By Sandra Tow
On that morning in January, the only things I could focus on in the room were my anger at the irony my mother was about to face a real killer and the tinny voice radiating from the television over my shoulder bemoaning the premature death of an actor who’d lost himself in an imaginary character. I watched my mother fuss and pick at the tip of the surgical tape stuck to the toe of the new fuzzy socks I’d just given her for Christmas; the Christmas I knew deep in my soul would be her last. I told her not to worry, I’d buy her more, as I sat poised and stoic knowing my words meant nothing. This day, the day Heath Ledger died, my mother was scheduled to lose her voice in an attempt to save her life.
The knock was short, hard and the cheery, blue-clad surgical nurses entered. I wanted to shout at her to not go, but instead, I clamped my jaws so tight they crackled. I’d been by mother’s side for most of my life; I was her confidante, her friend, and her moral support when others were not. On this day, only two people could go with her to the surgical pre-op room and instinctually I knew she wanted me to go. I squashed my selfishness knowing when she was gone I didn’t want her husband and her youngest son holding any grudges that I was the last person to hear her talk. I couldn’t shake the feeling I’d disappointed her by not taking the spot next to her on this day. Instead, I parted ways with her in the hallway, flashing a grim smile followed by an affirmation of love, while hiding the tears. I settled on a grey vinyl couch in what would be the first of many positions I took around the room, looking for a new perspective in a hopeless situation as the surgical knife attempted to excise the cancer.
My florescent hell was punctuated by ringing phones updating families with surgical information while the background noise was on a continual loop about the events leading up to a suspected overdose. I’d brought a book along that day thinking I could read to distract my mind as I’d done many times in my life to escape a bad situation, but instead, I poured bitter hospital coffee down my throat and focused on matters out of my control. I prayed, I cursed and I cried in the confines of my mind choosing to text instead of vocalize the sporadic updates to my family. My mother was a fighter, a survivor and the day Heath Ledger died; she survived her first eighteen-hour surgery.
The next morning I arrived at the hospital ICU unit alternatively excited to see her alive and fearful for what I might see. Over my lifetime, I’d studied her voice as I gauged her moods. It could be loving and soft, harsh when she was angry or making a point, cold as a broken road when she was hurt and it was fearful just days before her surgery when she told me she wondered if she’d made the right decision. I’d heard her voice for thirty-eight years and on the morning after her surgery I was stricken when I realized I would never hear her say another word. Her husband’s words couldn’t prepare me for what I was about see and vocabulary couldn’t verbalize her pain. The sight of her in the intensive care unit still plagues my memory, only fading briefly as I expunge it with the ones of her smiling, laughing and playing with her grandkids, telling me about the backstory of a favorite host on a cooking show she watched or telling me stories of the people she helped care for in the Alzheimer’s unit. There was a dry erase board on her lap sharing space with a pink kidney shaped basin because anesthesia always made her sick. Her form of communication was now writing. I pushed my sadness and anger deeper into the familiar pit of my stomach as I watched my mother struggle to scribble on the board. The day after Heath Ledger died, she told me she wished she had as well.
About the Author
Sandra Tow is a continual seeker of knowledge and the next unique antique store find. She holds a MA in Counseling from Western New Mexico University and a MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte and is currently working on a memoir.