I mentioned in a previous blog that I am reworking my memoir, tentatively titled Dreaming Out Loud, about my mother’s stroke and rehabilitation. In this posting, I thought I would explain why I chose that title. I also want to share the opening chapter.
Choosing The Book Title
“Dreaming out loud” was an excited utterance from my mom one afternoon as I transported her to the dentist a year or so after her stroke.
For some reason I no longer recall, mom was in a foul mood that day. Perhaps it was because she hated going to the dentist with a passion. I had a devil of a time getting her into the car for our journey.
The dentist’s office was situated in a strip mall near our house. The mall was littered with an eclectic array of businesses. A State Farm Insurance Company agent’s office (“like a good neighbor, State Farm is there”), a Mexican restaurant, a Japanese steakhouse, and an electronics store surrounded the entrance to the dentist’s office. A tax-preparation firm was especially noteworthy.
For much of the year, the Liberty Tax Service has very little business from the general public, which is hardly surprising since the period from January – April is the height of the tax preparation season. As the tax due date, April 15, draws closer, the tax service must find innovative ways to call attention to its location and capture new clients while it enjoys a narrow window of opportunity. Sandwiched in the corner of the strip mall, the office is easy for passing motorists to miss.
Trading in on a patriotic image, the company frequently employs young people to dress in costumes, stand near the road holding a “Liberty Tax Service” placard, and wave at passing motorists in hopes of enticing them to turn into the strip mall with W-2s in hand.
On the day I drove mom to the dentist, a young lady danced on the sidewalk decked out as the Statue of Liberty, complete with a plastic crown, long, flowing robes, and her face painted green. (“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to receive the Earned Income Tax Credit for all eligible children properly claimed as dependents during the taxable year.”) A young man dressed as Uncle Sam danced next to her. In addition to holding up the company’s signage, he wore a top hat, tails, and a red-white-and-blue-striped suit. His chubby cheeks sported a scraggly white beard. (“I want you for the Liberty Tax Service! Come in today and receive your rapid refund in the next 48 hours!”)
I have no idea whether this attention-grabbing technique yielded significant dividends for the company, but it certainly generated a buzz among motorists. People in the cars ahead of us honked their horns and waved at the handsome, patriotic couple. Pleased with the attention, Lady Liberty and Uncle Sam enthusiastically shook their groove things in unison. They had choreographed a series of eye-catching, synchronous moves. Judging by their wild gyrations, they also had stumbled upon a successful aerobic workout routine.
Mom also observed the duo. She first spied them waving as we navigated through the parking lot, and her eyes grew wide. She pointed with her good hand and struggled to inform me of this unusual development. In her haste to share the startling news, she sputtered worse than she normally did, causing spittle to fly from her mouth and triggering a series of hiccups that became a new challenge in her already daunting repertoire of challenges.
I had been scanning the humongous asphalt jungle for a handicapped parking spot, and so I had not paid attention to Lady Liberty and Uncle Sam. Besides, I had seen them on previous occasions and had found the spectacle underwhelming. Although I am not normally blasé about seeing people dressed in unusual costumes, I have witnessed many such advertising feats. The novelty long ago wore off for me. I have seen people adorned in gorilla suits dancing in front of apartment complexes trying to entice would-be tenants to stop and take a gander at their unbelievable move-in introductory special rates. I have spied teenagers dressed as hot dogs standing in front of fast food restaurants waving at presumably hungry passersby in hopes of attracting customers. Once I encountered a young man impersonating a lobster while he handed out discount coupons for a seafood restaurant on Wacker Drive in downtown Chicago. When it comes to witnessing young people disguised as various icons and food products, I have been there and done that.
Because my goals differed so radically from mom’s priorities, her stuttering and pointing surprised me.
“What is it? What’s wrong?”
She slapped me on the shoulder and pointed through the windshield. “There. There. Dreaming out loud!” She punctuated her comments with a loud hiccup.
I followed her finger to the waving icons and, seeing their silly, synchronistic undulations, I burst into laughter.
Mom seemed perplexed. “This one is a raisin in the sun?”
“It’s just funny, mom, seeing the Statue of Liberty and Uncle Sam waving and dancing like that. Dreaming out loud, indeed.”
She laughed, too. “Yes. Dreaming out loud, indeed.” She emitted another large hiccup.
I extend my hearty thanks to the Liberty Tax Service of Duluth, Georgia, for erasing my mother’s bad mood on that long-ago afternoon, and for inspiring the title to my book.
From the Beginning: Discovering The Stroke
To understand how my mother became one of the 700,000 Americans who suffer a stroke each year, here is my opening chapter of Dreaming Out Loud:
We are deep into December. The day is overcast, the sky pewter; darkness inches across the room. Outside, the lawn is a frozen wasteland of brown grass and leafless trees. Everything appears lifeless and alien, an inhospitable lunar landscape. A rogue branch scrapes against the aluminum siding like giant fingers raked across a chalkboard.
Inside, the landscape is no better. The apartment is littered with soiled clothes, old newspapers, dirty dishes stacked in the sink. She has never been a meticulous housekeeper, but this mess is worse than usual.
Her voice is weak, throaty, rendered hoarse and gritty by countless cartons of cigarettes. “I cannot get this machine to take your name.” It comes out as a croak.
I sigh. “Did it freeze up again?”
“I do not know. Can you get this machine to take your name?”
“It may be the wire again. Has Lucky chewed through the tape?” Sliding into the chair, I reach behind the screen and jiggle the wire. The monitor winks on and off, but it stays lit when I release the wire.
“I do not think so.”
Frowning, I examine the duct tape. No teeth marks, no evidence of clawing. “It’s not Lucky. The wire seems fine.” At this rate, we will soon exhaust my computer expertise.
She leans up from her bed. In the soft afternoon light, I can see only half her face; the other half hides in the shadows.
“You’re sure you’re all right? You look tired.”
“I am tired.”
“But it’s more than that. You look sick.”
“I am not sick. I would be all right if the machine would work.”
She and technology are only dimly acquainted. Lord knows, I am no expert, but usually I can troubleshoot a problem, even if I cannot always fix it. Some problems are beyond fixing; some wires are permanently loosened.
I shut down and boot up. The minutes tick away; we do not speak. Only the soft hum of unseen interior motors and drives breaks the silence. Eventually, the icons pop up and everything looks normal to the untrained eye.
“Let’s see what happens when I log on.” I slap the keys as I input the password.
“It was not working a minute ago.”
I reach for the table lamp. “Maybe this will help.”
“The light is not the problem.”
My fingers dance across the keyboard. I type “J. Michael Martinez” and hit Enter. The titles of my books pop onto the screen. “Well, it took it that time. See?”
“Yes. Thank you.”
I turn and look at her for the first time in the light. Her pale color, vacant stare, and throaty whisper transform her into a stranger. She is dressed in her nightgown, although she rarely sits around in her bedclothes after lunch. The bedside alarm clock reads 1:08.
“Do you need anything before I go?”
“No, thank you.” She leans into the soft, overstuffed pillows, and is asleep almost before the words leave her mouth.
“You don’t want to use the computer now that I’ve got it working?”
“Umm.” She will not be roused from slumber.
I stand, prepared to trundle back upstairs. Something nags at me. I feel as though I am missing important information, a crucial bit of data. She never sleeps this early in the afternoon. I reach over and push her with my hand.
“Mom. Can you tell me something before I go? Mom? Listen to me.”
Her eyes flutter open. “Mmm?”
I don’t know why the question rises in my throat, unbidden, but it does. “What’s my name?”
She closes her eyes. “Mmm.”
I reach down and shake her, with more force this time. I am no longer irritated at the interruption in my routine. My heart races in my chest. “Mom. Answer me. What is my name?”
Her eyes slip open again. “What is what?”
“My name. What is my name?”
“Your name? What is your name?”
“That’s right. Tell me my name. What is my name?”
Her eyes dart around the room as if searching for some hidden answer.
“Can you tell me my name?”
“I am really tired. Leave me alone.”
“If you tell me my name, I’ll leave right now.”
Silence reigns while she ponders a response. I hear the kitchen clock ticking, a dripping faucet, the gentle whir of the aquarium motor as the filter struggles against impurities.
“Tez?” She asks the question softly, hopefully, wondering if she will earn partial credit for attempting an answer.
My cell phone is in my hand; I hit the speed dial before I know what I have done.
“This is Paula.”
“Oh, Paula, thank God.” I erupt into a series of staccato phrases, a barely coherent synopsis of facts and fears.
She is not one to beat around the bush. “It sounds like a stroke.”
“A stroke.” My voice holds no inflection. I have been struck by lightning; the bolt has traveled, vertically, through my body. I am electric.
“You need to get her to the emergency room right away. I’ll talk to one of the docs and call you back.”
“Okay, thanks.” I speak into a dead phone.
A stroke; a stroke; a stroke.
“Okay, mom, you need to get dressed.” I fight to hold my voice steady; my knees are water. “We’re going to the hospital.”
“The hospital?” She speaks as if to a child — a slow one at that — as though I have announced our pending departure for a skydiving lesson.
“Yeah, we need to get you checked out. Something’s wrong, mom.”
She blinks. “I do not want to go to the hospital. I am fine.”
I draw myself to my full height and plant my hands on my hips in a futile effort to appear authoritative. “Mom, you’re not fine. Now, get dressed. We’re going to the hospital.”
“No. I am not going. Now, stop this jibber jabber and let me rest.”
The cell phone rings. A digital display shows the name “Paula.” I depress the “talk” button and hold the phone to my ear. “Hello.”
“It’s a stroke or a blockage of some kind. You have to get her to the emergency room right away.”
“She won’t go.”
“Then call an ambulance. Get her to the ER as soon as you can. Don’t take no for an answer. Go to Emory Eastside, not Walton Medical. I’ll meet you there as soon as I can.”
I hang up and swing back to face mom. She lies on her side with the covers pulled almost over her head. “Let’s go. We’re going to the hospital.”
“No.” She is already half asleep again.
I gather a handful of the bedspread in my fist and yank it away from her. “Get up right now, mom. We’re going to the hospital.”
She lies uncovered in bed, completely exposed, her white legs jutting from beneath her thin blue dressing gown. Fully awake, she stares at me through narrow, half-lidded eyes. “What is wrong with you?”
“Either you get up, get your clothes on, and come with me to the car or I’ll call an ambulance.”
My mother detests drama. Nothing is more mortifying for her than “making a scene.” She grew up in a household with a mother who was a perpetual adolescent, always wallowing in self-induced melodrama and seeking attention for various soft-tissue injuries and non-existent illnesses. The last thing my mother desires is to attract attention for an illness. The arrival of an ambulance at our house is the kind of thing my grandmother would have loved, but my mother would see it as confirmation that she, too, is a drama queen. I have hit upon the one threat most likely to propel her from the bed.
She swings her legs onto the floor and looks at me with something akin to fury in her eyes. “Buster, you are not my boss.”
“Okay, fair enough.” I grab her arm and hoist her to her feet. “Here are your glasses.”
“Nobody is the boss around here, no matter what they might be thinking.”
“Let’s go, mom. Let’s find some clothes to wear.”
We step into the walk-in closet as she balances her eyeglasses on the bridge of her nose. I have never been a good judge of clothing, especially for women. Even under optimal circumstances, I counsel someone to “throw something on and let’s get going.”
“How about this?” I reach for what seems to be a presentable shirt.
She looks at me as though I have instructed her to urinate on the Queen’s shoes. “I cannot wear that blouse. Those stripes are unbecoming. They make me look too thick through the hips.”
“How about this one?”
“Mike, for goodness sake. I wore that once last week. I cannot wear it again so soon.” She snatches the blouse from my hand.
“Hey — you know my name!”
She frowns. “Of course I know your name. Stop acting so silly.”
“Well, anyway, c’mon. Grab any blouse, even one you wore last week. Who’ll notice?”
She waves her garment at me. “Go on, get out. Get out. I will find it myself.”
I shrug. “All right.”
Stepping into her bedroom, I sit on the bed and contemplate dialing an ambulance. I even put my index finger on the first digit for 9-1-1. Her voice stops me in my tracks.
“Hand me my kerplunk.”
“My kerplunk. Hand it to me.”
I am not sure what she means. Perhaps a “kerplunk” is some sort of feminine hygiene product or artifice with which I am unaccustomed. It seems unlikely, but I have known stranger things to happen in my life. Rising, I gaze around the room.
“What does it look like?”
“For goodness sake, Mike.” Her exasperated voice, so familiar from my adolescence, fills my ears. “You know what kerplunk looks like. They are in there on the shelf.”
“Ah, which shelf?”
“Look around for it.”
I cut my eyes left and right. What did they teach me in school? Try to derive meaning from context. Mom is dressing, so presumably a “kerplunk” is necessary to complete the process.
In desperation, I spew out every item I can think of. “A bra? Underwear? A hairbrush?”
Finally, she ends my misery by marching out of the closet and into the bathroom. I follow behind. Turning, she displays an adult diaper. “Kerplunk!”
Properly chastened, I renew my calls for speed. “Mom, please, we need to go.”
“There is no need to be ugly.”
My cell phone erupts. I bring it to my face and depress the button.
“Where are you?”
“We’re still getting dressed.”
“Are you kidding? It’s going on half an hour. Hang up and call an ambulance. I’m on my way to Eastside now.”
“She won’t go in an ambulance.”
“Mike, this is serious. Hang up and call an ambulance. You don’t have time to lose.” The phone dies.
As I dial 9-1-1, mom emerges from the bathroom more or less dressed. Her blouse is a bit lopsided and her hair askew, but she is presentable enough to venture into the world. I hang up the phone.
“I do not need to go to the hospital.”
“We’re going, anyway.” I snap my fingers as a thought hits me. Spying her purse on the nightstand next to the bed, I throw myself onto the mattress and reach for her wallet.
Her eyes grow wide. “What are you doing with my purse?”
“Getting your insurance and Medicare cards.”
“You should not rifle through someone’s purse without asking permission. You know better than that.”
“I’m sorry. Do you mind?” I hold up the cards as well as her driver’s license.
She shrugs. “It is too late now.”
“I suppose so,” she says as I hold up her windbreaker and she slides into it. Anxious to make good time, I grab her by the elbow and guide her to the door.
She always has the last word. “You are not my boss, no matter what you might think.”