Tuesday is shaping beautifully. Jess was coming over, which was cause for excitement in and of itself. When she got here, we cooked up some cheater pad thai (an excellent recipe, by the by) and settled down for the real festivities: Jurassic Park.
We have always loved the Jurassic World area of the Universal park, have the ride memorized word for word, and we both hold that John Williams’ composition is the best film score in creation. While Jess has seen the films, I’ve never had access. So when Mamaw lent me her DVD set of all three movies, I told Jess immediately. This date had been on the books for weeks.
About 20 minutes into the movie (we’d just been to the raptor enclosure), Mom got a phone call. I paused the movie so she could hear better. It was the DFL. She was surprised to get a call, because DFL is a texter by nature (one of the reasons we get along so well).
“At the church?”
Silence. Silence. Silence. Mom’s mouth drops open. She’s gasping. At this point, Jess and I are focused on trying to understand what could possibly be said on the other end of the line. O comes out of the kitchen, sensing the tone.
Mom hangs up, shaking her head, still gasping for air. “Mama Jean, she’s been in an accident, and we have to go. I need to call your father so we can go.”
Jess quietly excused herself. We tentatively set up a date for next week. Tonight, my family obviously needed to camp out a hospital on a prayer vigil. We needed to make sure Papa was okay. I packed up my bag with crochet materials and book and water. Mom gathered throw blankets and jackets. We are used to waiting in hospital halls. We know what makes it bearable. We know it takes a long time.
As we waiting for Dad to get home, Mom explained that a lady from our church had called DFL’s parents, and he in turn called us. Mama Jean had been hit in the Publix parking lot and had been life-flighted to Lakeland Regional. My first thought was that it couldn’t be too serious, because the car couldn’t have been going too fast. Mama is made of tough stuff. And then Mom said that the car had to be lifted off Mama Jean. And the life flight business also meant it was serious. The lady from church and her husband (close friends of Mama and Papa) were rushing Papa to the hospital to meet the helicopter. Pastor was also on his way.
Since Pastor was already there, we kept checking the church’s Facebook page for an update. We got one. Her situation was serious, but it appeared that she was going to be stabilized. We were praying she would be stabilized.
At this point, I am not worried. There is tension in my chest. But at this point, there is no cause for alarm. This isn’t happening. It is not very serious. Mama is too young, too strong, too stubborn, to be seriously hurt. It was a parking lot. We’d just be waiting to see her after surgery. We just needed to wait. Wait and pray. Everything was fine.
Finally, we get to the hospital. It’s less than an hour after we got the phone call. We park. We’re hurrying, but we are restrained. We have time. We just need to know what’s going and where to go. We curve through hallway after hallway and elevators and finally, finally, reach the emergency room desk. The receptionist calls up.
“Jean Byrum? Yes, has she been moved to surgery yet?”
“So, consulation room 4 and 5? Ok, I’ll send them over.”
Good. They’re taking us to hear her options. They’ll tell us which order the procedures have to be in. That’s good. There’s the consultation room 1, 2, 3, there it is. 4. And yes, this is it, because there’s Mrs. McClaren, waiting. Her back is to us, but she’s hunkered over a cell phone, probably to keep informing church people. Only Pastor and Papa are in the room. That makes sense. They said only a few were allowed at a time.
She turns around. She’s crying, but we’re all tense. Of course she’s crying. One of her best friends was in a car accident.
No. No. No. No. No. Every face crumples. My daddy, my sister, my mother. My mother who does not cry. They are sobbing, we are in a huddle, we are trying to make it not true because she was just here. She was alive, she was going to be stabilized, it was just a parking lot. I am not crying. Because it is not true. Mama is ok. They are confused. My parents are too quick to believe she is gone.
We go in. My big, gentle Papa. The man built like a bear. His thin, genteel, white Southern moustache. He is standing, and his face is something terrible. My daddy goes right to him. Mr. McClaren was by him as was Pastor, but all I can see is two of the biggest men in my life shaking and crying and red and devastated because Mama is gone.
Tissues are distributed by very kind, very quiet hospital staff. I hug Papa. I am crying now because Papa is crying and he wouldn’t be crying if it wasn’t true. I am crying because this means Papa is alone. I am crying because this gentle giant is a calm, sweet presence in my life and his calm has just been ripped apart. The crazy, wild, happy, pop of life that was Mama is not here any more.
They say we can go see her.
Papa goes in alone first. He comes out relatively quickly. So we go in next. O stays outside. She’d caught a glimpse through the door and decided to stay out. I’m so very glad she did.
Because my Mama Jean didn’t look like Mama. Battered. Swollen. Bruised. So. Much. Blood. I found out later that both of her hips and her pelvis had been shattered. I don’t know how bad the bone damage was in her sternum, but she had extensive internal bleeding. Her head was swollen to nearly twice it’s size. Eyes black. But what tore out my heart was that her left ear, right where I was standing, was ripped. Where an ear is supposed to be attached to the head, so smoothly, had a fissure, where the flesh had given way. My poor Mama had all those bones broken, so much blood, but even her ear wasn’t safe. And she was so very tiny. She never got to be 5′ tall. But on a hospital bed, she looked even smaller. Only her hair looked normal. Spiky. Short. Red, red, red.
That was real. There was no “holding it together.” There was no “breathing through it.” There was no “ok.” The sorrow and tears and horror and dismal certainty that poured out of that room could not be expressed forcefully enough by tears. I can feel the soft, reassuring hand on my arm from the chaplain, and I remember thinking that he was very good at not talking or being intrusive. The hospital made a good hire.
Papa signed a paper. They told him about the medical examiner taking the body. Protocol in an accident. A nurse delivering her wedding ring in a red plastic bag. It had been removed before a CAT scan earlier.
We all get together a caravan home. Phone calls. Texts coming in. Going out. Updates sent. Condolences. Requests for information. Prayer groups informed.
At Papa’s house, we find out more. Mama had been conscious. She talked to Papa at the hospital. She said she was sick to her stomach. And we know it was from the blood. They gave her a shot for the pain and she went unconscious. She’s always been such a lightweight. It comes with being a tiny human. But she also has a weak heart. Our firecracker, our unstoppable redhead, had a weak heart. And all of everything was just too much. By our calculations, she died around 3:30. She had died before we had really left home properly.
As the evening progressed, we found out that she hadn’t been planning to go to the store until Thursday. Papa had cooked her her favorite breakfast: bacon and eggs. Normally, she ate cereal. He asked her what her plan for the day was.
“I don’t know, but I’m going to do something!”
She had gathered her two recipes and some supplies. She was making a cake for the Saturday celebration at their clubhouse, and his favorite casserole to take to church Sunday. The recipe was still sitting on the box on the counter. Two mixes were beside it.
She ran up to Publix to pick up some milk and two or three other things. On her way out, an elderly gentleman (the news report said he was 84) and his wife rounded a corner and didn’t see her. The police think he got confused and hit the gas instead of the brake.
When we went to Publix to see if they had found her keys, there was no sign that life had fallen out of kilter. Nothing to indicate that we weren’t the same. That death happened here. We talked to the manager on duty at the time, because we’d been told they were holding her groceries. The manager, and the clerk who called 911, and then a few others came over, telling us, offering condolences, saying that the milk had busted, did we want them to gather what she had? They thought they knew what it was. Mom said no, that wasn’t important. And then the manager asked if we wanted her shoes.
Her little, slip-on Nike “yard shoes.” In a Publix bag. So tiny. So final. She didn’t even have her shoes.
Mom said it best when she picked up a few essentials for Papa last night. Milk, because they needed it. Some more water. She walked through Wal-Mart, and everyone else is just living their lives, bustling about, and no one knows that she was not just picking up milk. That we had lost someone today. We lost someone very important. And very tragically. And no one knows.
Someone’s gone. Life is not going to be the same. And yet life things have to keep happening. Waking up. Eating. Laundry. Mowing the yard. Sleeping. Stupid, everyday, normal things that shouldn’t be allowed to exist because she is not here. And she will not be here.
And I can’t believe she’s gone.
But she is.