“It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.”
~Sir Edmund Hillary
I awakened to the sound of the phone—ring after ring—I just want it to stop. I pulled the pillow over my ears and hunkered down deeper into the mattress, but it droned on and on beckoning me to answer.
Barely awake, I glanced at the clock noting it was 4:00 in the morning. I stumbled as I made my way to the kitchen to learn who was on the other end of the phone.
I pressed the cold receiver to my ear and with great trepidation answered, “Hello.” My father’s panic voice blurted out, “It’s your Mom—she had a stroke! The paramedics are here. I don’t know what to do, they say they have a shot they can give her but I have to know the exact time she had her stroke. If they give her the shot too soon or too late it will kill her.”
The room swirled as I tried to grasp what he was saying. I stammered something back, but to this day I don’t know what I said in response. After we hung up, I recall I stood dazed and paralyzed in fear for what seemed like hours staring at the phone back in it’s cradle, not certain what to do.
A defining moment— my life would never be the same.
The dreaded call was Saturday morning, the eve of Easter back in 1998. Could it be only eight hours before I was skating with such glee with my eight year old son Benjamin and collided and tumbled to the ground only to rise laughing it off twirling under the stars smiling and thanking God for what a glorious life I was living. I practiced as a clinical psychotherapist and was soon to marry my prince, living in my dream house the perfect life. And now, mom was faced with life or death. How quickly my world was turned upside down.
Driving bleary eyed, as the tears tumbled down my cheeks, I dialed patient after patient to cancel my Saturday schedule, while trying to keep my eyes and car on the road as I headed to the hospital four hours away to accompany my Dad in what was one of the saddest and most difficult moments of our lives.
We sat in the intensive care unit, each in our individual silent prayer, only interrupted with periodic conversation and sobs of disbelief. The neurologist tarnished any hope we mustered up when he inhumanely blurted out she would never walk again and guaranteed she’d endure a continuous down turn for the remaining days of her life.
Dad lowered his head into his hands shaking it back and forth mumbling, barely audible, “No, this can’t be, not again,” as he questioned his decision to not give mom the shot earlier this morning with the paramedics. He raised his head up slowly from his hands and he recounted one of his defining moments when his mom clung for her life nearly 50 years earlier in intensive care, and he, the oldest son, needed to translate from Italian to English and back from the doctors to his family. He made serious decisions then and serious decisions now both intertwined and played over and over in his mind.
His mom died.
He never got past his guilt and grief. And now he was faced with his wife of nearly a half of a century facing the end of her life as they both knew it.
Mom was obese, she picked up a cigarette habit in her fifties, and didn’t exercise and favored high fat foods all contributing to her situation she now faced.
I pulled my chair up as close to mom as I could, without climbing in the bed with her, and held her limp had in mine. I always admired her tiny dainty hands and feet. I watched her struggle to take one shallow breath then pause and exhale and repeat—the oxygen machine swishing in the background —her eyes closed—slipping further and further away.
There I sat inhaling the nauseating smell of bleached sheets mixed with rubbing alcohol as I pulled the spare blanket from the foot of the bed around my shoulders—teeth chattering from the cool temperature to ward off germs—when my attention went to my left leg throbbing. For a brief moment my mind moved from mom to my left leg. I startled when I saw what I thought was a teeny scratch from a fall I had taken and brushed off the night before while skating with Benjamin—it oozed with infection. I hadn’t realized it was worse than I thought merely a few hours ago. Again, I pushed it out of my mind and made a life changing decision.
It was instant, at that moment, I vowed to bump up my mission to help eating disordered and addicted patients to recovery. For the rest of my life I’d give of my heart and soul to find answers and direction for those in the same space as my mother who couldn’t conquer obesity. I promised to God then and there that I’d share and teach how I learned to let go of my once obese body, eat free of sugar, flour, and wheat, and lean on spiritual recovery.
I couldn’t save mom but I darn sure could share what I know with those who still had a chance to turn their lives around.
Mom died at 67 years old. She lived four more years after her stroke completely paralyzed. Those days were very good times and very bad times all rolled into one.
Now, on the Eve of every Easter I bow my head in remembrance of the early morning call over 13 years ago— when my life turned a new direction—a defining moment. I’m not saying eating free of sugar, flour, and wheat is easy but death or paralysisis is certainly worse.
Life is brief—live now, laugh now, and pray now.
Photos Taken by Dr. Lisa Ortigara Crego