The Week That Time Stood Still
It was the first time I ever saw my father cry. It was the first time that I felt complete devastation. And it was the first time when nothing and no one else in the whole world mattered..I was so overwhelmed that despite the intense anguish in my chest, no tears managed to squeeze their way through my tear ducts to the surface; no bystander could discern the true emotions quickly filling up my heart, my brain, and eventually, my life. It was the day I was asked when to pull the plug on my mother’s life.
It was my senior year of high school and I was impatiently waiting for my college acceptance letters in the mail. My entire life was ahead of me: I had prom coming up in May, graduation in June, a ticket to Europe waiting to take me away in July, and of course finally moving away for college in September. I was nervous, excited, overwhelmed, impatient, and sad as I watched the days of high school fly by, nearing closer and closer to a simultaneously triumphant and bittersweet graduation. The entire time, in addition to the college essays, graduation gowns and AP tests I was also faced with the then-six year anniversary of my mother’s cancer. Having gone through seven rounds of chemo-therapy, tried five different alternative medicinal treatments, and even a bone marrow autotopsy which entailed removing some of her bone marrow, treating it, and replacing it, and after realizing that none of these often-times horrendous treatments had any effect on the disease, my mother was presented with the last viable option: bone marrow transplant.
Early in March she checked into UCSF Medical Center and became a resident of the 11th floor, number 1126 to be exact, in the Oncology and Hematology sector. She entered the God-forsaken institution a healthy-looking, happy individual with a stylish haircut, rosy cheeks, and a quick-witted mind. When she checked out almost two months later, the poor woman was completely bald, completely pale, and unable to walk, talk, or even chew solid food. She began with several cycles of extremely intense chemo-therapy in order to kill the faulty bone marrow responsible for her illness. Despite having literally no red or white blood cells, she seemed fine during that time: she watched a lot of TV, looked through prom magazines for me, took walks around the hospital floor and became friends with the nurses. Her hair was falling out and she was quickly becoming very weak, but nevertheless she still unmistakably remained the woman that her friends and family knew so well.
About a month later, when the doctors were sufficiently convinced that her bone marrow was dead, my mother received the new marrow, belonging to a 20-year old donor. The nurses celebrated this, as they called it, “new birthday” by bringing balloons while friends came with cake and flowers. The excitement on my mother’s face lit up the entire room: this day, this event held the promise of life to the 40-year old woman. I was ecstatic. I imagined my mother checking out of the hospital a healthy, revived individual. I envisioned finally being able to have friends over at my house, as I never really could because my mom was too tired or sick to accommodate anyone other than her closest friends, or at last taking family vacations to faraway places where we could go rock climbing or surfing or everything else that I had longed to do my entire childhood. I thought that finally, after six years, I could have the family and life of a normal teenager.
I was mistaken in my assumptions. During the first week of May, something happened. My mom was having 104° fevers every night. Her blood cells were still nonexistent, and she was beginning to have intense seizures. She couldn’t keep any food down and was hooked up to intravenous nutrition. She was taking more than 10 different drugs simultaneously to treat every equally life-threatening symptom she was displaying. She could barely talk; a mumble or a nod sufficed in my conversations with her. She was almost inhuman: I came to the hospital every day after school and stayed till I went home to sleep, yet I associated with my mother for no more than ten minutes of that time at best; I spoke to her often, but I almost never received any reply. She stayed like this for about a week, and despite my horror at witnessing my most cherished person withering in front of my eyes, I believed the nurses when they said that this was normal, that this would pass, that it takes some time and then she gets much better. I trusted the doctor and his relentless smile despite what my eyes were telling me.
My trust was shattered on that Saturday night in early May. It’s interesting how the mind chooses what aspects of an event to remember: today, I can barely remember the date, yet I recall the emotions so well that a wave of tears, fear, and nausea fills up my chest at the mere thought of it. That day, early in the morning, my father and I received a call from the hospital stating that my mom had been moved from the Hematology and Oncology Unit down to the Intensive Care. Cliché for such a situation, the weather was rainy and there was traffic at 5am as we rushed over to the hospital. We were silent the entire way; neither of us could think of a single word that could make the situation less awful. The tension in the car was astounding.
The second I walked into the ICU, the instant that I got a glimpse of my mother, I knew that the doctor’s optimism the previous days was based on nothing. She was unconscious with a breathing tube down her throat, hooked up to a kidney dialysis machine, intravenous nutrition, and a host of drugs and sedatives. I touched her hand. I spoke to her. The nurse told me that she feels and hears nothing. My mother, this bald, pale creature with various protruding tubes, feels and hears nothing.
After spending all day in the ICU eating the free popsicles and making awkward small talk, my dad and I were told that we will have a meeting with the doctor in the evening. Not having heard from him since the day before, we assumed some hope and information would come from the MD. At 10:45, Doctor Martin asked us to follow him into a very small meeting room in the hospital with a small table and 4 chairs. UCSF is on a hill and all of the conference and waiting rooms have glass walls, exposing the entire San Francisco skyline. I remember staring blankly at the pulsating white lights of the Golden Gate Bridge as Dr. Martin told us that my mother had brain poisoning from all of the chemo-therapy over the years. Her brain had essentially shut down. Even basic reflexes such as breathing and basic internal operations such as the digestive system had stopped functioning. Every aspect of her being, every function, every basic instinct was now done by a machine.
But before we even had a chance to think this information over, before we could even begin to assess the damage and recover from the shock of this news, Dr. Martin threw at us the single most devastating question one could, in my opinion, be asked:
“When do you want to terminate the life support?”
It would be pretty poetic if I said that there are no words to describe my feelings upon hearing such a question. Unfortunately, nothing about the situation was poetic; tragic maybe, but not poetic. I can explain my exact feelings: it seemed as if time had just stopped. In the Matrix-like timeless suspension, I kept staring at the Golden Gate Bridge. I oddly found myself thinking about how my mother will never be able to see those beautiful blinking lights ever again. I glanced up at my father sitting across from me and for the first time in my life saw a tear roll down his cheek. He wasn’t looking at me, and I moved my glance to the doctor, who had the face of an angel. I don’t know if he was required to learn that facial expression as part of his medical school, or if he honestly cared about my mom, but he emitted doe eyes perfectly angled towards the ground accompanied by peacefully pursed lips.
I didn’t look at myself, but I’m pretty sure that that night Dr. Martin looked more devastated than my dad and I. We don’t show emotion. We swallow it. I looked at my dad again and saw that by now he was already impatiently looking around the room, having already successfully suppressed the tears that I knew were welling up and overflowing in his chest. I wasn’t crying when I first heard the news. I wasn’t even crying when I saw the tear on my dad’s face. I did start crying, though, when I realized that my graduation was coming up, and that I was growing up, and that once upon a time several years ago my mom told me that no matter how sick she was, she would make sure and stay alive long enough to see me grow up. Once I remembered this, I forgot all about my cool exterior. The tears came flowing and did not stop for the next hour. The doctor tried to console me; my dad just got up and stood by the massive window, looking out to the skyline and the bay, knowing that if he looked at me he, too, would break down.
About an hour later, once I finished my heavy sobbing and my dad finally sat back down at the table, the doctor said that he will give us a few days to decide since my mom never signed any DNR papers while she was conscious, thus allowing us more time to sign them. We thanked him and went back to the curtain-enclosed cubicle of the ICU where, I realized at that moment, lay not my mother but just her body, kept alive with the wonders of the latest technology.
I was done crying. I was done with my emotions. My dad was too. We left the room and drove home. We went to sleep, then woke up and took our respective vehicles to our respective occupations. Time was still in suspension; nothing mattered because to us, time was not moving. We bonded in a strange way: we ate KFC every day for dinner. We drank a lot of wine, regardless of the fact that I was only 16. For the first time in my life, my dad asked me about school. I told him that I had applied to some prestigious universities, and perhaps thought too highly of myself and maybe wouldn’t get in anywhere. He told me that that’s the last thing that matters now; he promised me that he sees no difference between community college and Stanford, and that I can pick any city in the world and he and I will move there. It was comforting in a bittersweet way: my entire life I was striving to be the best, to get the best grades and get into the best college mostly because of the constant pressure from my mom. When I realized that she would not be alive to keep me motivated, I felt a little too liberated. But it didn’t matter, because time was still in suspension.
And while it seems like this story is only getting worse and worse, I will use a cliché and say that there was a light at the end of the long, devastating tunnel. After a week of KFC, wine, planning a move to Chicago, and some chance hours spent at school and work, things finally got better, and time began to inch forward again. I got my college acceptance letters, and in an apathetic stupor told UCLA that I will be attending in the fall. That day I came into my mom’s room in the ICU and told her my news, knowing that the body laying there had nothing to reply. My dad came in later that day; it was surprising having us both there all day since after finding out that she was in a coma we came in to see her once every few days. That day we both spent the evening as a family since it was supposed to be a happy day.
And then, she opened her eyes. We were sitting in the room with my dad talking about how we would move to LA together when she just opened up those hazel eyes and stared at something on the wall ahead. At that moment, I honestly did not know what to think or do. It was as if someone was messing around with my mind in the most evil of ways. My dad and I immediately called the nurse who quickly checked my mom’s vitals and told us that somehow her heartbeat was back. Soon every nurse, doctor, and staff person was in the little curtained cubicle, along with all of my mom’s friends. Everyone was talking to her. People brought balloons. It was 5am by the time my dad and I got back to our house after being kicked out of the ICU. We did not know how, nor did we care. All we knew was that she was alive again. She was dead last week, but she was alive now. Last week seemed like a blurry dream.
She got her strength back slowly. She was discharged a little while after and my dad and I nursed her back to reality. She had to learn how to talk, walk, and even chew. She did it though. She survived. The cancer is still destroying her body. I still can’t have friends over, really. And we still haven’t gone on a family camping trip. That’s fine with me. I consider every new day that she is alive as a blessing, a miracle, a gift. Thankfully, she has no recollection of what happened in May of 2005. She asks me about it, sometimes, but what can I say? “We ate a lot of KFC,” I tell her. She just cringes because she hates KFC.