Living with a Brain Injury: Always an Anniversary

Every year on this day, my mom calls me.

“Hey, Ang, do you know what today is?”

I always know what she’s talking about because it’s the only time she ever utters those exact words to me.

I usually say, “Yes, how many years?”

Today she said, “Twenty-Six.”

It’s been twenty-six years since she was in the car accident that changed all of our lives. I was fifteen. It was twenty days until I would be sixteen. Which was also the same day as my homecoming. I think I was a sophomore. My best friend and I had matching dresses.  My mom never got to see us in them. I think my friend’s was emerald green and mine was purple. Purple has always been my favorite color.

The dress was hanging up in my closet at home. I was sitting in class.

They called me to the Principal’s office, where the principal and a cop were waiting to ask me where my siblings were. I thought I was in trouble. I hate the feeling of being in trouble. It makes me want to puke. Even now. But especially back then. I told them that they were at home.

My mom hadn’t come home from going out the night before, so they didn’t have anyone to force them to go to school. I liked school. I wanted to be there most of the time. Or maybe I just wanted to be with my friends most of the time.  The police officer then told me that my mom had been in a car accident. A bad one. She was in the hospital. In a coma. I would have to go home and tell the other kids. The police officer was going to take us to the hospital.

Everything was a blur from that point on. I don’t remember leaving school. I don’t remember walking in the house. I don’t remember telling my brother and two sisters anything. I remember getting to the hospital. I remember a social service worker talking to us. I remember my aunt Jannette showing up. I remember crying. I remember being taken into a “family sitting room” while the doctor told us that people who have been injured like she had only have a five percent chance of living. I remember not being able to breathe. I remember my aunt Jannette hugging me and saying, “go ahead and cry, you’ll piss less.” I remember feeling confused. Not knowing what was happening. I remember calling my friend Jonelle’s mom and asking her if she would call the school and get Jonelle out. I needed her. I remember meeting Jonelle by the school. I don’t remember how I got there. We walked to the Dairy Queen. That was our spot. I told her my mom was dying. I don’t know what else we talked about.

The next few days flew by like sequences of a nightmare. “Where is your dad?” “Will he want to take you kids?” I had only seen my dad a couple times since my mom took us from him for her own reasons. “I don’t want to go with my dad.” Maybe they couldn’t find him. Maybe they didn’t try. I don’t remember. I remember standing in a court room. I don’t remember who was there. I’m guessing my aunt Tippy was there, since that’s where we all ended up. I remember getting dressed for homecoming. I remember going to my mom’s hospital room in my dress. I was wearing tennis shoes with it because the pumps were uncomfortable and I was saving them for the dance. I think Jonelle was there. My mom wasn’t. Just her body was. I remember her laying in the bed. She had a hole drilled in her skull to relieve the blood on her brain.

It had been a drunk driving accident. She was thrown through the windshield. She laid in a cold, wet, Pennsylvania field for hours before a car drove by on their way to work and saw the wreck. She was unconscious. She was taken by LifeStar to the hospital. The guy she was riding with had a broken rib. His life didn’t change at all. Except he totaled his truck. I think the drivers always live.

I remember taking that picture in my dress at the hospital. Maybe I don’t remember taking the picture so much as I remember seeing the picture later. I remember my mom in bed, a machine breathing for her through a hole in her neck. I don’t remember the Homecoming dance. I remember being told that we had to “say goodbye” to her before we all went to live with my aunt in Tennessee. I remember being miserable. I don’t remember coming to Tennessee. I’m sure we drove. I just don’t remember it. I remember being uncomfortable in the house. I remember feeling out of place. I remember feeling like I was all alone and that my aunt liked everybody else more than me. I’m sure that was my anxiety. Or my teenage angst.

I remember being so excited when they told us that my mom woke up from her coma. I remember being excited to go to the hospital to see her when she got here. And then I remember thinking, “she would have been better off dead.” It wasn’t my mom anymore.  I remember feeling immediately guilty for thinking it. She had lost a ton of weight. I don’t remember how long it had been since I had seen her. Maybe a month. She was being tube fed. Of course she’d be thin.  She couldn’t really talk. Her words were slurred. She couldn’t walk. Her head was shaved where they had the contraption to release the pressure on her brain. She knew who we were. But we didn’t know her. She was a stranger.

I remember she had to go through excruciating therapies: physical therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy. I remember thinking, I’d like to help people like that one day. After a year, I didn’t want to ever walk in a hospital again. I still have trouble doing it.  Sometimes when I walk in to a hospital and that sterile smell hits my nose, I’m fifteen again, saying goodbye to my mom. I guess it’s a good thing I don’t remember a lot of what happened then. But she lived. And then she learned how to walk again. And she learned how to talk. And she learned how to feed herself. And they sent her home. And she lived with us at her sister’s house.

But she didn’t want to. She didn’t want to live at all. She thought she would have been better off dead too. I guess that’s common when you go from being “normal” to not being able to walk right or talk right. She was moody. She would call me and when I wouldn’t answer her the way she wanted, she would tell me that she hated me and she would call me a bitch. And then she would hang up. She would call back five minutes later. No matter how many times I told myself I wasn’t going to answer, I always did. She would forget that she was just yelling at me. It would be the same conversation. The second or third or fifth time for me. It was the first time for her every time.

She wanted to die. She wanted to kill herself. She wanted to take us with her. We couldn’t get her meds regulated. She was as bipolar as bipolar could get. I don’t remember if she was before the accident. I’d like to say no since all my aunts tell me now that I am my mother’s daughter. But every year she got better. Until she was as good as she’d get. Which is a lot better than most. She lives on her own. About three miles from me. She gets on my nerves by calling me twenty five hundred times a day. I make jokes about it to my friends. We have little skits. They could probably make it to Saturday night live. My friends remind me I’m lucky to have a mom still. I agree.

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