© 2016 Donna Hébert. All rights reserved.
We may try to leave our religion behind, but Ignatius of Loyola was right: “Give me the child and I will mold the man.” In my sixties, I still wake from nightmares saying “Hail, Mary, full of grace . . .” and when a bandmate and I had a narrow escape at a rural railroad crossing, we got through a whole decade of the rosary before our breathing slowed. In spite of that, I‘ve traveled a long road from believer to one who connects most closely with spirit when playing music.
The events of this story occurred in the late nineties. I’d been sharing music with friends up and down the west coast. My daughter was buckled into the back seat amid her books and lessons. I’d liberated her from fourth grade for five weeks to travel with me. While she might not have learned long division, she did memorize all nineteen verses of a favorite ballad that we still sing together today!
Touring with Mama was fun for her as we were welcomed by old and new friends up and down the coast. The fragile post-El-Nino landscape was spectacular compared to New England, where our roads mostly stayed put. And what kid wouldn’t prefer a road trip to going to school? Passionate about sea mammals, she became a keen otter spotter. Weekdays were spent at aquariums and sea mammal rescue stations. Weekends I was on stage.
She was a trooper in the days before cell phones, a road warrior from age six. She carried her stuff, met and processed new people every day with grace, slept anywhere, didn’t flip out when I locked the keys inside the car at the roadside stand in Watsonville (though I did), helped me with sales and bookkeeping, was a total pro in public and a good companion the rest of the time. She even navigated us across Los Angeles via map before rentals came with GPS.
Competence in the young often surprises adults. At one contradance I played for, the caller was nonplussed when his dance walk-through left my daughter and her adult partner at the top of the set. When the caller bent down and suggested she might like to go to the bottom of the line, my girl, to the delight of the other dancers, put both hands on her hips and said with authority, “I have been dancing since I was two!” That confidence and competence would be called for unexpectedly on this trip.
After a tenday in the Bay area, we bid goodbye to friends and headed toward Portland, planning to stop in Northern California, where the mother of a friend lived and worked. We thought we could have dinner with them but we never managed to connect. The afternoon found us in their town anyway and we parked in front of a restaurant and went in. I used the pay phone, trying again without success to reach my friend’s mother.
Hungry, we ordered pasta and I cruised the salad bar, which looked great, the greens fresh and inviting, their deadly chemical ‘freshener’ undetectable. Seated, we began eating – the salad was all mine. Halfway through the meal I began to feel unwell and took myself to the ladies’ room. When I’d been gone for ten minutes, my daughter followed and asked if I were alright. I wasn’t.
What had begun as mere discomfort became serious when I couldn’t breathe properly. My daughter came back quickly with my inhaler, but I still couldn’t breathe. She asked again if I needed help. The dizziness returned and I squeaked a “yes” before passing out and falling over. It was three p.m. and the date was Good Friday.
What happened next was told to me afterwards by the EMTs, who were awed by her aplomb. My daughter ran into the restaurant kitchen and said, “My mother is unconscious in the bathroom. She’s an asthmatic and she’s stopped breathing. Dial 911 and don’t waste any time, please!” No hysterics. Most nine year olds would have been incoherent.
I don’t remember a thing until waking up in the hospital. They gave me a drug to make me forget and I sort of wish they hadn’t. So no light-filled tunnels to eternity fixed in my memory, just those hours of coma.
When the docs were sure I was breathing on my own, they removed the oxygen tent. I opened my eyes and my daughter was there, holding my hand. Her other hand held an Easter basket and she was munching. I couldn’t speak. With the tent off and the tube out at last, but still on oxygen, I was groggy and full of questions. Where had I landed? Who were these people? And what had happened to me?
Standing behind my girl was a Catholic nun, the hospital chaplain. She’d kept my daughter safe, fed and housed in the hospital while I was in the ICU. My doctor’s family had brought in an Easter basket and stayed to play games. But the biggest surprise was my nurse. That mother of the friend that I’d been trying to reach? She was the hospital’s respiratory therapist and she recognized me by name when she came on duty! I was her patient!
By Tuesday morning, I was breathing well and, though not fully recovered, I still felt like it was time to hit the road. The hospital discharged me with a sack of meds. On the way out of the hospital, I thanked the EMTs and other staff, and when I saw the statue of Mary in the lobby, I hugged her and said “Thanks, Mom.”
Then we got back in the car and started driving again, as strange as that may seem to me now. What was I thinking? Well, I guess I was thinking that I had a Thursday gig in Seattle and I had to stop in Portland on the way to rehearse with my pianist since we’d never actually played together. But was I even conscious of how close I had come? Maybe, but what the hell, I wasn’t dead and I had my daughter to thank for it. So if she didn’t need to dramatize it, I wouldn’t either. But I was still spooked and the meds didn’t help.
We landed in Roseville, Oregon the first night out of the hospital. Checking in, the person taking my credit card asked if I wanted my AARP discount. I figured I must really look like hell, since I wasn’t fifty! We settled in, found a restaurant, and finished a meal with no drama. Back at the motel, I had trouble sleeping with the prednisone flooding my body. The docs wanted me to continue taking it and I was afraid not to. Jittery, I tossed and turned, never really sleeping.
At four in the morning, I gave up trying, rose, dressed and started to load the car, thinking I’d let the girl sleep until I’d finished. I turned the key and the car started fine but the lights wouldn’t work. At all. No headlights. And then I noticed how foggy it was outside. At that point I ran out of oomph. Stopped. Looked around me. Still dark out. Forget it. Back to bed.
Several hours later, with no fanfare, nothing, when I tried the car again in daylight, the lights worked. They continued to operate all the way to Portland, where we swapped the rental car for another; I was reluctant to risk any more of our nine lives.
By now I was also incapable of driving myself anywhere – I needed rest. Falling into the care of my pianist friend, we tried to settle down after our scare. I foolishly decided not to cancel the Seattle dance. Bless the pianist for insisting on driving us. Another friend joined us at the dance and I was able to regenerate my musical energy to work on my shattered psyche. I don’t recall much of that dance except for feeling a whole lot better afterwards.
When we landed back in Portland, my new friend handed me the keys to her beach house. My daughter and I drove to the coast to find it a magical place, dotted with sea stacks, pounded by wild thundering surf and filled with wildlife beyond imagining. The house clung to the steep hillside and the windows faced the water. Hours not spent outside found us in front of those windows, stunned by the beauty and the regular rhythm of the surf. Walking the windswept beach, our kite was nearly snatched away and we gave up after almost losing it. Souvenir stones made their way back to the beach house but our luggage was already full and we had to stuff my unsold merchandise into our suitcases. CDs don’t like to travel with rocks, so we left the stones outside the door.
Our last night in Portland, we crept away in the pre-dawn to the airport. Hours later, we were back home, whiplashed into winter. After weeks of blooming California rosemary and the spring gardens of Portland, we returned to snow. School was a rough re-entry and it took a few weeks for my daughter to reintegrate. This would be our longest trip together, though we returned the following year for a shorter tour from San Diego to Seattle. When she entered middle school, the long absences were no longer possible.
Future trips would provide more adventures – some delightful, others challenging – but what stays with me almost twenty years later are the incredible people we met at every turn, people who took time to hire me, to host and feed us, to bring us into their circle of friends so we could make new ones. And let’s not forget the important medical people who saved my life. I never discovered the cause of my respiratory arrest, though I think it was related to that salad bar ‘preservative’.
So many things could have gone differently. I could have ordered our food to go and kept on driving, which until that point, had been our habit on the trip. Then my loss of consciousness would have had catastrophic consequences. When I stopped breathing in the restaurant, my daughter could have lost her head and precious minutes along with it. Her calmness in a crisis was notable. And of course, I could have stayed in a coma or slipped away.
Instead, I woke up, with my friend’s mother, a respiratory specialist, checking my oxygen count and my daughter’s hand clasping mine. And of course, there are those pesky car lights not working in the dark and the fog but working fine in daylight. That one gave me a frisson, a feeling the whole trip wasn’t entirely in my hands.
You may ask: did that experience change me back into a Catholic? Nah, but it convinced me forever of the goodness of people, people you don’t know and who don’t know you. Samaritans are everywhere. We do care about each other. And miracles of kindness happen every day. When I made a new garden, I added a statue of Mary, where she looks over the wildness, to remind me of that grace.
So it turned out to be a Good Friday after all, but every once in awhile it occurs to me. I lost consciousness at 3 pm and I missed a three-day resurrection by less than 24 hours, so of course I have to wonder . . . do you think . . . is it possible . . . ?
© 2016 Donna Hébert. All rights reserved.