The Hospital, Chinee and Me
Although I stated in an earlier chapter that these writings were really not about me, I must quantify that statement now by saying that this chapter will be almost totally about me. I apologize for this because I don’t find myself nearly as interesting as my brother and I’m quite uncomfortable being anywhere other than in the background of most any subject matter. However, in order to cycle back to having him as the center of attention, I must digress momentarily, but only for the rendering of the next two chapters.
May 3, 1967; I was twelve and excitedly anticipating the passing of the next three weeks or so and thereby falling headlong into summer vacation. Adding to my excitement was the very recent arrival of my two eldest sisters, visiting from Los Angeles. The house was full of activity and preparation. The only thing that marred this happy time was the fact that our mother had been only recently released from a lengthy hospitalization due to a serious bout of pneumonia; this combined with a heart weakened by congested heart failure, everyone was taking extra precautions to keep her as quiet and stress free as possible. (It was quite a rare occasion for the five of us siblings to be under the same roof at the same time. The last time had been for the funeral of my grandmother 3 years previously. I don’t recall a time before then).
My mother was a beautiful woman. She stood approximately 5’7”, had a smooth, unblemished, rich, caramel complexion; large and haunting eyes that angled down almost imperceptibly on the inside corners. A shock of silver hair slightly off center helped to highlight her oval shaped face. Utterly unaware of her beauty, she was only 44 years old and looked forward to her birthday also exactly 3 weeks away. We were, or at least everyone else was busy planning a 45th birthday celebration for her. (I suppose as the youngest, I was more of a nuisance than a help to anyone so, I was not included in the vast majority of the planning unless it entailed running and fetching).
We confidently expected that since her birthday was still three weeks away, Mother would have ample time to recover and would be able to enjoy the first birthday party of her life. We were all looking forward to it and Mother insisted she would be well in time to help in the preparation of the party food.
We had all been up for hours, laughing and enjoying being in each other presence when someone noticed, probably Mother, that it was getting close to the time for the school bus’ arrival. I was sitting next to mother telling her of my plans for the day, when suddenly a violent coughing spell overwhelmed her. Struggling to control her breathing left her so weakened and her appearance so diminished that something akin to terror crept into my soul, filled me with panic and joltingly brought back to mind a dream I’d had a month earlier, just prior to mother getting ill.
In my dream, I was unbearably upset because my three sisters were all wearing beautiful white dresses and I was dressed in an olive and cream three-piece suit; I felt totally separated and excluded from whatever occasion for which we were dressing. Mother was even wearing white. Chinee was dressed in a crisp black suit and wearing the whitest, brightest dress shirt ever made. (Obviously, that old smoke pot was doing its’ job even in my dream). We were all in church; everyone was so pretty, but sad and I couldn’t figure it out until my dream did that “poof” thing that dreams do and we were all suddenly someplace else. I was standing now in the cemetery nearest our home and everyone was not only looking sad, but weeping openly. I looked around to see where my siblings were because I had somehow become separated from them. I couldn’t see over everyone’s head, so I looked down and saw an open grave, but oddly there was water filling the grave ever so slowly, as I looked about to see if anyone else was witnessing this phenomenon, there appeared a coffin directly in front of me; it was being opened eerily, slowly as the crowd began to sing Pass Me Not. Reluctantly I looked into the coffin only to see Mother’s smiling face with her beautiful haunting eyes closed tightly, almost as if sealed.
I had awakened to my own screams and ran to my Mothers’ bedroom sobbing uncontrollably as I recounted the details of my dream. She pulled me into her arms and comforted me by reading a scripture from the Bible she kept at her bedside table. St. John 14th chapter. Let not your heart be troubled, ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions. If it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you and if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you unto myself, so that where I am there you may be also. She made me promise that whenever I felt sad or lost when thinking of her, I would remember this passage, I promised and fell listlessly asleep in her arms as she hummed, Pass me Not.
I did not want to get on that bus that Wednesday morning. I didn’t know why, but I felt that my mother’s very life depended on me remaining there at home with her. I pleaded with her to let me stay home but she just squeezed my hand and told me that she would see me later and to make sure that I accomplished all the plans that I’d made for the day. I got on that bus that morning filled with an un-named dread but determined to do as my mother asked.
Sometime within the 2nd period, I was summoned to the principal’s office; when I walked into Professor Brailsford’s office I was met by the Girl’s Principal and my eldest sister. That awful dread from earlier had returned and I demanded to know where Mother was. My sister told me that mother was in the car waiting. It seems, she said, Mother had a doctor’s appointment that day and didn’t know how long it would take. She didn’t want me to come home from school and not find her there. What no one told me was that Mother’s condition had gotten progressively worse in the few hours since I’d boarded the bus that morning and she was being taken to the hospital. (My guess was that Mother remembered my distress from earlier and was still worried about my state of mind). My sister was there to tell me that if they had not returned home by the time School was over, I was not to worry. She told me that my youngest sister would be at home waiting. Further, she explained, accompanying her on the drive to the doctor, would be second eldest sister and Chinee. I didn’t trust something about the tone of her voice. She had never used so many words to explain anything, EVER. I refused to return to class and was extremely close to having a public meltdown. Had Professor Brailsford and his ever present razor strap been standing before me at that moment, neither would have deterred my insistence on accompanying my siblings and Mother.
As mentioned earlier, we lived in the very easternmost portion of East Texas. We were only about 10 miles from the Louisiana border where the Sabine River separated the two states. My Mother’s physician was on staff at a hospital in Merryville, Louisiana, approximately 45 minutes away and this was our immediate destination. One other thought to note: this was the South in 1967, where the Civil Rights war was still being fought by those on both sides who refused to surrender. This day was to find us, my siblings, my Mother and me all in a losing battle of that war.
By the time we arrived at the hospital the fluid in Mother’s lungs was making it difficult for her to breathe. The heavy air, the dreary sky that promised rain and the oppressive humidity added to the wretchedness of our mission. As we entered the Emergency room, there were no other patients waiting to be seen, still we were told to be seated. We waited about fifteen minutes as Mother’s breathing became audibly labored. One of my sisters, I don’t remember which, approached the nurses station again, mere footsteps from us and pleaded for help but at the same time a Caucasian gentleman was brought in by a co-worker, to have a sliver of metal removed from his left palm.
They laughed and one joked about what a stroke of good luck it had been for the injured man to have gotten the sliver in his left hand because since he was left-handed, he had needed to be driven to the hospital. If they timed things just right, he said, they could actually stretch this into an all-afternoon, excused absence from work. They laughed and flirted with the nurse to whom my sister was speaking and who she was now ignored by. As another nurse passed us, my sister asked her if she would please help mother. She scolded us in a condescending tone saying that there were real people that really needed help and we should mind our manners and not disturb the other patients. We watched helplessly as “The Sliver Man” was called in and had his wound attended. As the joviality continued among the two co-workers and the two nurses, mother suddenly collapsed and fell to the floor. There were screams reverberating throughout the hospital corridor. I don’t know if my voice joined with my other siblings but I do remember my throat being raw and hoarse afterwards. There were sounds of running footsteps and I heard someone say, “There’s a bunch of nigras keeping up a ruckus and ought to be taught a lesson on how to act around proper folks! How dare they disturb good decent folks and all?”.
It was only then that my mother was finally attended to, sort of. She was placed in a room and promptly ignored again. The three of us girls helped mother undress as Chinee waited in the corridor. I silently worried about and prayed for him because he was out there alone with those people who were angry about our pleadings for help. As mother lay on the bed with eldest sister on her right and second eldest on the left, I stood at the foot of the bed as we all worked in wordless harmony to speed the undressing process. They lifted her upper body from behind to remove her blouse as I leaned toward her from the foot of the bed and held her hands helping her to sit up. Barely able to keep my toes on the floor my thin arms strained in their mission. I was looking at my sisters as they removed Mother’s blouse when my hands began to ache horribly. It felt as if my bones were being crushed. I looked at my hands as if they were not a part of me and tried to figure out from where the pain was coming. I looked at Mother’s hands surrounding mine and I could see the veins in her hand raised and blue, I wanted to scream out in pain but quickly remembered the warning of the people in the lobby. I looked up into Mother’s face and unbidden terror gripped my soul! Mother’s face was unrecognizable. Her beautiful features were both flattened and swollen simultaneously. Her lovely, slightly slanted eyes were unseeing and bulging unnaturally from their sockets. I’d never seen it, but instantly knew exactly what the face of a person hanged looked like. I imagined it to also be akin to the look of a person drowning, which is what my mother was doing. It was not the peaceful letting go as portrayed on television or at the movies; it was horrific. Mother was literally drowning in front me and my hands seemed to be her life line. God, if only I could have breathe for her, if I could have but loaned her my own air, oh but those were thoughts that came later. I can’t remember what my thoughts were at the time, beyond the pain in my hands, the immediate fear and sense of impending, everlasting loss.
I suppose that the stiffening of her body alerted my
sisters to her distress because I had become totally mute in my fear. This time, I knew for sure that it was my sisters and not me who broke the silence of that room with screams of desperation. This time, nurses and doctors rushed in with a crash cart and yelled for us to leave the room. I couldn’t leave, not because I was intent on being disobedient but because my hands were locked in my Mother’s death grip. I wanted to go yet I felt guilty for wanting to. I didn’t know how to help mother and felt ashamed of myself that I couldn’t. I hated my sisters for not only leaving Mother but for appearing to not give me a second thought either. From afar off I heard Chinee yelling at them as to my whereabouts, but I still could not speak. I remember the nurses kept pushing mother back down on the bed and with seemingly super human strength she kept sitting up trying to breathe, and with each of their pushes her grip on my hands pulled me further onto the bed with her; my feet finally leaving the precarious purchase my toes had made. It was then that one of the attendants, finally noticing me, roughly grabbed me around the waist and practically threw me from the room thus breaking the life line between mother and child.
(Many recurring nightmares over many years always left me wondering if breaking my grip with Mother hastened her death. I suppose it was my childish and unconscious attempt to accept blame. For years afterwards fear and uncertainty made it extremely difficult to hold another person’s hand).
In the corridor there was no sound to muffle the hushed, hurried and doubtful whispers coming from room number 7, Mother’s room. There were the squeaks of the wheels on the lunch carts as the lunch trays were being returned to the hospital cafeteria. There were distant ringing of telephones and the fierce pounding of my own heartbeat in my ears. But the sound that was most deafening was the sound that was altogether absent. The sound of someone who cared that I was sitting against a wall in a strange hospital while my mother was, hopefully, still struggling to breathe. I had no idea where Chinee and my sisters were or why they had left me. I didn’t know where to go to even begin looking for them so, I just sat…and waited…and hoped…that someone would come and find me, soon.
(I was to learn later, that a visitor in the hospital had complained rather boisterously that the nigras sniveling presence was disturbing their confined relative. My siblings had been escorted outside by hospital staff and told to stay there, in the rain, until summoned by one of my Mothers’ attendants which didn’t happen until after she was pronounced dead).
After what felt like hours, but was in actuality mere moments, the door opened and the crash cart was rolled from room number 7. There followed a succession of white shod feet, I never looked up at the faces belonging to those shoes but one benevolent nurse stopped, came to me and lifted me to my feet. She bent over as she pulled a handkerchief from her pocket and wiped away tears that I did not realize I was shedding. She told me that my mother had passed away and that I would be able to see her in a few moments. I made a motion as to move toward the room when she stopped me and gently said that she had to “fix” some things before I could see her, because my Mother’s hard fought battle to live had caused her bodily functions to fail and that she, “Nurse Nice”, wanted to make sure my mother was as pretty and fresh as she was when we first arrived. She promised to come and get me when she finished. There were still no signs of my siblings.
“Nurse Nice” eventually returned and took my still throbbing hand in hers as she led me into the darkened room. The overhead lights had been dimmed and only one bedside lamp burned. The venetian blinds had been closed to all but the barest of the early afternoon gloom. Mother lay so peaceful upon a bed made with sharply precision corners yet the freshly fluffed pillows seemed to softly cradle her head. Just a bare hint of a smile softened her face which just moments ago where rigid with the struggle of life. I felt my lungs expanding and collapsing forcefully as I unconsciously willed breath into Mother’s unnaturally still body. I truly wanted to thank “Nurse Nice” for also being nice to my mother by doing whatever it was she did to “fix” my Mother’s bodily function failures, whatever that meant. But all I could do was think how grateful I was that Mother was still as pretty in death as she was in life
and mostly that the hideous mask of death of her final moments, which only I witnessed, was not visible upon her face.
As “Nurse Nice” led me from the room, I heard my sisters’ voices. I still had not found mine. I looked past them for Chinee, he wasn’t there and somewhere deep inside I knew that this time he needed me. I walked unsteadily past both sisters, past the nurses’ station and into the parking lot. It had begun to rain now in earnest; it seems that the Angels in Heavens were mourning along with me. I found Chinee standing with his back to the hospital with his shoulders heaving violently. I’d never seen him cry and didn’t know how to comfort him. I just walked to him and put one hand in his jacket pocket and put my other arm around his waist and we cried silently together until it was time to leave for home. It broke our hearts to leave Mother in that cold uncaring place but what else could we do? It was a long, silent drive home with one seat in the car, now unoccupied.
A lesson learned? What can possibly be learned from a Mother dying in the arms of her twelve year old child, in a hospital where the type of medical care one received depended upon the color of one’s skin? When a mob of hate-mongers would keep children from comforting a dying mother or even each other? How did a nurse find the courage and understanding needed to comfort one scared and lost child? Why would she become a crusader of one to save just one, especially in the glare of the disapproving faces of the many? I was the child in that place where it all happened yet I still ponder how I survived so much pain without fracturing but I am grateful that “Nurse Nice” didn’t care, that she cared.
I suppose the lesson should be that regardless of the size of the crowd that offers hate, it’s the size of the love given by the one which should always be most memorable. Unfortunately, it often is not. I can still recall the names of my mother’s doctor, the two nurses we first encountered and even the names of the two men who kept my mother from receiving life saving medical help but I cannot recall the true name of “Nurse Nice”.