Sunday, February 24, 2013
“When I was in fifth grade, three kids in my class swore up and down they saw a woman with a baby fly by the window.”
This statement, out of the blue, from my eighty-two-year-old mother.
I glanced at her. She was looking out her car window, veined hands folded in her lap. Her ever-present Annie-Hall-style purple hat sat at a rakish angle on her white head. As usual, she wore no makeup, but her cheeks still tinged a faint peach. That coloring was a source of pride for my mother, as was her perfect eyesight.
“Interesting. Why do you suppose the kids said that?”
“Because it happened, of course.”
“People don’t fly, Mom.”
“Well, they did that day.”
Here we go.
“Maybe the woman just walked by, and the kids thought she was flying.”
“Our classroom was on the second floor.”
Mom had me there. “Maybe they made it up.”
“Absolutely not! One of them was my good friend, Julie. She was straight as an arrow. Never lied about anything.” Mom’s voice carried that decisive ring that signaled she’d dug in her heels. Happened more and more often these days. Many times I just let it go. But when her words defied logic, something within me wanted to fight the dementia that had begun to nibble at her mind. My mother had always been so independent. If elderly women were supposed to wear red hats, Carol Ray Ballard’s would be purple. If they attended classical concerts, she’d go to a nightclub and dance to every song—by herself.
Of all people, my mother should be able to beat this.
“Okay, maybe they were just mistaken.” I kept my tone light. “Maybe a big bird flew by, and somehow the kids convinced themselves they’d seen flying people.”
Mom sniffed. “Birds so often look like a woman with a baby.”
My heart twinged. Now she’d descended into just plain stubbornness. Why did I insist on pushing her? It was pointless. This life-stealing illness was so powerful. Yet I kept acting as though I could beat it back. I couldn’t. It just came on and on, a slow-rising tide. I was a fixer, but I couldn’t fix this.
I should take cues from my twenty-seven-year-old daughter, Emily. She handled her grandmother far better than I did. Emily was known for speaking her mind and not taking flak from anyone. Yet she was so patient with her “Grand.” So willing to just let the woman be.
“Honestly.” My mother folded her arms and huffed. “Sometimes you act like I’m just stupid.”
“Mom, no! I’ve never thought you’re stupid. Not for a second.”
I negotiated a curve on Tunitas Creek Road, off Highway 1, a little south of Half Moon Bay, California. We’d set out from our weekend at the Ritz Carlton on the ocean to return to our home in San Carlos. Instead of taking the more popular Highway 92 over the hills, I’d taken a detour, choosing to follow the little-used Tunitas up to Skyline, then hook up to 92.
An off-the-cuff decision that would change our lives.
It was a beautiful drive on this afternoon in late February. The weather was unseasonably warm and dry, the month known for bringing rain to the Bay Area. Mom and I wore coats, but they were much lighter than usual. We’d both dressed in casual clothes for our trip home, I in jeans and a blue sweatshirt, Mom in her pull-on knit pants and a long-sleeved blouse. Our weekend had done Mom a world of good, or so I’d thought. She’d had fewer episodes of disjointed conversation or misplacing an item. I’d hoped that could last. Maybe I just needed to get her out more. Maybe . . . something.
“Anyway, I’m sure your friends were right, Mom, the woman and baby must have flown.” I tried to keep the defeat from my voice.
Mom made a point of continuing to look out her window. “You don’t really believe me.”
“Yes, I do.”
We rounded another curve, admiring the scenery. I hoped Mom would let the subject drop. The wild pull of the ocean had given way to an open field. “We should call Emily when we get home. She’ll want to hear—”
“Look!” Mom’s finger jerked toward her side of the road. My gaze flicked to follow her gesture—and landed on a small gray car, gone some distance off the pavement and flipped onto its passenger side. I gasped.
“Oh, dear, there’s a man!” Mom’s voice quivered.
He lay on his back in the grass. Unmoving.
It happened so fast, we’d passed the scene before I could react. My foot hit the brake. I steered our car off the road and onto grass, carving to a halt. Turned off the engine and grabbed out the keys. I couldn’t leave them in the ignition with my mother around. “Mom, you stay here, okay? Don’t move. I’ll run back and check on him.”
I bounded out of my Ford Escort, dropping my keys in the pocket of my coat. Then I remembered my cell phone. I whirled back and opened the rear door to fish it from my purse.
“You think he’s okay?” Mom was turned around in her seat, her face pinched.
“Don’t know, I’ll see.”
My cell phone fell into the same pocket as my keys. I ran toward the man and sank to my knees beside him. He looked to be in his late seventies, his face gray. On more than one occasion a patient in the cardiologist’s office in which I served as receptionist had collapsed in the waiting room. I was used to helping the infirm and elderly. My heart ached for every one of them, even as I snapped into a no-nonsense, medical mode.
“Sir?” I placed the backs of my fingers against the man’s neck and felt a pulse. “Sir, can you hear me?”
His eyes fluttered open. His mouth moved to talk, but no sound came.
“Do you hurt anywhere?” I checked down the length of his body. His legs looked normal, nothing torqued at an odd angle. Had he been thrown from his car? I glanced at the vehicle. The open window of the driver’s side gaped up at the sky. Could he have been thrown out of such a small space? Maybe he climbed out.
The man’s lips tremored. “M–my . . .” He lifted a shaking hand and slid it over his heart.
“Unhh.” He winced.
I pulled my phone from my pocket and punched in 911. The man’s hand raised, reaching for my wrist.
“Nine-one-one, what is your emergency?”
“Auto accident on Tunitas Road, off Highway 1. One victim, male, late seventies. He’s outside the car, lying on his back. Complaining of chest pains. I see no other obvious signs of trauma.”
“Is he breathing?”
“Yes. Trying to talk.”
“All right, stay on the line, please.”
The man’s cold fingers fumbled for me. “Lis . . .”
“It’s okay, it’s okay.” I grasped his hand. “Help will be on the way. I’ll stay with you.”
“Nnnn . . .”
“Shh, it’s okay. Let’s have a look at your chest.”
I eased his arm toward the ground and fumbled one-handed with the buttons on his coat. His hand shot up and grabbed mine again. “Lisss!”
His strength startled me. Abject fear etched his face. I stopped all movement.
“Ma’am, ma’am?” The woman’s voice came through my phone.
I held the man’s hand, my eyes on him as I pulled the cell close to my ear. “I’m here.”
“Is he able to move his legs?”
The man’s fingers tightened over mine. “Pleease . . .”
Such fear in his eyes. I’d seen it before in a patient who knew he was dying. Did this man feel that? I tried to give him a reassuring smile, but it came out twisted. “Shh. It’s all right.” Into the phone I said, “I don’t know. When will you get here?”
“Help’s on the way from Half Moon Bay. Five to ten minutes.”
The man gasped in breaths. “Raaaalll . . .” His fingers sank into my palm, his determined expression shooting right through me. He must be feeling himself slip away. Did he have a final message for someone? If so, I would move Earth to deliver it.
I knew I was supposed to stay on the phone. Report what vital signs I could. But this panicked man was alone and terrified, and I was all he had.
“I have to put the phone down for a moment,” I told Emergency. I laid it on the grass without waiting for a reply.
“Raalll . . .”
With both hands, I grasped the man’s fingers. Shifted my body so he could see my face more easily. “Ral?”
His head tried to nod. “Ral . . . ee.”
“Unhh.” His nails sank into my skin. “In . . . Ral-leigh.” The last syllable sank like a sigh.
“Yeah.” Tears sprang to his eyes, as if he couldn’t believe he’d gotten it out. My own eyes watered in response. His emotion rolled off him like fog, wrapping around my shoulders. Making me shiver.
Pain crimped his face. He closed his eyes, a tear running down each temple. “F-find. Please. S-save.”
Find what? “Okay.” I nodded. “I will.”
He looked at me once again, his gaze piercing. “Prom . . .”
“Im . . . port . . .”
“Is he okay?” My mother’s voice drifted from behind me.
Oh, no. I half-turned. “Mom, I wanted you to stay in the car.”
She gazed down at the man, her cheeks red. Her hat was about to slip from her head. “Oh, the poor thing.”
“Mom, please.” Anxiety edged my voice. I couldn’t trust her here. What if she wandered out into the road? I let go of the man’s hand, fumbling around to face Mom, still on my knees. “Please get back to the car.” How long until we saw the ambulance? The police?
“No, I want to help.”
Movement from the man rustled from behind. He grasped the left side of my coat, his fingers plucking at my pocket.
“Mom, listen to me.”
But my mother had no intention of listening. She slipped to the man’s other side and awkwardly lowered herself to the ground. I shuffled back around to face them both. At least Mom was right in front of me.
The man’s hand fell back to his chest. His mouth trembled.