Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Second Stall to the Right

By Amy

I go to the bathroom to cry, second stall to the right.

My mother had a “significant stroke” six days ago and all of my waking time has been spent with her at the hospital. The first three days, she lay mostly unconscious, her right side seized by a continuous spasm that left her blankets askew and IV lines vulnerable. One of the doctors said it was to compensate for the paralysis on the left. I’m not sure which doctor, though, there’ve been so many. When she did finally open her eyes, it was reassuring by degrees. Since then, she often doesn’t know where she is or even what stage of her life she’s living – childhood, young motherhood, a random tea party where she pours – other moments are bittersweet pockets of lucidity. To have her again, for only a few moments or even hours will have to do. When she’s aware, I want to burrow myself under her mound of blankets, have her tell me this too shall pass, but that’s my job now -- that and believing she will recover. I have to believe for my father, too, he needs that. Her team of doctors can’t say how much she’ll improve, but most are hopeful.

My father and I arrive early and leave late, meet with doctors on their early morning rounds, check her vitals with the night nurse, call the neighbors and family members throughout the day, reassure my brothers she’s making progress, no matter how small, remind them it’s a marathon, not a sprint. It’s killing them. I wait until my mother’s safely asleep before nudging my Dad to the cafeteria for a hot meal. He hates to leave her side. He’s relying on me now to help him navigate this uncharted course. It’s a terrible thing for a father to depend so much on his little girl, I know this. So I don’t let him see me cry.

A friend called me last night and asked what I was doing to help myself. I know someone you can talk to, she said. She is a lovely friend, one of the first people I called. But she knows I don’t talk, not to therapists anyway. Instead, what has seen me through this period has been writing this essay.

The first line came to me in the middle of the night while I sat in a chair watching the rise and fall of my mother’s chest. The rest has come in bits and pieces since. When I finally found the time – this precious time – to write, I flew to my desk. Thoughts of these moments, putting words to page have been my touchstone. I’ve always loved writing and each of you knows by now how important it is to me. But I suppose I didn’t realize that it's my essence; I am a writer. So many of us have wrestled with the notion of calling ourselves writers before publishing something, as if that title can be bestowed only by public acknowledgement. What I’ve learned this past week is that a writer isn’t a title at all, it’s who we are, what moves and sustains us. Writing is what we turn to in crisis, in joy, when we need to make right a world so fatally flawed with wrong. It’s our catharsis and euphoria and the marrow of our core. We are writers.

I don’t expect I’ll have much time to write in the weeks ahead. I’ll probably go days without it. When I can manage, it will help me through.

When I can’t, you can find me in the bathroom, second stall to the right.


Lynne Reeves Griffin said...


I've known this all along, but after reading this post, it's clear you are both a magnificent daughter and a remarkable writer. It is an honor to know you.


kristen spina said...

Amy, your words touched my heart this morning. I've gone through a similar experience—twice—and I know that writing was the only thing that saved me, the only thing that freed me from the sadness, the anger and the grief.

I'll keep you in my thoughts and hope to hear good news soon.

Judy Merrill Larsen said...


This is so beautiful and so heartbreaking. I wish I could bring you some soup or tea or just a shoulder to lean on. Thank you for sharing this--the raw honesty in your words has such power--and I hope it provides some release for you as well. Please know how many of us are holding you close.

Anonymous said...

Sorry you have to go through this but the writing is lovely and poignant. Thank you for sharing. Gail

Therese Fowler said...

Oh Amy, my heart breaks for you, your father and your brothers--and of course your mother, too, who will have quite the struggle to find herself again.

I know just what you mean about how "writer" doesn't only describe what we do, but who we are. I'm glad the act of writing is bringing you solace and lending you strength.

All my best wishes for your mother's recovery.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Lynne,being a good daughter and writer are both important to me. Thanks for your kind words.

Kristen, it helps to know others understand and prayers are always appreciated.

Judy, when we meet -- and we will -- I look forward to sharing a cup of tea with you. You seem to be just the kind of person one would want as a lifetime friend.

Gail, you know just how life can turn on a dime. I look to stories like yours (Cancer is a Bitch, Da Capo 2008)as inspiration. Yours is an important story.

Therese, thanks for the good wishes. On some level we all know how precarious life is, as writers, I think we're trying to capture a moment and turn it into something more. In any event, it helps to process this grief through words.

Thanks all,

Larramie said...

Amy, your wondrous brain allows you to write with your heart and that comes through in any format, at any time. You're a born writer whose words always touch me with their underlying intimacy....that is sometimes, like now, almost too heartbreaking.

Please believe that this "We shall see" will work out for the best and know that you, your mother, your family are in my thoughts.

Wet Ink said...

Amy, I so enjoy your posts, and this seems like the best time to type a little note.

Your words are so beautiful and honest and brave. I am both sorry for your pain and moved by your wisdom.

Know that I wish you comfort and peace.

Lisa said...

Amy, your words left me in tears. The moment of recognition when the parent, child relationship changes is so profound. Let your words continue to give you release. Scott and I are both thinking of you and your family. Hug.

Maddy said...

[relative newbie] I'm so sorry to hear this. We all feel for you.
Best wishes to you both

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Larramie, seeing your fistful of daisies never fail to leave me hopeful. Your words always, always touch me -- never more so than today.

Sue, you are so kind. Thank you for the good thoughts and praise. Coming from a writer such as yourself, it means a lot.

Lisa, exactly how I felt. Sometimes I think you and I have always known each other.

McEwen, maybe new to this blog, but there's nothing newbie about your writing. Thanks for the good wishes.

Thanks all,

jennifergg said...

Writing is my way, too. My way out, my way around, my way through.

I hope you keep writing. I think it will help.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Jennifer, we've each had to walk this path on our singular journeys. Why? I guess that's why I write, to discover the why. You too, I bet. Thanks for the encouragement. Your blog is beautifu, as is Avery. I look forward to reading your book.


Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Your Mom is so proud of you...

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Thank you, Hank. Your Mom too, especially since yesterday was the debut of Prime Time. Let us know all the details.


Anonymous said...

The best a writer can hope for is to bring meaning to that which is senseless. You do that magnificently. Thank you for this.

My mother had a heart attack, stroke, sepsis, and pneumonia that landed her in an ICU. I knew my world had been blasted out of its orbit. As the only daughter, I felt everything would fall onto me. My father, perhaps like yours, was so unstrung by the situation—he was older, he was supposed to go first, that was his plan—that he became another patient. We had six months of hell, then she died. What for? I’ve yet to write about it. But during it, I became the reporter. I wrote down everything the doctors said, every test, everything I could. Partly so I could digest it and help make decisions, but mostly because it’s what I do. Maybe it’s who I am. It was the only sanity in my insane world. It’s easier not to cry when you’re focused on keeping your hand from shaking.

This will be tough. Someone somewhere once said, No matter what kind of relationship you had with your parents, you miss them terribly when they are gone. My mother and I were never close, yet I miss her still, 10 years later. I often wonder what it would have been like if we had been close.

Yes, you have to take care of yourself, but you must do whatever you need to do to be at peace with this. I had six months with my mother, and though I didn’t say everything I could have said, I said enough. I’ve been at peace with that. That’s what you’ll need.

I find it ironic that since dealing with a parent’s illness and death is the hoped for norm (who wants their child to die first?), why aren’t there manuals to guide us through it? Whole sections in the bookstore are crammed with pregnancy and baby-rearing books. What about the other end? We each chart our own course through those waters. I wish you the best on yours.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Kira, I hope you write the book on coping with a parent's illness/death. This passage here aches with all of the experiences I've been struggling with the past week. Give us a voice and write the book. Thank you so, so much for sharing your story and please accept my condolences. You are a magnificent daughter.


Melissa Amateis said...

Amy, this is simply beautiful. I pray that your mother will find healing and that you and your father and family will find the strength to cope. You have a wonderful gift for language - I can see that in your essay.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Every prayer is gratefully accepted. Thanks for keeping us in your thoughts, Melissa.


Anonymous said...

Hey Amy, this is lovely, and it reminds me of a speech by Lee Smith that I heard a couple months ago, about the unique resources of a writer in times of loss and stress. Here it is: http://www.leesmith.com/works/showingup.php. Thank you for the read, truly.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Sonya, thanks for stopping by and for the link. I love that speech. If I weren't writing passages while sitting beside her and in the hours before dawn, I'd surely lose my mind. Hope to see you at Grub Street soon.


Anonymous said...

Just back from traveling and saw your post. My prayers are with you and your family.
My mother also suffered a heart attack three months ago and I realized then what she meant to me.

Anonymous said...

Several mornings each week, I walk through St. Anthony's Shrine downtown (Boston) on my way into the office. I read the plaque in front of the St. Anthony statue, light a candle at Mary of Fatima, and, when available, pick up one of the novena cards in front of St. Jude. I slip it into my pocket.

If I arrive between 7:45 and 7:50, I see familiar faces--doing their rounds at the same statues. I once had a thought that this shared routine was like our daily multi-vitamin. The benefits not so immediate and recognizable, but over time it makes us stronger; for me, I believe prayer is a precursor that just makes other things in my life work better, fit better, feel better.
Usually my prayers are 1. for peace, 2. to be a better mother, 3. for continued health and safety for my very large family.

I am blessed because for right now, everyone is well, things are going okay, life is good.

Sometimes I feel a little silly if I add an extra prayer for something I want, but don't necessarily need.

Every so often, someone will stand in front of their favorite saint and pray with such intensity, emotion--anxiety that I am absorbed into their moment. It makes me stop mid-request and change my plea to "Please God, whatever they need, let them have it."

This morning, when I get to the (insert request here) part of the "unfailing Prayer to St. Anthony" I will think of you and your mother.

Today, when the bells ring at Kings Chapel--every hour, on the hour I will remove the St. Jude novena from my pocket and read it with you both in mind.

I hope it helps.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Reality, I'm so sorry to hear of your mother's pain. It's a terrible to watch someone you love suffer. My thoughts are with you, too.

#5, it's extraordinarily kind of you to keep us in your prayers. I'm deeply touched by this. Thank you.


Patry Francis said...

Amy, This is beautiful, as well as an incredibly TRUE description of what it means to be a writer. Love to you and your family.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Thank you, Patry. Knowing how close you are to your mother, I appreciate the kindness.