When she told me to come in the bedroom and sit down I knew exactly what she was going to say because she had told me the same thing seven years ealier.
Not really a surprise. I was 45 years old, we already had three children; we knew how you catch it, and she had been exposed. Anyway, she was a devout Catholic playing Russian roulette with natural birth control so it was only a matter of time.
And the timing – seven years, and then seven years before that! We’re talking locusts, but cute locusts. Oh, we made pretty babies.
She was so damn cute with a smile like a beacon and a personality that just made you want to be around her. She was everybody’s friend, and I was very proud to be her best friend.
She was the youngest of eight and spoiled rotten, and I was the oldest of six wondering how I could keep spoiling her for the rest of her life.
We got married when we were way too young to get married, and we settled down in her hometown.
Bought a little house, had a couple of kids – boy and a girl. The perfect little family, poor as church mice as my in-laws would say. They helped a lot.
When I finally got a real job offer out of state I knew she would veto it. But to my surprise she was game. And we moved from South Louisiana to North Alabama.
This was the first of many moves as I chased a career. Cathy made sure that each house became a home.
Things changed. We were now Mr. and Mrs. Coleman, no longer Amy and Cliff’s daughter and her husband.
We learned how to play grown-up, and somewhere along the way this spoiled teenager became the matriarch of the family. I almost missed the transition.
I was an up and coming manager, and she was building a community. I learned only later that she had the harder job.
I finally made it to the corporate office in Atlanta, and she made a home there, too. She had a gift for making friends, lots of them. I wasn’t as good at it, so I relied on her.
I truly loved watching a perfect stranger encounter full frontal Cathy. She was mesmerizing. No one was immune to her embrace.
But her children always came first. Good thing, too, because I merely participated in parenting. She was always in charge, and her hand was firm.
We excitedly welcomed baby number three there!
She would get homesick sometimes. No matter where we lived, she and the kids would travel back to Granny and Papa five or six times a year to recharge that smile.
Remember how I said I wanted to spoil her? I put in for a transfer to relocate to our office in South Louisiana closer to family. It wasn’t her hometown, but it was Sunday dinner driving distance.
We were living in Thibodaux, Louisiana on an Atlanta salary. You could call us comfortable. You could, but I now know better than letting Karma know I’m comfortable.
But we actually were comfortable, and now we were pregnant.
All three pregnancies were without incident, but this one was different almost from the start. There were some bumps in the road that we had never encountered before.
It got to the point that the doctor ordered Cathy to immediate and complete bed rest. That meant she could only get up to go to the doctor or the bathroom.
Here I am, a Delta Elite member with thousands of frequent flyer points, and I’m learning how to really scrub a bathroom and do laundry, a skill that I haven’t quite mastered as my pink dress shirts would attest.
But three months before she was due our family experienced a tragedy. One of my younger brothers died unexpectedly.
This shocked me not only because he was so much younger than me, but he was the first of our generation to die.
Cathy felt awful when she couldn’t attend the funeral. When I returned home she asked “are you OK?”
I shared with the family an old saying: Si vous deceder aujourd’hui votre famille vas manger souper demain. If you die today your family will eat supper tomorrow. In other words, you cannot die with the dead. You must go on living since they cannot.
Cathy got a bit sicker, but her optimism never wavered as the due date was now only two months away.
She was admitted to the hospital for a stress test as a safety precaution. Just a couple of nights for observation. She nailed the stress test.
We were excited and knew we were going to make 31 weeks for sure. That was our goal because we were told at 31 weeks the baby would have good odds in a neonatal ICU. After 31 then we’d shoot for 35 where they could be cared for in a regular hospital nursery. Then on to 42 where we cut out the middle man completely.
Friday was Week 31. Goal achieved. We celebrated in her hospital room.
Lots of friends in and out all day long, and when I brought the kids to visit daughter brought a pan of homemade brownies as treat for Mom for passing her tests.
I brought the kids home to feed them dinner and told Cathy I would return after I put the boys to bed.
But right after dinner Cathy called from her room. She said she wasn’t feeling well, like she had the beginnings of a migraine, which was unusual for her.
She wanted to know if I could come early. I told daughter to let the boys stay up late if they wanted, and I left for the hospital.
Cathy was in pain when I got there complaining of a bad stomach ache. She confessed she had eaten the entire pan of brownies and made me swear not to tell daughter that she thinks they gave her bad gas. And I never did until just now.
Nurses were buzzing in and out checking gauges and asking questions of her.
Suddenly alarms started ringing and the room became a real flurry of activity. It was the blood pressure monitor screaming.
“Is your head hurting?” a nurse asked.
“Horribly,” she said.
“Do you see flashes of light in your eyes?”
Cathy paused and then said “I can’t see anything.” Her eyes were wide open.
I grabbed her hand, and she began speaking gibberish.
A crew came through the door, and in a flash her bed and all of the alarms were wheeled away. I was left alone in an empty and quiet room wondering what to do.
A nurse peeked in the doorway and said “You better call somebody. You’re having a baby tonight.” She was not smiling.
In a few minutes the kids arrived with our closest friends who lived next door.
It seemed like eternity before a pediatrician emerged telling me it was a boy, but there was a lot of work to do.
No word on Cathy.
I heard a nurse at the station order a helicopter to transport mother and infant to New Orleans. A few minutes later I heard the order changed to just the infant going to a Baton Rouge NICU, which was closer.
Finally, they rolled this three-pounds and change infant out in what looked like a fish tank on wheels, and he was covered with so many tubes and wires that it was hard to make out a baby in there. They opened a small porthole and allowed me to touch him before the med evac took him away. I said “Hello, Graham.” That’s the only boy name we had selected.
It was a while later that the doctor came out to tell me that Cathy was in a lot of trouble. Her liver had ruptured and she was bleeding internally. They were transferring her to ICU.
I told everyone to go home and that I would call them with any news.
An ICU waiting room is a bright and uncomfortable place. The lack of news had me worried, and then a horrible thought struck me: how was I going to placate an incapacitated mother stuck in a hospital knowing her newborn was 65 miles away. She would be hysterical.
Eventually, a couple of doctors appeared in the waiting room, one introduced himself as a neurologist. Cathy had blood on her brain in addition to the internal bleeding. We just had to wait. Wait for what I didn’t know.
A half hour later the news was the same. And the half hour after that.
The last half hour update was different. The neuro said that they could detect no brain activity. It was time to call the family in.
I called everyone I could think of. Within an hour the waiting room was full of family and friends, everyone with a stunned look on their face.
The doctors took me aside and asked me what I wanted to do. I told them I didn’t know. Actually, I did know. Neither of us had a living will, but we talked a lot about how we didn’t want a machine keeping us alive.
The priest arrived and went into Cathy’s room, he spoke with the doctors and finally he came to me and said, “Cathy’s not there, you know.”
I did know. I knew it last night, but I’m grateful that the doctors let Graham have his birthday to himself and mark the dark anniversary the following day.
And I made the decision then. That was the second hardest thing I ever had to do in my life.
Now I had to tell the children, and it was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I had to help them say goodbye to Momma.
We told the doctor we were ready to say goodbye. We were brought into the ICU, and touched her. I felt her warmth for the last time.
The doctor asked me if I wanted to stay, and I said no. I said goodbye. I couldn’t stand to watch her go.
That crap I said about not dying with the dead? Fuck that. I had no desire to go on living. Every hope, every dream, every plan I ever made involved that woman laying there. And now I was without a rudder.
I wanted one more touch, one more smile. I would even let her play Christmas carols whenever she wanted. I swore I’d never take her for granted again.
I felt like the whole world was asking me what I was going to do now, and I didn’t want to do a thing. This was going to be one of those one-day-at-a-time things. Hell, one moment at a time.
I knew I had to go on. I knew I couldn’t stop now. The children needed…. My children saved my life.
I cried myself to sleep that night dreaming of chasing the sunset, to never let the day end. But I knew I had to endure the darkest of nights and pray for another sunrise – a sunrise on what kind of day I did not know.
My days were full of Graham. I never had time to grieve making that three-hour round trip to Baton Rouge every day. I watched other infants not as lucky as him in the NICU. I saw other parents saying their goodbyes.
But I never doubted that Graham would finally come home, and all four pounds of him arrived on our 23rdwedding anniversary. What a celebration!
Reality set in quickly. I had a four-pounder to care for, and it definitely took a village. The entire town of Thibodaux seemed to have a stake in this child that didn’t weigh as much as a bag of sugar. We were fed by church groups, neighbors offered to babysit, and when I finally returned to work, one of Cathy’s best friends left her job to become Graham’s nanny. All of these people had a hand in saving my life as well.
But at night it was just him and me.
I learned to get by on three or four hours of broken sleep. One night Graham woke up for his 2:00 a.m. bottle. I turn to an empty spot in the bed to say “it’s your turn.” I forgot. For a brief moment she was there. I hurt all over again. It was always my turn.
Eventually I went back to work. Oh yeah, my “real” job.
My 20 year anniversary with the company was coming up, and I was wondering what I would get. Turns out it was a pink slip. I was being let go.
I just said OK. Hey, I just survived one of the worst tragedies in life, and I came through scarred but alive.
I learned not only to expect change but to embrace it. I was changed, after all.
All of those wonderful qualities that made Cathy what she was is what I strived for. Try to say yes. Leave no strangers in my wake but friends along the path. And always have a smile.
And while I was changing why not go whole hog? A job offer came from Dallas meaning I would be giving up my Thibodaux support network for who knows what.
This was a chance to try out our new family. Single parenting sucked, but parenting was better than I thought it could be. I was right, Cathy definitely had the harder job, but it was so much more rewarding.
We made that six-hour trip back to Granny and Papa’s often. I was the one who needed recharging now.
Then something happened that tripped up any plans I thought I had. I met her.
Pamela was a survivor like me. Empathy among the widowed is strong.
It was an innocent invitation to coffee to chat about our kids and literally life after death in general.
She was young, blonde, and beautiful, and I thought “she won’t be alone for long.” Not my type. Yeah, right. Hell, I wasn’t her type.
It’s amazing what happens when your defense walls are down and you allow another person into your very personal and private place.
Things got serious, and I soon faced a Herculean task: how was I going to break the news to my mother-in-law?
I finally got up the courage to tell her I met someone. She cried. But they were happy tears, and said I must have truly been in love with her daughter because only someone so in love could know what they miss and want to experience it again.
How could I forget that she was once widowed herself and found love again? She knew.
Pamela once asked me “Do you have a problem dealing with a hard-headed woman?”
I asked if I had a note taped to my back. I seemed to attract them. Then I wondered if there are any other kind.
My new bride is the only mother Graham ever knew. Of course he knows the story of Momma Cathy, but it’s just that – a story.
Pamela didn’t marry Cathy’s husband. She married a man Cathy changed.
We have a new family – a big family, and it’s getting bigger. We’ve welcomed sons-in-law, daughters-in-law and grandchildren. We feel as if we’ve been together all of our lives. This is not to diminish our past loves because they formed us into who we are. But we keep moving forward.
We both know that there will always be that wound of a lost love. Time may heal wounds, but there will always be that limp.
And while we know one of us may see another sunset at some point hopefully in the very distant future, we’re still celebrating the hell out of our new sunrise now.
A version of this story was told on stage at a Risk! podcast recording at Cafe Instabul in New Orleans. It also appears in the book RISK! True Stories People Never Thought They’d Dare To Share by Kevin Allison.
Graham just turned 20 yesterday. I guess he survived a bumbling single dad. He is an Eagle Scout and a university student, but is still the baby of the family.
Categories: What was I thinking?