De­spite our care­ful plans, life hap­pens


It’s been a strange week. My sis­ter and I passed the course­work and pool por­tion for open-wa­ter scuba div­ing, my son turned 12, and my mother ended up in ICU. You can plan as much as you like, but of­ten­times life hap­pens, and not as you might have planned.

The rhyth­mic sound of the ven­ti­la­tor is com­fort­ing rather than fright­en­ing, as I had thought it would be. Its steady pace, much faster than my nor­mal breath­ing rate, is sooth­ing, pos­si­bly rem­i­nis­cent of the ma­ter­nal heart­beat that I heard in utero. As it works to fill my mother’s lungs with oxy­gen, her chest rises and falls.

One of the ben­e­fits of be­ing in an ICU is the very per­sonal care she re­ceives from the nurses who work in 12-hour shifts. She was ini­tially con­nected to more than nine drips; her IV lines were a web of con­nec­tions held in place by a tongue de­pres­sor taped to the rail of the bed.

She had been fine last Thurs­day night when my sis­ter, my two chil­dren and I talked to her on the phone. Cheery and bright, she gave us up­dates on her week, sound­ing ex­cited to hear about her grand­chil­dren’s sum­mer sail­ing camp ad­ven­tures, and re­mind­ing my sis­ter and me to stick to­gether as scuba bud­dies.

The next af­ter­noon, she was taken from the nurs­ing home to the ER, where she was di­ag­nosed with septic shock. On Satur­day, my sis­ter and I flew from Mi­ami to At­lanta to see her and to con­fer with her med­i­cal team. She was se­dated and was con­nected to a ven­ti­la­tor and to wires, tubes and alarms. Since then, she has im­proved. Doc­tors have weaned her off some of her medicines; the ven­ti­la­tor is at 50 per­cent rather than 100 per­cent oxy­gen; her head moves in re­sponse to fa­mil­iar voices.

We ap­pre­ci­ate ev­ery im­prove­ment, but know that ev­ery day is a new op­por­tu­nity. As her doc­tor told us this week­end, ev­ery pa­tient is his or her own case study. While stud­ies tell us what an aver­age re­sponse is, no pa­tient is aver­age, es­pe­cially our mother. She sur­vived uter­ine can­cer when I was in mid­dle school. Her goal at that point was to see both her daugh­ters grad­u­ate from high school. In 2005, long af­ter we had grad­u­ated from col­lege and mar­ried, she was di­ag­nosed with ag­gres­sive colon can­cer. Af­ter surgery and chemo­ther­apy, she moved into a nurs­ing home, then to as­sisted liv­ing and fi­nally back home. Last year, she suf­fered a se­ries of strokes and moved into a dif­fer­ent nurs­ing home close to her grand­chil­dren.

In the en­su­ing year, she worked hard in ther­apy and was able to sit up, use both hands and even play Wii golf.

My mother has been in ICU more times than I can re­mem­ber. One of the most mem­o­rable vis­its oc­curred two years ago, when she was deliri­ous. Ac­cord­ing to her, the doc­tors were all thes­pi­ans and the ICU was a stage.

When she called me in the mid­dle of the night to get a new doc­tor, she de­clared that I was no help to her and she would call my sis­ter. When a cri­sis hits, as when some­one you love sud­denly be­comes ill, your world gets re­framed. If you go through enough crises, you be­gin to un­der­stand how im­por­tant it is to sur­round your­self with peo­ple who have been through other crises. It helps to un­der­stand that you are not in con­trol of ei­ther the pace or the out­come, and that of­ten the best you can hope for is that you will be able to go through the cri­sis with just a bit of grace.

In my prayers, I am not ask­ing for a par­tic­u­lar out­come, but rather for God’s will to be done, and for him to give me his grace and pres­ence through­out the process. Life is a jour­ney. It is not easy, but you still have to keep liv­ing, even if it’s only one day at a time. To find out more about Jackie Gin­grich Cush­man, and read fea­tures by other Cre­ators Syn­di­cate writ­ers and car­toon­ists, visit www. cre­

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