Despite my mother’s ferocious objections, I was a child actor. I began in television when I was twelve. She drove me to auditions, and as we sailed over the Cahuenga Pass to Warner Brothers or east on Melrose to Paramount, I ran my lines and we talked.
My mother rarely dispensed advice about career stuff. She’d suffered at the hands of a stage mother. But she did say one thing to me.
“If this is what you want, never give up. In fact, no matter what you want, once you decide what it is, never give up. Don’t lose heart and never give up.”
Roosevelt Hospital affords a pretty view of New York City at night. Tonight is the first really cold night of autumn, and I’m sitting next to my mother in her room on the 10th floor, looking out the window at the bright metropolitan skyline and the yellow streaks of cabs racing across 58th Street. I glance up at the television. Chris Hayes is offering his final denunciation of the evening on MSNBC.
My mother asks me a question and with effort I tear myself away from Hayes, who is a beacon of a stimulating world beyond this fluorescent cell. She wants to know if her catheter is coming out soon. She tells me she can’t stand it anymore. I don’t blame her. I’ve been catheterized more than once and it’s murder.
I’ve already told her that they won’t take it out at night. They need to see her “output” to make sure she’s getting enough fluids. She rolls her eyes at me when I tell her again.
“Oh, for God’s sake. I’m going to tear it out myself.”
I glance at the aide assigned to help my mother to make sure she didn’t hear that. I know it’s an idle threat. My mother understands a lot about medicine. She was married to a doctor for twenty-three years and she’s been in the hospital half a dozen times in the last five.
This time her stomach tore and they sewed it back up. After surgery, they put her on blood thinners to prevent clotting. Her red blood cell count plunged. She had a transfusion. They sent her for a CT scan. They injected iodine and found the site of the bleed. But it had stopped. She was clotting again.
Her body was already healing, despite the blood thinners. Despite everything.
My mother died five years ago.
Five years ago almost to the day, I realize, as I look out at 10th Avenue.
She was in Baltimore with my sister when the headache came on. She waited two hours in triage. She lay quietly with her head in her hands. By the time the E.R. sent her for a CT scan, the bleed covered two thirds of her brain. No beds were available in any I.C.U. in Baltimore, so a seventy-year-old woman hopped a flight on a helicopter to Washington D.C.
That’s my mom, always arriving in style.
I spoke into the phone gently that night, trying not to sound afraid.
“Mom, do me a favor and stop ending up in hospital beds. You’re getting a bad reputation.” I said.
She laughed. Besides a terrible headache, she was still my mother: funny and knowing.
As I walked to Beth Israel Hospital I passed St. Patrick’s Day revelers in Union Square. One of a group of teenagers shouted: “Don’t frown! Kiss us, we’re Irish!”
“Fuck you!” I shouted back cheerfully. You never know when someone is racing to get to her sick mother in the hospital.
She was recovering from her second hip replacement. Years of competitive figure skating and dancing will wear out your hips.
I read the People magazine a friend had left for my mother. Natasha Richardson’s lovely face graced its cover. The issue detailed her freak skiing accident and the fatal brain bleed that ended her life.
In March, I counted my blessings. My mother had a bad hip but her brain was just fine.
Seven months later, it was soaked in blood.
Washington Hospital Center dwarfs any hospital in New York. My husband took my hand as we walked the length of hallway to the I.C.U.
My sister hurried to warn me. Mom had taken a turn for the worse. She couldn’t open her eyes. She didn’t know where she was.
“Mom? Mom?” I said, and took her hand.
“Mu-mu-mu-mu,” she said.
The attending physician told me it was meaningless mumbling.
“It’s Mom. She’s repeating the word “Mom,” I said.
“Her coherence yesterday was aberrant,” he said. “She hemorrhaged very badly. Today’s decline is more what we expect to see in a case like this.”
He had predicted that the patient in I.C. U. Bed #2 would degenerate within days.
Now her brain had swelled and she was following textbook expectations.
“You should say “goodbye.””
A wide-eyed circle of disciples surrounded the learned gentleman: residents, taking notes.
He was pleased. His world was back in order. I wanted to slug him. If I did, would the residents write that down, too?
The attending physician had pronounced my mother “dead.”
She woke up three days later.
The doctor asked to see if she could move her legs. She ought to be paralyzed, at least on her right side. She demonstrated a quick series of steps from a ballet barre. Passé, developé, frappé, close fifth.
She asked us to get her some mascara and a hair brush before her boyfriend arrived on the six o’clock train.
His wide-eyed residents took notes.
I hope the doctor never got the spit out of his eye.
A massive bleed irrevocably damages a seventy-year-old brain. Astonishing spirit and strident vanity may pull you out of the grave, but they can’t escort you back to full health. Once you’ve tangoed with Death, his cologne stays on your clothes.
My mother has short term memory problems. She has, to use a word she hates, dementia, from her stroke. She can’t tell you what year it is or the names of her grandchildren. Sometimes she forgets things you’ve told her even one minute before. If you spend all day with her, her memory of it is gone by nightfall.
Still, she has learned to write again. I find poems scrawled on lined notebook paper where she lives. I collect them and give them to whom they are written. She can tell you about the day she started figure skating. She was four and her father took her to Rockefeller Center.
Most days, a fog engulfs her. Still, she has no degenerative process in the brain and I see a light on in her front window much of the time. It may not burn as brightly as it once did, but it hasn’t been extinguished.
“Can you tell them to take this catheter out? It’s driving me crazy.”
I have the resident paged.
Chris Hayes bids us goodnight.
The Christmastime snow-on-the-doorstep Tiffany ad comes on.
It’s two weeks before Thanksgiving, and already the Christmas ads, I think. I love those blue Tiffany boxes. I wipe away tears.
It is two weeks before Thanksgiving and again I’m at my mother’s bedside holding a volume of Longfellow and a grilled cheese sandwich. Again, I’m trying to keep the wolves away. We’ve been reading her favorite, A Psalm of Life.
Let us then be up and doing with a heart for any fate.
Still achieving, still pursuing, learn to labor and to wait.
She asks me about her catheter.
“Can you ask them to take it out tonight? It’s driving me crazy. I’ll never sleep.”
“I know, Mom. I’ve paged the resident and asked for something to help you sleep.”
Catheters are murder.
Something has been on my mind. I want to ask her about something. Maybe it will distract her from the pain. Besides, I want to know if she remembers something.
“Mom, do you remember guest-starring on I Spy?”
“Mom, do you remember if you enjoyed working on the show?”
“I’m sure I did. Why?”
I am desperate that she remember.
I will be her record keeper. I will hold onto the photos, the newspaper write-ups, the telegrams from her opening night on Broadway. I will even hold onto the ghosts for her. But sometimes I am desperate for her to remember for herself.
“Mom, do you remember Bill Cosby?”
“The actor? Of course. He was the star of the show. But I liked the other guy better.”
“Yes. I thought he was cold, but he was just shy.”
“Mom, was Bill Cosby shy?”
I know the answer; she told us when we were young. I want her to confirm it now. I want her distant past to remain a part of her, not be just a record I keep. A ghost has risen from the fog.
“Why are you testing me? Has something happened? Am I getting worse?” My mother doesn’t like her dementia to show. It pisses her off.
“No, you’re not getting worse, but something has happened. A bunch of actresses have accused Bill Cosby of raping them.”
“Who is this, again?”
“Bill Cosby. The one who starred on “I Spy.”
I wait. I don’t want to feed her the answer. I know the truth, but it will feel truer if she remembers.
She peers into the past. She knows I told her for a reason. Her brain is trying to fit the pieces together.
“He used to follow me around the set. He used to come on. I couldn’t get away from him. He wanted to have an affair. That’s the way it was then. You had to find ways to avoid men like that.”
I’ve watched the headlines for days, stunned at the scale of the allegations and at the knowledge, only now, of what might have happened to my mother. He had told her to think about her future on the show. She’d ignored him. I asked my father recently, to make sure I wasn’t imagining it. To make sure I had the story right.
“He asked her to a private screening at his house after work. She told him she and her husband would be happy to come. Sinister, isn’t it?”
I hung up the phone and tried to grasp this new part of the story that I had never heard.
I think of what my mother might have escaped by chance, by luck, by instinct. I turn to see her at seventy-five, evading danger still.
The past and the present circle each other. They form a ring above my mother’s head.
When I did a TV show at sixteen, the adult star seemed to take too much interest in me. My mother didn’t like it. She told me never to go into any actor’s dressing room alone.
I never did.
She told me a lot of stories about men abusing power. She danced on variety shows and once Frank Sinatra wanted a Polaroid with all the “girls” wearing bikinis and lying on top of him.
She said “no.” The producer told her she took herself too seriously. He told her it was only for a joke. He told her all the other girls had “agreed.”
She still refused.
My mother has a pattern. She won’t give in and she won’t give up. She doesn’t lose heart. She doesn’t know it. She thinks she is weak from pain, from life, from being torn down one too many times.
Her mother abused her when she was small. She performed at Rockefeller Plaza and her mother hit her over the head with a hairbrush whenever she missed a jump. The year was 1946 and someone saw it happen. Nobody calls Child Protective Services in 1946.
She told me that when she couldn’t take the pain, she sang to herself from Carousel.
“When you walk through a storm, hold your head up high and you’ll never walk alone.”
My mother has kept heart. She has held onto life with the strength of a thousand men.
She never gives up.
Residents always look shifty to me. Maybe I’ve spent too many years doing battle for my mother. When the resident finally answers the page, I’m spoiling for a fight.
We introduce ourselves to one another. It is the nod before a duel.
“Good evening. I understand you want Benadryl to help your mother sleep? In cases of dementia–“
“I hate that word. It’s ugly and it implies things about me that aren’t true.”
My mother gets the first stab.
The resident rocks on his heels.
“Medicine has very few yes or no answers, right?” I ask. “You always assess the benefit of a treatment versus the risk.” I enjoy lecturing him on his own field, the way he’s tried to lecture me on mine: dementia.
“For example,” I continue, “You gave my mother blood thinners to prevent clotting after surgery. You knew it was risky because she has a bleeding disorder, but you decided it was worth the risk. She ended up needing a blood transfusion.”
He stares at me.
“I’m going to give you a chance to answer some yes or no questions for a change. Have you ever had a catheter?”
“No.” He looks me in the eye. As if that would make me trust him.
“Have you ever had abdominal surgery?”
“No.” He’s getting annoyed. He gets the point.
“You’ve never had a C-section?” Sorry, Mom, that one was for me.
“So you can’t know how much my mother is suffering right now, can you?”
He looks me in the eye again. His hands stab his coat pockets.
I’ve lost. I’ve had enough battles with can’t-see-the-forest types to know when I’ve lost one.
“I hope you can sleep tonight,” I say. “If you can’t, my mother will be up if you want company.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” he says. I can’t believe it.
My mother and I chat while we wait.
“Can you see if they’ll take this damned thing out now? I’ll never get any sleep.”
“We’re working on getting you something for sleep, Mom.”
Ten minutes later, he is back. Now he is positively bouncing on his heels, not just shifting.
‘We’re going to give your mother something to sedate her,” he says.
My eyes narrow.
“She gets that twice a day for post-operative pain. That won’t help her sleep. And she was due for that anyway; don’t pretend it’s some new plan. I know her schedule better than you do.”
“Good, I’m glad you’re up to speed on her program.”
Liar. Weasel. Coward.
You don’t have to fork over the Benadryl, I think. You have all the power here. A catheter is the Devil’s invention and one dose of Benadryl wouldn’t affect her dementia for long. It would simply get her through until morning and she wouldn’t suffer.
But I want something bigger than the Benadryl.
I want his heart.
I want him to say this to his patient:
I’m so sorry that you’re in pain. I wish I knew the righter of two wrong things to do here, but I don’t. I’m picking the more conservative route, to protect both myself and you. But I know that comes at a cost to your comfort and I am so terribly sorry for that.
He says nothing. He leaves.
I stand at the window staring at the black November night while the nurse dresses my mother’s wound.
I realize something. He’s lost it. He’s lost his heart.
One day he lost a battle. He stood in Roosevelt Hospital’s lobby, balancing a cafeteria-issued ham sandwich and a Pepsi in his hands while he waited for the elevator. He was chatting with a colleague, perhaps. They were talking about a patient, maybe someone annoying or disgusting or tiresome.
The resident’s heart started wriggling loose.
Hours logged in the fluorescent madness of a hospital had worn him down. He tried not to give in to exhaustion and cynicism and hopelessness.
He stood in that lobby, decorated with macabre portrait photos of turn of the century operating rooms, and he lost heart. Perhaps he had been fighting for a while, but that day, he gave up.
His heart wriggled out of his body, beat a hasty retreat from the gloom and hailed a cab up 10th Avenue.
I try to forgive him.
Did he feel his heart worming out of his body when it happened? He should have chased it down and held onto it for dear life.
He could have made peace, even though I was spoiling for a fight. He could have won our hearts. He could have soothed my mother, however briefly, with his heart.
But he doesn’t have a heart anymore, so he doesn’t care about winning anyone else’s.
A few minutes later I am telling my mother she has taken a sedative. Tramadol is an opioid, and at this hour it might make her sleepy enough that combined with my lie, it will work. She might get some rest.
I have to get home to put my little girl to bed. She wants to visit her grandmother in the hospital, but she is too young to go to a place where people are losing their hearts.
I kiss my mother goodnight. She is glowing. She’s had a lifetime of battles but she always manages to illuminate the darkness. It’s positively cheeky.
Tomorrow is another day. Tomorrow will be another fight.
Hospitals can’t wait to get people out of beds. Their budgets are creaking and collapsing.
I get it.
I have a heart.
Don’t worry, Mom.
I’ll never let mine go.
I’ll heed your advice.
I’ll never let go.
I’ll never give up.
You haven’t, right?
About the author:
Leslie Kendall Dye is an actress in NYC. She grew up in Los Angeles, where she began her work in TV and film at the age of twelve. She has written for Salon, The Washington Post, The Toast, The Huffington Post, The Mid, Off the Shelf, Tipsy Lit, Scary Mommy, and others. She and her husband and daughter are a family that rarely sleeps in the city that never sleeps. You can find her at twitter, at https://twitter.com/HLAnimal and at www.lesliekendalldye.com