Here is the fifth chapter of Dreaming Out Loud, the book about my mother’s stroke.
Mom’s sister, Polly, is the matriarch of matriarchs in our family, the undisputed head of the southern clan. Nine years mom’s senior, Polly was almost a surrogate mother to my mother as the two grew up in the Pee Dee Region of South Carolina.
I dread calling Polly with the news that her baby sister has suffered a stroke, but no one else can or will do it; the burden is mine to bear. Delay will solve nothing and, in fact, might subject me to recriminations if someone reconstructs a timeline of events. With little choice in the matter, I eventually abandon my vigil at mom’s bedside long enough to step into the hallway and speed-dial Polly’s telephone number on my cell phone.
It is late in the evening, and I worry that I will startle her from a sound sleep. To my surprise, she picks up the phone almost instantly, a remarkable development in itself. During the holiday season, Polly either is asleep or her social calendar is booked solid. Finding her awake and at home is a noteworthy achievement.
“Christmas gift.” She speaks before she even knows who is on the telephone.
This silly greeting is a long-standing joke in our family, implying that the person on the receiving end of the comment owes a Christmas gift to the speaker. Presumably, wrong numbers and telemarketers are exempted from the strained camaraderie, but everyone else receives the royal treatment. “Christmas gift” isn’t so much a joke as a “jokelette” — a silly remark designed to trigger a smile, a lighthearted comment, and a brief preamble to the main conversation. No one ever receives a gift, of course, but the statement ensures that any holiday telephone conversation commences with prefabricated banter to break the ice. I wonder what my family would say if they knew this same ritual was practiced by slaves in their quarters long before the Civil War erupted.
Polly’s voice betrays a mood of delight and good cheer. I regret my distasteful chore more than ever. “Hey, Polly, it’s your nephew, Mike.”
“Mike!” She sounds almost giddy. “Happy birthday! Did you get our message?”
“Message? What message?”
“We called and left a message on your answering machine a couple of hours ago. I think it was a couple of hours ago. Loren.” I hear a side conversation with her husband, who must be sitting next to the phone. “When did we call Mike to wish him a happy birthday?”
He says something, but his voice is far away from the receiver. I cannot make out the words.
She laughs. “No, no. I know it was today. When? What time?”
He says something else inaudible to me.
“Well, anyway, it was earlier today.”
“Ah, no, ma’am, I didn’t get the message. I haven’t been home.”
“Well, how lucky for us that you called. Happy birthday!”
In the crush of the day’s events, my birthday — which technically was yesterday — seems trivial, a matter of little consequence. “Thanks.”
“How does it feel to be 41?”
“It feels old.”
“Oh, relax. You’re young yet. Wait until you hit your seventies.”
“That’s something to look forward to.”
She laughs. “It’s better than the alternative.”
“True.” Under the circumstances, it is the only response I can muster. The alternative.
“It’s Mike.” Polly is speaking to someone — actually, several someones — in the room with her.
Through 600 miles of electronic signals and fiber optic cable, the sounds of family and friends are unmistakable. I hear them reacting to the news that I am on the phone. Several voices wish me a happy birthday. Several others laugh. Others call out various greetings I cannot quite hear or understand. The one clear message is that holiday mirth — aided, no doubt, by prodigious quantities of alcohol — abounds in Washington, D.C. this night. I am sorry to intrude on their warmth and conviviality.
“Oh, we do wish you, Laura, Paula, and Shelby were here. Everyone else is here — Walter, Chris and his family, Uncle Billy, the Johnsons. Philip and his family were here, too, but they left earlier today. He has to work in the ER through New Year’s Day.”
“We were thinking about you as we cut Chris’s cake yesterday.” My cousin Chris and I share a birthday anniversary. We were born on December 28, although he is nine years old than I. For many years when I was growing up, mom and I would travel to Washington, D.C. to celebrate Christmas and our joint birthdays with family and friends. The tradition died out gradually as my generation came of age.
“Did you do anything special to celebrate?”
“Celebrate?” Celebration is not on my mind.
Polly sounds puzzled. “For your birthday. How did you celebrate your birthday?” She speaks as though she is addressing an especially dim-witted child. I feel dim-witted, emotionally and physically “worn down to a frazzle,” as my grandmother Weeze was wont to say.
My birthday celebration seems like a dream or a half-remembered event from my distant past. “We went to a museum and saw a couple of IMAX films. Paula and mom bought me a cake.”
“That sounds wonderful.” I am not sure she actually hears my synopsis, but we both have a part to play — a well-worn script to recite — and we rush through the scene as seasoned thespians rehearsing a summer stock production for the thousandth time.
“They went out on the town.” Polly relays my conversation to the assembled throng.
Several slurred voices speak more or less in unison. “Happy birthday, Mike.”
Judging from a spike in the noise level, I get the impression that new people have entered the room. When they are informed that I am on the phone, they shout out the expected greeting: "Christmas gift.” They have opted to join the tradition, to the amusement of the masses.
“Tell everyone thanks.” Despite my best efforts, my tone is flat, unencumbered by inflection.
Something in my voice, perhaps the monotone, catches Polly’s attention enough to bring her down off her cloud. I am supposed to play my part with a joie de vivre that is sorely lacking in my half-hearted responses. In our family, subtle clues such as a lack of vocal inflection can speak volumes. An absence of enthusiasm invites scrutiny.
“Is everything okay?”
Polly’s entreaty almost causes me to burst into tears. The incongruous sounds of laughter in the background mute the empathy inherent in her question, but I cannot mistake her concern. Clearing my throat, I soldier on as best I can.
“Actually, no. Listen, Polly. There’s no easy way to say this.”
I have captured her undivided attention. Despite the cacophony of sounds ricocheting behind her, she focuses on our conversation with a steely determination so characteristic of a matriarch springing into action. “Then just say it.” Her voice is as hard as steel.
I gulp. “Mom has suffered a stroke. She’s in the Emory Eastside Medical Center in Snellville.”
I cannot tell if Polly gasps, but her silence is deafening. Someone on the other side of the line must see her face contorted into a mask of shock and dismay because I hear a voice, probably Loren’s, address her with alarm. “Polly, what is it? What’s wrong?”
“Laura. It’s Laura.”
“What about Laura?”
“Wait, quiet, quiet.” Although she is shocked, the command in her voice is undeniable.
I plow on, unsure of how to fill the awkward pause in our conversation. “She’s just been admitted into a room and we’re waiting for Neurology to see her. I called because I wanted you to know what was going on.”
“Oh, Mike.” A pause to process the information. “When did this happen?”
“It started earlier today. I brought her to the hospital a few hours ago.”
“Polly, what is it?” The voice is nothing if not persistent.
She ignores the questions on her end. “Tell me what happened — the details, I mean.” It is a direct order, not a request.
“It’s a long story.”
“Start at the beginning.”
I recount my afternoon with mom as I realized that all was not right with the world.
“Uh-huh. Uh-huh.” Polly mumbles as she takes it all in. Judging by the way she speaks and her repeated requests for clarification and the spelling of words, I get the impression she is taking notes.
“That’s where we are now.” The synopsis has left me spent.
“So, how bad is it?” Her voice sounds grim, determined, prepared for the worst.
“It’s hard to say. She’s still having the stroke. Apparently a stroke can last for hours.”
“Is there anything they can give her to stop it?”
“Not that I know of. It has to run its course.”
“Run its course.” She says it almost under her breath. The concept of allowing events to run their course without interceding is an alien notion. She has not built a successful life of more than seven decades — raising her siblings and babysitting her mother, marrying young, earning undergraduate and master’s degrees, raising four children, and climbing the professional ladder in a man’s world — by allowing events to run their course.
“We’ll know more tomorrow.”
“Have you talked to Philip?”
I can almost hear the wheels turning. After the initial shock of the news strikes her like a punch to the solar plexus, Polly’s first thought is of her son, the medical doctor in our family. If anyone can advise us on an appropriate — and aggressive —battle plan, it is our family physician.
“I called, but he wasn’t home. I didn’t have the heart to leave a message.”
“Did you call his cell phone number or his home number?”
“I called whatever number I have in my phone.”
“They may not be home yet. Loren — Loren?”
“What time did Philip and Carolyn leave?”
I cannot hear the reply, but Polly engages in a brief side conversation before coming back on the phone. “They ought to be home by now unless they stopped somewhere along the way. They should answer the phone now.”
“I can try him again in a few minutes.”
Sensing my emotional exhaustion, Polly asserts her strong personality. A matriarch’s superb organizational skills and take-charge attitude are among her most valuable assets. “I will call and let him know what’s going on. I’ll have him call you on your cell phone.”
“Quiet down!” I hear her barking orders to the festive souls at her house. Her no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners tone ripples through the room, and the crowd immediately complies with her demand. She is like that — authoritative, decisive, not to be disobeyed.
“Mike, now tell me. Is there anything we can do for you right now?”
I marvel at how quickly she has absorbed the stunning news. One moment she is as shocked as I am, but that moment is fleeting. The next moment she is already planning, planning, planning. Polly loves to undertake a new project. Messy, expensive, time-intensive — what does it matter to her? She is retired with no small disposable income and a ferocious appetite for accomplishment, an appetite originally whetted on the training fields of her family’s household 55 years earlier. I have just handed Polly her biggest project to date, and she is gearing up for the challenge.
“I…I don’t know. It’s all so new…so overwhelming.”
She understands completely. “Let me propose this: When we hang up, I will call Philip and give him your number.”
“I’ll have him call you as soon as he can. In the meantime, I will contact everyone else.”
“Everyone else” refers to the extended network of friends, family, and loved ones who live scattered throughout the country. Polly has a huge address book and she knows how to use speed dial. Anyone who cannot be reached by phone can be contacted by e-mail. She may be a woman in her seventies, but Polly has changed with the times. E-mail and internet access open up a world of limitless possibilities to the zealous matriarch of the twenty-first century.
I am genuinely pleased that someone has stepped in to lift the burden from my shoulders. Even in the best of times, I despair of calling relatives and slogging my way through the expected formalities to arrive at the heart of the matter. I simply do not possess the energy to persevere through an onslaught of pleasantries. That is one reason (among many) I will never run for elected office. I cannot paste on a smile and force myself to do more than one thing I don’t want to do on any given day.
What I view as drudgery is a pleasant interlude for Polly. Information is power, and how better to remind old friends and long-ignored family members of the matriarchal prerogative than to call with urgent news and a game plan to disseminate among the troops? Polly can control the agenda, ordering family and friends to spring into action at her direction.
Thank God for my aunt and her take-charge attitude.
“Tell me the name of the hospital again.”
I repeat the name. Afterward, I find the main hospital telephone number on a bulletin board next to the nurse’s station and impart that information to her as well. I hear her summarizing the situation for Loren as she writes.
“I’m gonna go now.” I am so tired I can barely speak.
She is back at full attention. “I’m so sorry this happened, Mike, but Laura is strong. She’ll come through this.”
“I hope so.”
“If there is anything — I mean anything — we can do, please let us know. You will let us know, won’t you?”
“Good. Day or night — just call. In the meantime, I will get Philip on the phone right away.”
“’Bye.” I hang up the phone and step back into mom’s hospital room.
Paula is staring into space. She turns her head when she sees me. “Is everything okay?”