Tableau — 1/19/75

It’s a surreal moment, stilled now in memory.

How she left, and how we lived.

In the wee hours of that dark January, my mother woke up in distress and called out for help. This was not a new or unusual occurrence. Throughout childhood, sudden nighttime awakenings were frequent for her progeny. Occasionally she needed help. More often she was just yelling, or was hungry, or was suddenly in one of our rooms for some reason. (Feign sleep or come wide awake, it didn’t matter. We’d soon enough discover why she had arrived.)

Scary as this all had been when I was younger, I’d become jaded about those nighttime disturbances after 22 years of them. So that particular night I lay awake and waited, hoping that someone else would tend to her. When it became clear that no one else was going to respond, I grudgingly got up and went downstairs.

She was having trouble breathing. It looked like an asthma attack and we knew from experience what we needed to do. I pushed rhythmically on her ribcage while she sat up in bed. That was what always helped.

This time it didn’t. Something felt different – not right.

Fear found a cold toehold near my heart.

My father was up now, having moved from his bed (which was about a foot and a half away from hers) to the doorway of their bedroom. He was standing there looking uncertain while I pressed on her ribcage. I think I looked at him and said that this seemed different.

I think I said maybe he should call an ambulance. This was definitely not something I’d have suggested lightly. I had a horror of bringing in ‘outsiders’ to deal with my mother. She was a secret that I — all of us — strove mightily to keep a secret.

My father didn’t respond or move.

Meanwhile, my mother was crawling away from me. As she moved toward the foot of her bed I moved with her, pressing on her ribs to help her the only way I knew how. Then she crawled off the bed as I tried, unsuccessfully, to hold her and keep her from falling onto the floor.

She fell.

I yelled at my father then, to call an ambulance, and he did.

The outsiders came.

It was too late.

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