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For months I have been “encouraged” to describe my Mother’s sickness from a different perspective and although she faced heavy resistance, I am finally sitting down with the intention of sharing the viewpoint of the eldest son. My name is Michael Jr.
The Wallace family has always been a tight knit group, especially among the children. From a young age my brother, sister and I have always had vivid imaginations. Combined with a goofy sense of humor we were able to overcome any of the trivial challenges that children face so early in life.
Prior to 2011 we were never really faced with any life altering situations that have become so common in families today. We were not the product of divorce or abusive parents. We never had to deal with the effects of various substances taking over the lives of our loved ones, placing us second on the totem pole, feeling the pain of neglect. No. Our family grew to love each other and God unconditionally.
We all enjoyed each other’s company and spent most of our time together cracking jokes and laughing at what might appear to be things of little consequence to those on the outside. We lived a comfortable lifestyle and enjoyed our time together. Then one afternoon, Mom came down with what appeared to be the flu.
At the time I was 18 years old. My sister, Megan was 15 and my brother Matthew was 13. Technically an adult, with aspirations to head off to college in pursuit of a degree in computer engineering. With high school graduation soon approaching, I had a bad case of “senioritis” and was excited to be free of the confines of public school and out in the real world. I thought I was old enough to understand how the world worked and that nothing could catch me off guard, but most of all I thought that things couldn’t get much better as far as my family was concerned.
We were excelling in our studies and dead end, high school jobs when we finally realized it had all simply been the calm before the storm. When Mom got sick, we all were humbled as she was brought to death’s door, clinging to life and praying for more time.
We all piled into the car on the second or third day of mom’s being bed ridden. The beginning is a little fuzzy after all these years. I believe it was the Yukon that carried our family to the hospital 30 minutes away. Dad had taken Mom to the hospital the day before. Upon our arrival, we as the children were simply excited to leave the house and expected that the doctor would take one look and prescribe some magic pill to cure our mother. In hindsight, my medical knowledge and understanding as an “adult” is laughable.
I don’t remember much of what happened at the hospital, only that we were all waiting in the car joking around and wondering when we would all be going home. The next thing we knew, there was a helicopter charged with transporting Mom to another hospital as we followed in the car. Suddenly, things didn’t seem so humorous and the gravity of the situation began to sink in.
The next three months tend to be somewhat of a blur. I suppose that over time my siblings and I have done our best to move on and forget the traumatic experience, however I do recall some of the key memories that have really stuck with me.
The first was when we first went in to visit after her kidneys had shut down. We were warned outside her room that we would not like what we saw, and that the outcome was looking grim at best. At this point she was in a coma and was unresponsive to anything. When my siblings and I entered the room, we were shocked, despite all prior warnings. An incision had been made in our Mothers’ trachea and filled by a tube to allow her to breathe. There were several other tubes and wires connecting her to machines and devices that we didn’t understand, and she was asleep. Unmoving. Unresponsive. The only sound in the room was that classic “beeping” of the heart monitor that you always see in movies and never expect to have to hear in real life.
I remember her looking relatively peaceful and wondering if she was dreaming as in a normal sleep or if she had slipped into nothingness, unaware of the dire situation she had found herself in. As we became accustomed to the sight, Dad slid the blanket to the side to reveal her hands and feet.
As if her current state were not difficult enough to bear, all four of her extremities had lost all color and begun to turn black. I likened it to a severe frostbite, and we were told that kidney failure had stopped all blood circulations to parts of the body not deemed critical for survival. i.e. her limbs. The youngest of us, Matt, burst into tears and was inconsolable. Meanwhile, Meg and I did our best to fight back sobs and managed to shed only tears as we looked on at our Mother’s dying body wondering what any of us had done to deserve this.
Over the course of the next couple months, our Aunt Ellen stayed at our house and between her and our grandmother, we were taken care of. Dad hardly ever left Mom’s side. Both sides of the family came together, and we spent a lot of time at the hospital between the waiting room and the intensive care unit.
After a while, Meg and I decided that the easiest way to deal with the situation was to laugh and joke around about everything. I remember sitting in the waiting room with our Aunt Debbie (Mom’s sister) and we would look out the window of the tall hospital building and try to figure out what people were doing in the rooms we could see into.
We would assign comical voices to these characters and we would laugh and ignore the situation. This seemed to be an effective way to fend off any sad thoughts until we received the news that mom’s limbs would never function again. We were told that they would be amputated.
I’ll never forget that heart sinking feeling and fresh outburst of tears from Matt. We used to get angry at Matt for being so loud and considered it weak to cry in public. We could be quite impatient with him, all in an attempt to hide our own sorrow and grief. He wanted nothing to do with our games and didn’t want to laugh it off as we did. All he wanted to do was cry. We may have hidden it on the outside, but at least for me, the situation was tearing me up. I spent a lot of time praying, begging and bargaining with God in an attempt to deal with the potential loss of my Mother.
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After a while, Meg and I found a new outlet. We decided that it would be a good idea to sing to our Mother in her comatose state in hopes that she would wake up. We would go into her room and sing the same song repeatedly and I remember thinking that if nothing else, she would wake up to tell us to stop or pick a different song. We clung to that hope as we sang together to no avail.
Eventually the day came where Mom woke up. I am ashamed to say that this joyful occasion is not the most prominent memory I have of this period. All I really remember is her face. She didn’t appear to be sad or distraught but instead confused. It made sense as she had been in a coma for three weeks, but it seemed deeper than just disorientation. She seemed confused as to why this all happened. We were all confused about that.
From that point on she remained in ICU slowly coming to terms with the situation and what it meant for the future. She continued to regain her strength and improve daily while we all spent as much time as possible at the hospital laughing and doing Bible studies and enjoying each other’s company. We were thankful that she was alive and that we all would eventually be able to put all this behind us.
I remember the doctor used to come in often to check in and I found it intriguing that he originally hailed from Iceland. He taught us several phrases in Icelandic, and we would learn some phrases from Google Translate and try them out any time he was around. We all had fun with this, and things were finally starting to get better.
Eventually, Mom was moved to a rehab center where she would be fitted with prosthetic legs and assigned a personal trainer to help get her moving again. In the early stages of regaining mobility, she spent most of the time transferring to and from this electric wheelchair that all of us kids were itching to test drive.
Sometimes when she was in bed, sore from her training, we would sit in the chair and drive it around the room. One time, we were in her room when another lady in her own wheelchair came to the door asking if we knew the code to the electronic door in the hallway. She said that she was busting out of the joint. We all told her that we didn’t know and later laughed at the ridiculousness of the question.
Mom was in the rehab center for one month. My senior prom had come around and the first place I took that poor girl was a hospital over an hour in the opposite direction to see my Mother. We took pictures and were able to go outside and enjoy the time together. Christine was a good sport about it, and she got along well with Mom. Honestly, I would have been just as happy skipping prom and hanging out there all night, but I knew that wasn’t an option.
For as long as I can remember, Mom has always been an avid goal setter. No matter what the situation, she would always set goals and strive to improve. She spent our entire childhood teaching us that “can’t” is a four-letter word that is forbidden in our house. From the instant she began her rehabilitation, she made sure everyone knew that despite any setbacks or issues that may arise, she would be there, in person, at my graduation.
This was a lofty goal for someone who had recently lost her limbs. However, being the dedicated person she is, she was able to accomplish this goal with the help of family, God and her ex-marine trainer. She was sitting there in her electric wheelchair in the handicapped section with the rest of my family watching me graduate. I walked across that stage glad to be done with high school but more than anything thankful and proud that my Mother had overcome such odds and was there to watch me achieve that milestone in my life.
Current picture of the Wallace family, Summer 2019. I’m the one in the sunglasses.
Over the years, she has become more accustomed to life as an amputee and has grown by leaps and bounds. She can do so much on her own and has never stopped to look back. Meanwhile, we the children have grown up: all three have graduated and Matt is now married.
Although we have all moved on and are barely able to remember a time when our mother wasn’t an amputee, that tragic period has definitely left its mark on each of us in some way. However, unified in our love for one another, we are able to press on and live our lives to the fullest and pursue our goals and dreams with the backbone of our support structure to give us guidance and encouragement. Love you Mom.