It was the best sleep of my life. The moon overhead was a day or two shy of full glory and so far away from city lights that the stars were still visible in its brightness. The insects hummed lullabies. The wind blew the dark waves gently against the lakeshore, their crests highlighted with silver moonlight. A duck quacked in the distance. I was flat on my back on the hard earth. My left hand rested lightly on my ribs, my right hand lay flat beside my head, as if waving to the man in the moon. The breath rose and fell in my chest in perfect harmony with the natural world. I stirred a bit, remembered where I was, and smiled back to sleep. Twelve feet away, my 73 year-old mother crawled silently out of her tent without her glasses and stumbled in the moonlight to the state park bathroom to vomit for the third time that night.
It had been a great day. We made breakfast tacos on the camp stove, hiked along the lakeshore, drove through a few small towns. We drank gas station coffees and bought lighter fluid in Santa Anna, population 1,099. We went back to Brownwood for lunch, bought firewood at the park headquarters, then hiked through the afternoon. Back at camp, Mom made dinner while I got the campfire going. We feasted on eggs and grits, then cleaned up as the sun set and stars came out. The Milky Way dusted across the sky. We spent the evening around the campfire talking, not talking, stargazing until we went to bed about 10.
Anyone who knows me knows that waking me up in the middle of the night is a bad idea unless there is a real emergency. Pulling me out of deep sleep floods my body with enough adrenaline to keep a Roman gladiator alive in an arena with three starving, rabid lions. Nobody wakes me up willingly unless they are certain that adrenaline will have somewhere to go. By her fourth bout of vomiting, my mother decided it was time.
Once again, she crawled out of her tent, but this time she pulled herself up on the Kia, and staggered over to mine. “Karen. Karen.” I sat bolt upright.
“Mom?” Had I heard my name? Was I hallucinating? My phone said 3:30 AM.
“I need you to drive me to the bathroom. You have the keys with you. I’ve been vomiting. I don’t think I’ll make it this time.”
Everything had been right in the world, but now we were staggering into a state park bathroom and my mother was sicker than I’d ever seen her in my life. As she hurled and the spiders scattered from beneath the toilet, I found a signal and the location of the nearest emergency room, about 30 miles away.
She didn’t throw up again, and that’s saying something. The Kia caught air a few times. It swerved majestically around a doe, two dogs and several other night critters. It clanked through ruts and over cattle guards and soldiered on through the mechanical thuds of invisible giant potholes. I was thankful in the dark I’d managed to pull on my high-impact sports bra.
Soon my mother was facing a barrage of questions.
“What’s your birthday?”
“What’s your name?”
“Do you know why you are here?”
“WHAT’S YOUR NAME?”
When you are 70-something and sicker’n a dog, there is a great concern amongst medical personnel that you will not remember your name. They brought a breakfast tray: scrambled eggs, a sausage patty, biscuits smothered in sausage gravy, and a carton of milk. Meanwhile, the nurse-in-training couldn’t get the vein, a tech youthsplained an ECG, and the doctor asked, “Do you have any pain, does it hurt anywhere?” with the condescending melody usually meant to elicit an affirmative answer from a toddler faced with the question: “Do you need to go potty?”
“No.” She did not have any pain. “It hurt just a little when I was throwing up earlier, but I don’t have any pain now.”
He prescribed morphine for the pain. The nurse trainee came in, asked if she wanted the morphine. Somewhere beneath the level of consciousness, my brain readied me to fight the lions. I was on my feet, spine at full height, shoulders broadened, nostrils flared. “Morphine?! No!” We would’ve said it in unison had her mouth not been so dry.
My mother is in her seventies but she doesn’t follow the script. She hikes, jumps, dances, shimmies, skips, climbs on things, and will try anything as long as it doesn’t involve roller coasters or strong odors. I’ve noticed that people treat her differently than they used to. They don’t listen to her as much. They assume they know better.
They ran tests and took blood and diagnosed her as dehydrated. Sure, dehydration can cause vomiting, but vomiting up all the fluid in your body also causes dehydration. The ER doctor told the prehistoric toddler, “You just overdid it!” The doctor saw a 73-year-old woman, sick and weak from vomiting with the ferocity of Old Faithful, and heard nothing beyond she went for a hike. He decided that not acting like an old lady must be the cause of her condition.
I wondered if he was still paying on medical school loans, if it was worth it. By then, my adrenaline was waning and she still needed to be treated, so I refrained from sharing my thoughts. I imagined the doctor one day looking at his calendar, realizing he’d reached the designated old age, and just sitting down in a rocking chair wrapped up in an electric blanket and calmly waiting to expire. When does one become old, anyway?
The IV perked my mother up, and by the time she was discharged with a packet about dehydration and a take-home true/false quiz to test her knowledge, whatever demon had set up shop in her innards had been banished, and she was returning to normal.
“I am not drinking anything until I’ve had a 7UP.”
“You need to stop and get you something to eat. You can eat it in the car.”
“Why don’t you use this cup with the lid for you for your coffee so you won’t spill while you’re driving.”
“I JUST TOOK as sip, I don’t want any more.”
“You either eat the rest of this banana or throw it away!”
She dozed on and off all the way home. I chugged one coffee after another through Comanche, Dublin, Stephenville, Granbury, Cresson. Finally home, I devoured $30 worth of pizza and fell asleep at 8:30. I didn’t smile under the full moon or doze off to a symphony of insects, but I slept deeply for ten solid hours unperturbed by the usual dreamyelps of a slumbering dog, the vibrating buzz of an air conditioner, or the roaring of the interstate in the distance.
(Mom is fine. While the doctor there saw a 73 year old sick woman and assumed that a hike through nature on an 80-degree day was just too much for a septuagenarian, her doctor here said it was likely food poisoning from lunch. Her children have decreed that she is henceforth forbidden to eat restaurant salads and must at all times use electrolyte tablets whilst hiking and preemptively chug Pedialyte when camping. But that’s good advice for everyone, except maybe the Pedialyte.)