Mom was trying to make her way to the apartment door to say goodbye. Murray and I had come home for the weekend to get a visit in. I am pretty worried about Teresa right now. As the youngest, she is the only one left. The rest of us are off living our lives, either going to school or working. Mom and Teresa are in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in an old Victorian house that’s been split up into multiple low-end units in an undesirable part of town. Teresa is almost done her grade twelve years and then she too can be free from the weight of our childhood, at least physically. She already is barely around between working part-time, school and practically living at her boyfriend’s place. His parents have basically adopted her.
Even though I’m in my third year at college, seeing Mom in her drunken state still triggers me. I am so angry at her when she is like this. And tonight’s no different. She is barely able to walk, and when she does, she uses our bodies to help stand upright. She is slurring her words and her pores are oozing a heavy scent as her body tries to rid itself of the level of liquor she has consumed.
We are all trying to get out of there as fast as possible. Teresa and her boyfriend are heading to his place for the night. Murray and I are headed back to Brantford so we have a bit of a drive ahead of us on a frosty Sunday, March evening. I hug Teresa tight. Very tight. “I love you girl. Call me anytime,” I say. I’m sending her all the love I can as I do this. I remember being this age and being done with Mom and just wanting so desperately to leave. She just needs to get through these next few months and then she’ll be free.
6:15 am the next morning. Murray and I are asleep in his apartment when his phone rings beside us. Its Teresa. Her voice is trembling and small. She is in shock and she’s crying. Instantly I’m awake. After we left last night, Mom got into her vehicle and tried to drive to a friend’s house an hour away. She didn’t make it there. She was in a car accident and is in ICU at a major trauma centre in Toronto for spinal cord injuries.
She broke her neck.
Murray and I are in the car in minutes. Fucking hell, Mom. The anger I felt earlier in the night erupts and now I’m in tears as I grapple with the seriousness of the situation. My older sister Kate is on her way with her husband. Our Aunts are on their way. We’ve all switched into family emergency mode.
MOM’S BAD LUCK
At six years old, I’m tall for my age. I’m trying to tuck my long legs underneath me in the back seat of the latest beater Mom’s driving. It’s a ‘new-to-us’ car. Always something to fix to keep it going, and with a prayer and a song, hopefully, it lasts long enough until we can upgrade a bit. It would be nice if the next beater didn’t have huge rusted out holes in the floor where our feet are supposed to rest. We’re a little nervous that we’re going to lose a shoe. Besides it being uncomfortable to sit cross-legged all the time, the fumes are making us choke. The windows are down, but it gets cold pretty fast as the winter air rushes in.
But at least we have a car. Mom has had such bad luck lately. After going out with friends after work, she keeps hitting “black ice” and getting into accidents. The last time she rolled the car and it landed on the roof. She was so lucky to not get hurt. That’s such a scary thought.
Mom’s emotional and in pain. X-rays show she has broken her C2, known as the Hangman’s fracture. Her fracture is spiral in a diagonal direction and we’re told that this is the only reason she is still alive and not in a paraplegic state. If it had snapped straight across horizontally, we’d be planning her funeral.
Kate is anxiously biting her fingernails, an old nervous habit. The details of the actual crash are still unknown to us and her greatest fear is that we will be faced with family members of someone Mom has hurt or even killed. Kate is pregnant with her first child and this is all a bit much to handle right now.
We are worn down from our decades-old experiences with Mom’s alcoholism, drug use, and unstable mental health. We are tired and emotional. This is heavy news. Heavier because we know she was intoxicated when she was driving. Heaviest because we always knew this day would come.
Mom’s sisters start arriving and we suddenly feel stronger. Even though their relationship is a constant push and pull with Mom, they always try to stay in her good books to ensure we’re all ok. We are in part who we are due to their presence in our lives. Everyone is worried but so glad she is still with us. We take up the family room in the ICU area and hunker down for the days ahead of us.
Mom starts shaking uncontrollably from withdrawal. This is unnerving to witness. Her body is starting to detox.
They are putting Mom into a halo – drilling screws into her skull to stabilize her neck bones. The screws are attached to an apparatus that sits on her shoulders and along with four long metal rods vertically around her head, they create a “halo” to protect these screws. She will be like this for months. Once the healing gets to a certain point, she will be moved to a rigid neck brace and then a soft one and then nothing at all. It’s going to be a long road.
We are asked to leave when they do the drilling. This is extraordinarily painful as they can’t put the patient under because they have to have their neck in an upright position. There is only a minor amount of numbing they can do around the incision marks. Nothing can relieve the pain of the four screws piercing into the skull bone. Mom will never forget this sound.
Journal entries, age fourteen while living in the USA:
Jan 11, 1991. Mom’s being a real bitch today. We got into this big fight because she thinks I make her feel stupid. Then she started crying. She’s got a really bad problem with alcohol and now drugs, again. She nearly died when my sister accidentally threw her little gram-or-so of dope in the garbage. So Teresa rooted through it, to find her little drugs. I’m trying to stay away from her and not be so generous. If she keeps this up, then Dennis is going to leave us, and then Mom’s really going to get into it. And I’m going to, swear to God, leave. I don’t care if I have to live with Dad, I’m going to leave. I can’t stand it anymore. We’re falling apart as a family, and it's all because of her stupid problems. Sometimes I really hate her.
Jan 26, 1991. I’m really sad and depressed. It’s hard to believe that by Tuesday, I’ll be in Toronto. It's hitting me hard. I’m leaving. Mom totalled the truck when it rolled off a cliff and flipped five times. Mom wasn’t hurt badly. Some cuts and bruises are all. But she is lucky. I have this feeling that two accidents in one month are a pretty good warning about something pretty bad. I wonder what it is.
Mom is released within the week. My Aunts have prepared the apartment so there is a hospital bed set up in the living room. This room has two windows for some sunlight and the TV to help pass the time. As well there is some seating for people to visit. And enough room on either side of the hospital bed to maneuver and help Mom.
Kate can’t take time off work and Teresa is in the last few months of high school, so I arrange things with my College instructors to stay back and help get Mom transitioned at home. I wake up every three hours through the night to give her medication. Mom’s in a lot of pain. And everything, I’m sure, is starting to sink in too. She is very frustrated by the constraints of the halo. I’m feeding her, dressing her, bathing her. Aunt Erin comes over to help out which is a great relief. I hate seeing Mom in this much pain. And I’m barely sleeping right now.
Mom asks me to cut her hair for her. It is shoulder length and a shorter style will be more manageable once she is more mobile. I get her sitting in a chair with a towel around her slender shoulders. This feeling of looking after her is so familiar. I like being with her when she is sober. I feel like she has returned to us in these moments. I gingerly move ahead with the scissors in hand. I’m very careful to not cause her any more pain but she wants me to get right in close to where the screws are. My stomach flutters slightly as I get closer to the incision sites and move the hair into my fingers to cut it away. I’ve never seen metal screws submerged into someone’s skin before. Each site is healing but still red and oozing with a gelatinous edge where metal connects to skin. I swallow hard as it takes everything in me to not gag openly. I can do this, I tell myself. “Okay, done. Now, three more to go.”
Later that night, with Mom settled back in her hospital bed, I am seated beside her in a single kitchen table chair. We are watching a TV show together. Mom looks at me with tears in her eyes. I ask her if she is okay, as I’ve seen her in tears many times in the past couple of weeks.
“Sometimes I wonder how you girls are still in my life, Jen.”
These words wash over me as they leave her mouth. I feel like they hang in the air. I’m completely caught off guard. This is the closest Mom has ever come to acknowledging the emotional and physical trauma of our childhood. I wish my sisters were here to witness this. I take her hand and squeeze it as I try to hold back the flood gates. I am so hopeful now.
The next day Teresa and I are sitting in the stairway to give Mom some privacy. The investigating officer from the scene of the accident is here to speak with Mom. Her vehicle has been totalled and not that she’s going to be driving any time soon, we need to deal with getting her a replacement. We’re not even sure if she had it insured. All four of us have been waiting nervously for this next step. We know she is going to be charged with driving under the influence and the ripple effect of that is going to be felt. This is the rock bottom we were all dreading, but we are hopeful -- Mom will get help now and we will all look back at this time as the turning point.
The officer leaves, saying goodbye as he passes us. He mentions something along the lines of our Mom being lucky. Lucky?
We head into the living room after closing the door behind him. As we turn the corner, Mom is sitting up, unphased.
‘See,’ she said. ‘It was the weather. It wasn’t my fault. They aren’t laying any charges.’
I’m frozen in my steps. In my head, I run out of the living room, down the stairs and out the door to the cruiser about to pull away. I pepper the Officer with questions. ‘How is this possible? How does she keep slipping through the cracks? Don’t you realize how close we came this time? We were with her the night she drove. She was slurring and could barely walk. She could have died or killed someone else. What is it going to take?’
But I don’t move a muscle.
Loved ones, Teachers, Doctors, Border Patrol Personnel, Police Officers. The relationships and systems meant to catch her, and in essence, us, have long since slipped through our fingers. I release my breath slowly, hanging my head as tears start to form. Shaking my head, I finally get it now.
No one is going to save us; we have to save ourselves.