One September day when I was only five years old I walked down the stairs in the morning expecting my mother to be preparing breakfast for me. Instead my Dad was sitting at the kitchen table, looking quite haggard. But he was a shift worker, so seeing him looking like he’d just been through the wringer first thing in the morning was not unusual.
"She’s in the hospital. She broke her neck."
“She fell down some stairs.”
That's all I remember of that day.
photo of Mom, 2007, about a year before she passed away
We lived in a rural area without a proper hospital of its own. So whenever we visited Mom for the next year or so we had to drive an hour to the Big Hospital in Bangor or five hours to the Really Big Hospital in Boston. Toward the end of her time away she lived in a convalescent home in Bangor, where she was drilled in the basic skills of surviving at home as a quadriplegic in the year 1970.
My memory of these events so early in my life is sketchy, but I recall two things about my initial visit with Mom after her accident, quite vividly. First, she had some sort of a steel rod that appeared to be screwed into the top of her partially shaved head. I’m sure this was a traction device used to stabilize her fractured cervical spine. That was disturbing. Second, my mom had a genuine smile on her face when she saw me, just like she always had, and she spoke to me with that same comforting, maternal voice that she always did, as if nothing scary was going on at all.
Although that visit was no doubt a bit traumatic for me as a five-year-old boy, kids are emotionally resilient. I cannot imagine how difficult this meeting must have been for a 35-year-old mother of three who had gone from a vibrant young woman to a permanently crippled quadriplegic, literally overnight. From where did she summon the strength to offer her youngest son, in a convincing manner, the very same expressions and tone of voice that I had missed only a few mornings earlier at breakfast? I didn’t care much for the steel rod apparently screwed into her head, but it was clear to me that this was indeed my mom, pretty much unchanged in the ways that mattered most to me.
My father maintains that I was the child most deeply affected by my mother's accident. He says that I retreated into a bit of a shell. I don't know this for sure, because it was so long ago, but I suspect it was not so much the accident itself but rather my parents’ absence from our home for over a year that may have permanently affected my psyche in some way. I recall that when Mom finally returned home, even though she was a quadriplegic, things were pretty much okay again in my book.
Not only was my mom away for a year, but so was my dad, essentially. During that time he was either visiting my mother in a far away hospital, working long hours at the paper mill, working his second job operating a newspaper press, helping the carpenter build the new handicapped accessible house we would live in (and he still lives in), or he was sleeping. Granted, he had lots of childcare help from neighbors, friends and relatives. But I didn't get much face time with my parents as a six-year-old.
If these early childhood events did indeed have some sort of a deep, lasting, profound effect on me it was probably to teach me the following lesson. No matter what happens, just dust yourself off, adjust to the new realities of your life, and carry on. Whenever possible, do this with a smile.