Chris Crossing York: Overdue apology to a kind floral clerk
Dear Floral Clerk at the Pauline Drive Giant on Mother's Day Nine Years Ago,
You're one of what I've estimated at between 45 and 90 people owed an apology for my breaches of social etiquette during that stressful time, but you and a few others (including the doctor I swore at during the Give Up meeting and the Man in the Shiny Shoes) truly deserve the personalized attention I'm extending with this letter.
Before I unloaded on you, I was on the morning drive to York Hospital, a bleak routine of seven days, when I remembered it was Mother's Day. Friends and family had spared the mention, but radio shows and roadside flower vendors and every sales circular said, "Hey, you will not forget this."
When you approached me to encourage my selection, I was self-flagellating for never remembering which was the flower she liked and which was the flower that made her sneeze. And it seemed I always bought the one that made her sneeze.
Now that I really wanted to make her sneeze, I still couldn't remember. I envisioned a scenario in which she would sit up and sneeze, and I would say, "Bless you, Mom," and we could go on with our lives like the whole thing never happened.
So I was really just mad at myself when you asked which flowers my mother would like. I understand that when I angrily blubbered, "She's in a coma," I probably placed you in a pretty uncomfortable position, beyond your duties as the morning flower clerk.
When you forced me to hug you, that was actually just what I needed.
Do you remember if I even paid for that little garden basket you selected before I walked out with it?
What is the statute of limitations on theft by exhaustion? It was nine years ago. It feels like yesterday, and it feels like 30 years ago.
She had been in the coma for seven days on that Mother's Day, and nothing hopeful had happened since the second day. On Day 2, I was alone with her in the room when she opened her eyes for about five seconds.
She looked right at me with what I have interpreted and reinterpreted as everything from a blank stare to a plea for help. I just stood there, mouth agape, until she closed her eyes again and I yelled to the nurses.
I will always wish that the last thing she would ever see hadn't been me, standing there frozen and not knowing what to do.
On the night of Day 2, friends helped me make flash cards so she could communicate when she emerged: Yes. No. Me. You. Hungry. I threw in some controls like "Chaka Kahn," to make sure her selections were purposeful.
I re-imagined my late 20s to include domestic care of my mother while she recuperated. Because mothers do not die when they are 44, no matter how many doctors write them off and marvel that they managed — before the diagnosis — to deliver two children with all of that pressure on the brain.
You couldn't even tell anything was "wrong" with her. She called that thing in her head the "ticking time-bomb," but she was the only one who heard its progression.
She defied death so many times, including 10 years earlier when they accidentally glued the catheter in her brain. I am not pulling your leg, Floral Clerk from Giant. She lived through it and even adopted a bitter humor, naming that Pittsburgh neurologist "Dr. Frankenstein." She heard about him on the "Today" show, and he was supposed to be the one who could help her.
So after Day 2, I like to think I did everything I could on days three through 10 to make up for my inaction when she had opened her eyes, but I know I really only did as much as I could without going crazy. I could've probably slept in that hospital chair, but my shift was 8 to 8, reading and singing and talking to her, kissing her hands and her forehead and grasping at anything that might tether her back to life.
We played Tom Petty in her headphones, because I heard somewhere that more people have emerged from comas to "Free Fallin'" than any other song. It's amazing what you'll try when you're just absolutely tired and desperate.
But things only worsened, no matter the soundtrack. She pulled her tubes out, and that was my fault, too, because I wouldn't let the nurses strap her hands to her bed. Mom had told me years earlier that she hated restraints; all of those subtly mentioned preferences over the years felt like a directive for this time that she knew — and I resisted — as inevitable.
My mother was a nurse. She knew what she was doing.
By Day 10, her only movements were forced by machines. She was burning hot and sweating, then extremely cold and shivering. Then silent. We took false encouragement from her hands and feet curling, an involuntary action caused by severe brain damage.
This is where I should probably explain to you about swearing at the doctor.
I once had an entire album of Mom's greatest hits playing in my head, but now when I close my eyes in silent times and try to hear her voice, it'll only come to me in two distinct scenarios. First, I can hear her answer the phone, sweetly, and call me by my German nickname.
If that won't come right away, I can always hear her recitation of a string of curses that would leave me simultaneously eviscerated and impressed with her creativity for having chosen such evocative combinations.
I can remember after the divorce, hearing her on the phone with my dad and standing in awe, a future grammar nerd, wondering how one would even go about properly hyphenating all of that.
So when that doctor suggested Giving Up, well, my mother's influence flew out of my mouth. And it wasn't in the form of a pet name.
I realized things were hopeless but nonetheless resented the verbalization.
On the morning of Day 11, there was still a chance that one of the horrible things they were about to do would wake my mom, or that she would show some sign of life beyond the machines.
I didn't have the remaining sanity to sit there in the room and make sure while they did it. When they were finished, they pulled back the curtain and, shortly after, the doctor told us she was brain dead.
That just never quite feels all-the-way-dead, and I've never felt completely right about walking away, no matter how much I respect science. There's a disconnect between feeling her heart beat and saying she's dead.
After the pronouncement, the Man in Shiny Shoes introduced himself. My mother's license said she was an organ donor, but Shiny Shoes still needed my stepdad and me to sign off.
"Your mother has a beautiful heart," he said. Nice segue.
He was being literal, and that felt like such a violation despite the apparent intent of a compliment.
I just said something like, "Yeah, I know," thinking that if heart were the matter, you wouldn't be here, Shiny Shoes.
And so we went about negotiating my mother's body parts while her chest still rose and fell 50 feet away.
Surreal, macabre. Her pancreas. Liver. Lungs. Her skin.
I was so tired, on the verge of getting up and leaving, passing out, and vomiting.
People want to think doing something good like this makes everything better, but none of it ever really fully makes sense and feels okay. You gradually just learn to accept it, and eventually the anger stops.
And that's when you apologize to the floral clerks.
Christina Kauffman writes Chris Crossing York, an occasional column, and is the managing editor at The York Dispatch. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org, @shewritesitdown on Twitter, or 505-5425.