, I got an invite for my high school reunion and the sizes for the optional t-shirt ranged from small to 5XL. This explains why there’s a defibrillator every 5 feet in the Atlanta airport. However, it doesn’t explain why there are so few options for healthy food in a land of farms and farmers.

There are more than 200 of these throughout Hartsfield-Jackson Airport.

There are more than 200 of these throughout Hartsfield-Jackson Airport.

The last time I went back to Fitzgerald, I hoped to make dinner for my family. I headed out shopping – at the Super Wal-Mart, where you now go for groceries in my hometown – and I was floored by the lack of fresh produce.

The majority of the foods available are shrink-wrapped, boxed, processed, chemical-laden products and you guys, there isn’t a sprig of basil or rosemary in sight. No wonder I had no idea about fresh herbs until I moved to Italy.

Sure, you can get romaine lettuce, tomatoes and carrots but the variety practically stops there. Standing in the “produce” aisle, I got so disheartened by the fact that every healthy option was paired with some gross manufactured product that would negate any health benefits of the natural food. Apples sat next to packaged caramel dip. Cucumbers were surrounded by jars of fatty, creamy dressing. Peaches were accompanied by recipe cards for delicious yet, super unwholesome cobbler.

At every turn you are encouraged to drown, distort and disguise fresh, raw food so that it ends up being much simpler to just drive down Highway 129 to McDonald’s where they do all that extra work for you.

My classmates and I are in our very early 40’s and already someone has had to endure a heart bypass procedure. Full disclosure: I do not know what led to that surgery but, I will venture a guess that there are at least a dozen people using one of those sleep apnea machines at night.

In the two years before I graduated, and for several after, there was a rash of teen suicides in Fitzgerald. It was a devastating trend that left a lot of us more broken than we’ve ever been able to share with each other.

So, what gets to me about those 3, 4 and 5XL options isn’t that my classmates are overweight. It’s the sad fact that we haven’t been able to get past our self-destructive phase.

My First Life Lesson

It was early 1978 when Simon Peter Nelson brutally murdered his six children with a hunting knife and a rubber mallet. He beat each of his progeny (aged 12-3) in their sleep before stabbing them to death. (Or, at least the ones who didn’t wake up from the ruckus caused by their siblings’ grisly demise. Nelson claims that they were all asleep when he began their individual attacks, but I just can’t fathom the possibility.)

The intended victim was Nelson’s wife Ann, whose attorney had called Peter that day to notify him that she was filing for divorce. In his rage over the breakup, he decided the best way to get her back was by killing their kids and their dog Pretzel who got the least of it, dying from a single slash to the throat.

Reports detailed Nelson said he “snapped” just like the people on that show on Oxygen. This particular snap lasted long enough for him to violently beat and stab his 6 children in multiple bedrooms of their Rockford, Illinois family home along with the Schnauzer. (My guess is that Charlie the cat, being a cat, probably peaced the fuck out when he saw what was going down, which is why he remained the only survivor in the house.)

After the slaughter, Nelson’s snap continued for an additional 2-hour drive across state lines to the Ramada Inn in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where Ann was staying. After hotel security were notified of a disturbance, they contacted the Milwaukee police who found Peter beating Ann in her bathroom.

After he was apprehended, Ann told the cops that Peter said he killed their kids. A phone call to Rockford PD and a subsequent break in at the Nelson house quickly confirmed his claim, and his domestic abuse allegations were soon joined by 6 charges of murder.

Nelson Family PhotoThe case got national media coverage for weeks and like a ton of other children at the time, I was an innocent bystander who got caught in the emotional crossfire of this hideous event. Because until I saw a report on the Nelson story on television, the concept of a parent killing his child wasn’t anywhere on my radar. Once it was, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. What was life like for those kids? What was it like waking up to your parent beating and stabbing you to death? Did any of them have an inclination or any warning of what might go down after they went to bed that night?

When I crawled into my own bed after seeing the report, I worried in my  sheets for what felt like hours before I finally got the nerve to get up and ask Mom about my newfound fears.

“Susan, what are you doing out of bed? You should be asleep by now.”

“I’m scared to…,” I started.

“What are you scared of?” she asked.

I paused for another second, took a deep breath and  just blurted it out. “How do I know you’re not the kind of mommy who’s going to kill me while I’m asleep?”

She gave me an exasperated look and replied, “Well, Susan. How am I supposed to know you’re the not the kind of daughter who’s going to kill me while I’m asleep?”

When Mom responded to my biggest fear by questioning my own intentions, I got my first lesson in knowing there are no guarantees in life. And Mom apparently got her first inkling that I might kill her. So, instead of pressing the issue, I just went back to bed.

I was 7 and a half at the time and from that point on, the trust mom and I had in each other was a thinly veiled hope for the best.

You Never Know

I had been at home in Georgia watching my mom slowly die on a hospital bed in our family living room for two weeks. She had been placed in Hospice care due to complications from breast cancer treatments, heart disease and a slew of other ailments that eventually led to our sofa being moved out and a makeshift care ward being moved in.

Days were spent dosing Mom with liquid morphine and forcibly shoving Xanax down her quickly withering throat to keep her from having panic attacks when the congestion in her lungs built up so much that she couldn’t breathe without the aid of a nebulizer and oxygen tank.

During that time I had to go out to get supplies from the store — toilet paper, dog food, garbage bags — I stood in line waiting patiently with my items when the cashier closed her register right before I had a chance to pay. I didn’t say anything, or even give her a dirty look, but inside it felt like she had just hit me in the face with a sledgehammer … everything felt like that at that time.

I turned to take my place behind the woman at the register next to me who had her own collection of things to buy.

“Would you like to go ahead of me?”

I couldn’t reply. I knew that any word that came out of my mouth would turn into a full-on public breakdown. So I just smiled at her and put my things on the counter. I paid, turned to smile at her again, and left to have my breakdown privately in the parking lot.

In that moment, that sweet woman saved my life in a way she will never understand. I was so broken, so raw and that simple act … her seeing something in my demeanor, on my face, that inspired her to wait those extra few seconds to let me go first … there are simply no words to express the magnitude of what she did for me.

She had no idea what was going on in my life, or why buying that stuff and getting out of that store as quickly as possible was so important to me, but she stepped aside and let me go through. And it has had a profound impact on me ever since.

I remembered all of this when a friend of mine posted a photo on Facebook of an MTA employee who had fallen asleep on the train. He took up two seats as he napped during rush hour, which meant one extra commuter had to stand. The point was to show how inconsiderate he was and make an example of him online.

But instead of being incensed by the picture, I started to think about why he was so tired. Had he worked all night trying to keep the trains running? Did he have 4 kids at home who kept him awake during the day when he needed to sleep for his late shift? Was his mom sick and dying, too?

Maybe he’s just exhausted and fell asleep at the beginning of the line … way out in the boroughs before the train got packed. Perhaps if she had just said, “Excuse me, may I sit down?” instead of surreptitiously taking his picture to display on the Internet, he would have happily, sleepily and perhaps with a little embarrassment, shifted over and put his bag in his lap where it was supposed to be.

People. Give other people the benefit of the doubt. Do not assume you know the whole story from a 3 second glimpse into a person’s life. Be kind. Don’t judge.

And every once in a while let a stranger go in front of you at the store. You just might save a life.

Living in the Moment

I slept in that Friday morning because I knew it was going to be a hard day.

Erica was already at work when I got up, so I pulled on some clothes and headed out to get coffee.

When I got home, I sat on the couch a while and thought about my friend B. She says she doesn’t keep track of death anniversaries, which I think is actually a very cool concept. But, with Mom’s being in December along with the rest of the events, I really don’t see how I can get around it.

The month starts with a trio of birthdays: Grandma’s on the 8th, mine on the 9th and Mom’s on the 11th. My estranged Daddy’s birthday is on the 23rd and of course there’s JC on the 25th – which I have always taken issue with because of that hateful phrase, “This is for your birthday and Christmas.” Now there’s Mom’s death as well. So, as you can imagine, December’s not my favorite month.

When I woke up on the 2nd anniversary of Mom’s death, I looked up in the corner of the loft where her spirit tends to hang out.

“Mornin’ Mom,” I yawned, “Here we go.”

As I learned the first time around, death day is filled with memories of being in Georgia, moving Mom to the nursing home, signing DNR paperwork with my sister, and later fighting to remove a foam-tipped swab from between Mom’s clenched teeth when she realized where she was.

Up until that morning, Mom had been basically catatonic for days and that was without our dosing her with liquid morphine. She wasn’t eating, she wasn’t responding, she was wearing a diaper.

“Honey, I’ve seen ’em last 3 or 4 years like this,” the Hospice nurse had told us earlier that week.

“Fuck that,” I mouthed at my sister, A. I had only been home for three weeks and I could not fathom what she and my niece had already been through. First of all, their living room had been turned into a virtual care unit. Mom was laid out in a hospital bed where the sofa used to be. My grandma’s old bedside table had been moved in to serve as a holding station for all of Mom’s meds and the never ending supply of little lotion bottles that were delivered to us in pink hospital bins with matching vomit troughs.

There was an oxygen tank was stationed at the head of the bed with a tube running directly from it, through a regulator, into my mother’s nose – or more often, her eyebrows because she was constantly pawing at her face to pull it away from her nostrils. Just beyond her feet was Christmas. There was a beautiful tree, tons of brightly wrapped presents, Santa figurines, a garland-draped window … and the white candle we had started burning each day in hopes that it would lead her towards the light.

After the nurse left that day, A and I started making plans. We needed help with Mom so that A could get her shit in order before Erica and I returned to NYC. Thanks to the Hospice program, we were able to find a bed nearby where Mom could stay for 30 days while A prepared for a possible 3 or 4 years with her in the living room care unit.

The morning the ambulance arrived, Mom decided to wake up.

“It’s like she knew they pulled up in the front yard,” A told me later as we talked on the phone.

We all met that afternoon at the nursing home to check Mom in and make sure she was okay. Niece V and Erica stayed with Mom while A and I met with the administrators. Piles of papers were signed, directives were given to the floor staff: no needles in her right arm, careful with the sores in her mouth. We went back to the room and someone suggested we try giving Mom a milkshake. She hadn’t eaten in days and we knew that she was a sucker for Dairy Queen.

Erica & I went to the drive-thru. “Large banana shake, extra thick, please.” When we got back, A dripped ice cream into Mom’s mouth with a straw while I put away the clothes and medical supplies we brought with us. She had been in and out of lucidity all day and it was the first time we got her to smile.

I started explaining where she was, that the nursing home was only a temporary situation, and that we would have her back home soon. She couldn’t speak very well by that point, but she had no problem expressing how pissed off she was. She gritted her teeth and glared at me.

“Are you scared?” I asked.

She nodded and gave me a look that I had only seen once before – on the face of a man who believed he was about to drown in the Mediterranean.

I tried again to explain what was going on. “You’re at Golden Living Center in Tifton. You’ll only be here for a few weeks while A makes some arrangements to take care of you back at home. This isn’t forever. You’ll just be here a little while. I promise.”

I moved to the end of the bed and started rubbing her feet while Erica, A, V and I talked about our plans for that night. Mom moaned a little “that feels good” sound. I smiled back at her and joked, “You’re not so mad now, are you?”

She snatched her feet away from me to show that she was.

A and V decided to head back to Fitzgerald. Erica and I were going to have dinner then return to the nursing home to stay with Mom until visiting hours were over.

“Mama. We’re going to go for a little bit, but we’ll be right back. A & V are going home. Erica and I are grabbing food and will be back in about an hour. Do you understand?”

She gathered as much air as she could into her fluid-filled lungs. “Heartbroken,” she forced out in a raspy hiss.

I sighed and turned to walk out the door. A & V said their goodbyes. Erica gave her a kiss on the cheek.

“See you later, Barbara.”

Erica and I had a flight back home the next day so, the four of us decided to hang out at our hotel for a little while. We’d only been there about 30 minutes when A got a phone call.

The nursing home says she’s unresponsive and they’re taking her to the emergency room. Thinking they meant catatonic like she had been the week prior, I told A to relax and finish her drink before we got back in the cars.

“I can’t take it, we’ve got to go now.”

When the nurse led us into a private waiting room, I fell into the plush leather sofa and looked up at everyone.

“Maybe it’s because they know us,” someone offered hopefully – referring to the fact that Mom had just the year prior worked as a nurse in the same hospital.

I shook my head. “It’s bad news, guys. The fancy room is always bad news.”

After the ER doctor talked with us, I held Erica’s hand as I made the necessary phone calls to family and close friends. V & A went to see Mom.

“Prepare yourself. It’s fucking awful,” A reported when they came back in the room.

On the way to the ER, I ran into Mom’s regular doctor whom she had worked with before becoming a nurse.

“I’m so sorry, Susan.”

“I don’t understand. We signed a DNR.”

Apparently the paperwork hadn’t had time to process so she was intubated and hooked up to a billion machines. When we walked through the curtain, I crumbled.

“Oh, Mommy. Mommy, I’m so sorry.” I sobbed and laid my face on her chest. She was so frail and thin. Her mouth hung open, full of plastic tubing. I kept touching her body – her bony shoulders, her hands, her face. “Mommy … Mommy.” Erica cried quietly next to me as I became conscious of the nurse who was in the room.

“Did you know her?”

“Yeah, we did clinicals together.”

“I’m so sorry,” I offered in an attempt to make him feel better.

We spent the rest of the night in a room on the ICU floor.

Everyone took turns holding Mom’s hands and we watched numbers on the machines that kept track of her ever-declining systems. I quizzed nurses on what they meant and I got a very loving, “Don’t worry about numbers honey. Be with your Mama now.”

Mom’s best friend S and her husband J showed up at some point and became glued to the various monitors as well. Collectively we decided we should keep track of her respirations and blood pressure, mainly because those were the only things we recognized. Around midnight, we made the decision to remove the breathing tube.

Believing that the initial improvement in Mom’s blood pressure was a sign that their prayers had been answered, S and J left around 1 AM. Soon after, a night nurse came in to give Mom some pain medication and I caught his arm when he turned to leave.

“Please. Explain what the numbers mean. I need to know.”

He had been monitoring Mom through a small window from a desk outside, and I guess he understood my need to prepare and be better able to predict when she was going to go. He explained that although we were watching Mom’s BP and respirations, it was actually her oxygen saturation level we should keep an eye on. He went as far as to tell me the normal range and the percentage to watch for to know it was almost over.

I sat vigil by Mom’s bed while my sister, niece and Erica napped restlessly on flat sofa cushions in the corner of the room under blankets and sheets the nurse brought in after he explained oxygen saturation to me.

Curled in a stiff arm chair, I laid my head on the bed next to Mom’s feet and counted minutes between SaOreadings. Occasionally V, would sit up and ask what the number was. Our night nurse watched from his window and from time to time would come in to ask me if I needed anything. “Anything at all.” I told him he had already done so much more than he could imagine. Eventually I drifted off to sleep, my head by Mom’s feet and my arm stretched out so I could hold onto her fingers.

Around 4 AM I woke up in pain from sleeping bent over the arm of the chair and squeezed in next to Erica on the floor. I gave everyone the report – still 72%.

Moments later it was 6:30 and our night nurse said that Mom’s numbers had dropped dramatically in the prior hour. We were below 30% and it was almost time. We all got up and took our place in chairs around her bed. Everyone quietly cried and V took a picture with her phone of her hand holding Mom’s for the last time. Without telling me, Erica did the same thing of mine on the other side of the bed.

For the first time in almost twelve hours, I stopped paying attention to monitors and did my best to be present in the last moments I had with a mom who was alive.

Instead, I watched the clock.

And at 7:28 AM, on December 29, 2010, a nurse put a stethoscope to my mom’s chest and said, “I’m sorry. She’s gone.”

When I met Erica for dinner that Friday night in 2012, I sat down and started to give her the report. “I cried a few times, talked to her a lot, but I didn’t have a huge breakdown like last year. Pretty good progress, eh?”

“Yeah boo, I just hope you make it through tomorrow.”

Turns out, Friday was the 28th.

“Oh goody. Can’t wait to do it all again.”