She sat in the waiting room of the family doctor watching the children play in the wallpaper across the room. Her eyes followed as boys and girls stacked blocks, rolled balls, and carried bright red balloons from scene to scene. Praying that if she stared long enough, the pounding in her chest would subside. She felt the pounding ripple across her body and cringed.
When she clutched her hands, she felt sandpaper and ice. As she tried to focus on the room around her, she could almost register the moms flipping through health magazines while their children pushed multi-shaped beads across swirled, waved, and looped red wire. At least until the hammering in her ears came back and the room started to spin.
She sat in the cream white folding chair holding her head.
“Please, God. Please, help me.”
She felt the left side of her body go numb. Tried to move her left arm, but it wouldn’t budge. Her heart started kicking the inside of her chest. Semesters of nursing classes responded, as she began trying to decipher her symptoms; her mind refused to respond. She found only a pool of dark and pain where the information used to be. That’s when her body started shaking uncontrollably, and she could feel herself vibrating, nearly thrashing about.
This wasn’t her.
Everyone in the lobby stared and gathered closer. Unable to tear their eyes from the woman shaking and crying in Doc. Griffin’s waiting room.
The doctors ran tests for hours, trying to figure out what was wrong. All came back negative.
Momma found herself sobbing. She didn’t know why, but she couldn’t stop. Heart beating frantically, choking air in and out, numbness from head to toe – this must be what dying feels like.
“Please, God.” She tried one more time to get his attention. “I’m not ready to die. I have people who need me, a family to take care of.”
Tears ran down her face, soaking the shirt below. She could no longer find herself amidst the lump of nerves and tears on the floor. An elephant had moved in and sat on her chest, and she was finding it hard to breathe; her breath growing more and more shallow with each intake.
Somewhere far off, she heard someone say, “Roberta, are you okay? What are you feeling?” Then, “Call 911.”
The nurse managed, through choked sobs, to figure out she had all the symptoms of a massive heart attack. Not five minutes later, the ambulance drove her to the hospital maybe two minutes away.
The doctors ran tests for hours, trying to figure out what was wrong. All came back negative. They had no idea. When they finally calmed her down, the doctors told her they hadn’t found anything. “It may have been a panic attack.”
Momma walked out and found John and Jackie waiting in the lobby. She pushed the elephant to the back of her mind, took as deep of a breath as she could muster, and drove home.
This was the last time she would drive for a few years.
When I got home from school, Jackie, John, and Momma retold the story. She told us about the shaking, numbness, crying. The way she couldn’t breathe. I remember being unsure of what it meant or what to say.
We sat in the living room surrounded by old wood paneling, family photos, baskets of socks, and piles of yarn and craft supplies, silent for a long time. We weren’t sure what was happening, but I remember truly believing this was an isolated incident – desperately clinging to the idea that it could be fixed.
We were wrong.
How wrong, I didn’t begin to realize until the next day and the day after that and the day after that as she had panic attack after panic attack. Each one worse than the first, each one leaving her feeling as though she were dying, rendering her helpless.
I remember the first time I watched my mother rock back and forth with tears streaming down her face shaking, begging someone to make it stop.
“Stop, God, please, make it stop. I don’t want to do it anymore.”
I remember my siblings and I gathering around placing a hand on her shoulder or leg, rubbing her back. Saying over and over again, “It’s okay, Momma. It’s okay, Momma. It’s okay.”
The problem was it wasn’t okay, and as hard as a child tries to understand what’s happening, at some point they can’t. They don’t understand why Momma isn’t getting back up to do the laundry, helping with school work, or making dinner. I was the oldest to four siblings who couldn’t understand why, and very quickly the house started to overflow with anger, resentment, and sorrow. The inability to get back the mother we knew slowly sank in.
We all coped with it in different ways. I busied myself taking care of everyone.
In some way, we all went through our own stages of grief. First, we were in denial, clinging to the idea that this, she could be fixed. Second, we bartered. Mostly, we begged God. My mom begged God for a long time. Until she started getting worse and worse, then she realized he either wasn’t listening or wasn’t going to fix anything. Next, she begged our church. The “family” we had depended on so many times before told her it was her fault. That she had earned God’s anger and deserved this terrible thing happening to her.
That’s when I stopped believing in their God.
Third, there was sorrow. We all coped with it in different ways. I busied myself taking care of everyone. Cooking, cleaning, shopping, everything. Burying myself so deeply in work that I didn’t have to think about it. Some of my siblings started drinking. Some ran, staying as far from home as possible. Others started smoking and dabbling in drugs.
Once we got tired of understanding, we just got angry, and the coping got worse. You could walk up to the door and feel the anger teeming from the house. It was like the house bulged with it. Trying terribly to contain the awful thing happening there.
What’s funny about one of the worst days of our lives is how remarkably unremarkable it was. The day started out like any other. Momma folded the uniforms, tickled and pestered me awake, woke up each of my siblings, then ushered us off to school. She’d taken Jackie and John to the family doctor like so many times before.
The next day we woke up hoping it was all over. Needing it to be. Then, I walked out of my bedroom and the clothes weren’t folded like they always were. I woke up alone. My mom wasn’t tickling and poking to urge me awake. There was no, “Wake up, pudding head.” Or, “Time for school, Jessicur.” She wasn’t laughing, playing, or singing, making funny voices or turning stuffed animals into silly characters.
She was sitting in the living room crying and begging the world to make it stop.
Forever Changed in a Second is the second part in a trilogy of short memoirs from the southern state of Louisiana, by Jessica Ciccarelli.
Cover image: Helen Harrop, Trapped in the Shadows, via Flickr