“My dad kept turning his head away to cry. I guess he didn’t want to scare my mother, but I cried outright, even when the surgical team glared and shook their heads. I cried as hard as I could. No one here was stupid. We all knew what was at stake. And then when she was still awake, still whispering kind words to us, we had to leave her there, alone.” — Alexandra Butler
This week our featured book is Walking the Night Road: Coming of Age in Grief, by Alexandra Butler. In today’s post, we have a brief excerpt from Butler’s account of her mother’s surgery in Walking the Night Road.
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Mom’s surgery was to take place on the fifteenth floor of the hospital, but for some reason I remember it taking place in the basement. For some reason, I thought we left her in the basement that day, in the cellar. The cellar, I remember thinking. The words ran laps around my mind. The cellar. The morning of her surgery, I woke up and threw up.
They had wrapped her head the night before in white gauze right over her hair. She looked like a ghastly vision of a bride. It made no sense. Apparently they didn’t need to shave her head completely. They would just cut and pull the scalp back—hair and all. And hair and all joined the cellar in running laps.
The night before her surgery was rough. She was stoned. She was swearing and itching and writhing in her bed. She spoke in her sleep about violent things, about killing and you shut up and you can go to hell. I trembled in the corner on my cot, a little girl. She doesn’t mean it repeating in my head. My sister Chris slept upright in a chair. Every so often she would whisper soothing words. My mother told Chris that she could go and fuck herself, and in my pulse pounded the words this is not my mother.
The next morning, it seemed that she remembered nothing of the night before. We took turns climbing into bed with her. It felt Catholic, like we were climbing into the confessional. There was whispering between my mother and us all. It was like a benediction, as if she were blessing us, each and every one while we paid our last respects. She would hold your face in her hands and tell you how sorry she was. I remember my sister Cindy sitting on my mother’s bed. Her hair was coming out of her ponytail. She was hunched over my mother, and she looked twenty years younger than she really was. Cindy had lost a little brother when she was only four.
He was my father’s only son, the son of his first wife. He died after two weeks in the hospital, never coming home, and my father, in his pain, folded into himself. The four-year-old did not receive enough explanation or understand the meaning of all that had happened, and the strain of the experience remained, a legacy of childhood. My mother knew this, had pointed it out to my father, and made him address it with the four-year-old who was now an adult.
As Cindy sat crying on her bed, I remember my mother saying, Now I can help you get over your fear of death. Her bravado enraged me. My mother always thought that she had superpowers when it came to healing other people. And it was true that she was gifted, but what she really ended up with were legions of adopted children, because people want love above all else. And above all else, my mother longed to give it.
They came for her around noon to take her down to the basement, where the surgical staff was already preparing. My father and I clutched the sides of the gurney, holding her strong, warm hands. The attendants pushing the gurney looked overworked and underpaid and grumpy as they pulled and pushed her along. The gurney kept getting banged against the doorframes, and she kept repeating, It’s okay. It’s okay.
The anesthesiologist thought herself hilarious. We tried to laugh as if to stay in her good graces. We were leaving a treasure in her care. My dad kept turning his head away to cry. I guess he didn’t want to scare my mother, but I cried outright, even when the surgical team glared and shook their heads. I cried as hard as I could. No one here was stupid. We all knew what was at stake. And then when she was still awake, still whispering kind words to us, we had to leave her there, alone.
The tumor was on the right occipital lobe of her brain. The procedure was called a craniotomy. We were told that the risk of stroke, paralysis, infection, hemorrhage, blood clot, and pneumonia was low but nevertheless real. I can’t recall how long it lasted—maybe six, maybe seven hours.
I went home and lay in my parents’ bed, the closest I could get. I now understood true helplessness not perceived, not invented. And all at once out of my despair rose a strange euphoria, a freedom from family, identity, from self. I had a sense of what I was before my birth—some anterior state. I hovered there a moment, looking down over my life and my own suffering without any emotion.
My body lay in my mother’s bed as the neurosurgeon made his first incision, pulling the skin and muscle off her bone and folding them back. He drilled holes in her skull, sawed off a section called the bone flap, and lifted that new separate piece off from her head. He sliced through the dura mater—a thin membrane that protects the brain—placed retractors around the opening, and began his work on the resection of the tumor.
When the procedure was complete, the retractors removed, the dura mater sutured, the bone flap secured, and the muscles and skin sewn back, they placed a white gauze turban once again over my mother’s head. And then she came drifting—drifting in her white sheet past the white walls back toward my body.