It’s cold: Bring a parka for sleeping. Hoard blankets.
It’s uncomfortable: It’s uncomfortable to see her uncovered, wearing a thin hospital gown, in a room with a temperature of roughly 60 degrees, while you huddle in your parka and a heated blanket the nurse gave you. They need to get her temperature down. You can’t cover her. You can’t give her your heated blanket. You just can’t. You can rub her feet and talk to her.
There are doors: There are locked doors and whenever you leave you will have to pick up a phone and talk to someone to get back in. You’ll have to get used to this. It might be against your nature to ask for help, even just to push a button to open a door, but you’ll get use to saying, “Hi. It’s Rachael’s mom. Can I come in?” They will let you in and they won’t mind.
Birthdays happen: It might be someone’s 27th birthday and she can’t eat cake or blow out candles because she has a ventilator and a feeding tube. There are no balloons allowed in the ICU.
It’s noisy: Every hour or so they will come in to check on her. If she stops breathing for too long on her own, even though she’s ventilated, there might be a beep. There are beeps for other things, too, that don’t seem so urgent, but you might not understand that and they will get louder if no one comes and shuts them off. You might run out to the nurse’s station in a panic but you will probably only do that once. They will explain why it’s not so urgent. You might forget why but you won’t run out the next time.
There will be nurses: You might arrive in the middle of the night and might bond with the first nurse you meet, who fills you in on everything that has happened and offers you a warm blanket, and you will look for her the next night but there’s a new nurse the next night. You might feel lost. Chances are she’ll be kind also, but you’ll wish she was the other nurse. The next morning, you’ll miss the new nurse who just left after introducing you to the new day nurse. You’ll hope the new day nurse is as good as her. She is good. You will hope that either the old night nurse or the new nurse is on tonight. It’s probably a new new nurse. She’s probably very nice. Eventually you will get it. Nurses are special people.
Notes: You will, sooner or later, start taking notes. Smart phones are good for that. There will be names you want to remember, things people say you need to remember, medications, numbers, a timeline you feel like you might need later. Even if you never look at them again, it will give you something to focus on.
There will be social workers: One might relate to your situation. She might try to help you navigate the system of this other state you’ve never lived in, winking and using air quotes as she speaks. She might get in trouble for it and you’ll feel bad but you will be so very grateful she was there. Thank you, Maria.
Scary things might happen: You might be seated outside the ICU waiting for a PICC line procedure to be completed and witness several doctors running down the hallway. You might realise, as the ICU doors slowly close behind them, that they have run into your daughter’s room. You might convince yourself you didn’t see exactly what you saw; that what you saw was some other family’s nightmare in the next room over. That’s perfectly acceptable. It might be awhile before a doctor comes out and tells you it was close call but she’s stable.
There will be doctors: Lots of doctors. You won’t know who they are or why they are there. You might not even understand what they are saying. You might suspect that some of them just collect fees for showing up. There will be one you’ll see more often and, even though he seems very stern, he’ll pat your shoulder on his way out one evening, after he finishes checking her vitals, as you sit there in your parka, embarrassed at being caught trying to eat a kale quinoa salad from Panera while your kid lies in a coma, as he leaves for home, where his children probably are not heroin addicts. Somehow that pat on the shoulder will say, “Hey you. Eat.You need to eat. You’re not a bad mom. She’s not a bad person.”
There is a hospital chaplain: If you are religious you will take great comfort in this. If you hold alternative spiritual beliefs, you might keep him at arm’s length for a day or two. Then you might find yourself sobbing in the hospital chapel, which you happened to be passing, on your way back from the cafeteria, at the exact moment you started to break down. Coincidence? The next time you see him you may open up. Ask him about his family. They are from Chile. He has some kids and some step kids. They are not heroin addicts, by the grace of God. You tell him about your life. You find yourself asking for his prayers and he will agree to pray for your child. Thank you, Raul.
New friends: There might be a boyfriend; someone you’ve never met and instantly dislike. Sorry. There’s not much you can do about that person except persevere. If it’s a bad boyfriend you might need to develop an alpha dog personality. You might need to find your voice. It’s okay. You don’t need to like everyone. Everyone does not need to like you.
People you love: I hope you have people you love, like I did and she did. People who supported her here, people who supported you there, people who took you home, fed you, watched television with you, let you pet their dogs, and helped you be normal for awhile. People who will be there for her when you leave. People at home who didn’t hesitate, who called, who emailed, who prayed and let you vent, hugged you while you cried.
Life and death: She will die or she will live. If she doesn’t die we’re lucky. If she does not die, she will wake up. The ventilation tube will come out. She might not know why she is in the hospital. Pneumonia? Stroke? Car accident? Somehow, drowning in a bath tub won’t figure. You might have felt closer to her, more tender towards her, before she woke up and started talking; and kissing her new boyfriend, and putting up walls. This realization cuts deep. You’re not the person you thought you were; your love not so unconditional.
Life goes on: It might take awhile. Your loved one may never know how close she came to death. You can tell her. She doesn’t want to know. That’s some scary stuff right there. She might be pigheaded and cavalier about her situation. You might need to buy a ticket home, get on a plane, and leave without knowing what’s next. You might be officially not needed, your next of kin power stripped away. You’ll pray a lot. You might ask other people to keep your daughter in their thoughts. That’s what I’ve come here to ask of you.
My daughter is a heroin addict. And I don’t want to talk about this. Who would? I think about it constantly, trying to get a handle on it, trying to escape guilt, trying to learn from it, trying to find some kind of grace, but I definitely do not want to talk about it. Trust me. If you ask me how’s she’s doing, I will shut you down. “Fine”, I’ll say. How is ______? How did that __________work out for you? I’m a master of changing the subject.
But I need to talk about it because I have none of the answers to all of my questions. How can I fix this? Why can’t I fix this? I’m her touchstone, her enemy, her saviour and her betrayer. I can’t fix this. I can’t do anything but be available and hope. It’s pretty humbling. Even for a chicken. Please wish her well.
Thanks for listening.