During the first few months, we took turns sitting vigil. She was never left alone. If one of us weren’t with her, talking to her, reading from a beloved book, or playing a favorite song, doctors and interns were there poking and prodding.
There were hushed discussion regarding brain activity and vital body functions. Whispering behind our hands on the off-chance that she, on some level, was aware of what was being said. It was important to always be positive when speaking aloud, to keep her hopes up for improvement… and ours.
After the first year, we slacked off on our visits. We needed to return to our lives, to the living. One of us would try to stop by at least once a week, then once a month, relying on the staff to notify one of us is there were any major changes in her condition.
Had she been more approachable before her accident, more amiable, perhaps we would have been more diligent in our care for her afterwards. She was dear to us because she was our mother, but none could say we missed that acerbic tongue of hers. Her caustic way of making everyone feel inadequate in whatever we attempted, even if was trying to love her at her most unlovable.
This whole time we had no way of knowing what was going on in her mind. What she was truly aware of, what she remembered from her past, or from her time suspended in this limbo.
While she appeared to be sleeping, untroubled and unfettered from this world, she was in truth reliving every moment of her life. Watching not through her own eyes, but as a spectator. Conscious not only of her actions and words, but also privy to the feelings and thoughts of the targets of her disdain.
She felt every insult, every humiliation, every wound. She saw the pain in eyes of her children and husband, then the tears of her grandchildren who had no understanding of what they did to earn their grandmother’s unceasing contempt.
The only outward clue to what she was enduring was an occasional tear that would trickle down her slack cheek. Wiped clear by an unaffected nurse during her morning bath, her wet pillow case changed by an unsympathetic orderly.
These vignettes played on a continuous loop in her mind, and as they persisted, she saw herself as others did. And it changed her. Now she wanted to live long enough to make amends.
Slowly, during the third year of her imprisonment in her mind, she began to regain consciousness. At first we held out little hope of a total recovery, but soon the awaking was undeniable. She seemed different in ways we couldn’t quite characterize. It was in a look, a tentative smile, the tone of her voice.
It was one of her youngest scions that realized the truth. A precocious preschooler when her grandmother fell into her deep sleep, the urchin sat at the foot of her Nana’s bed, watching with rapt attention watching her and her mother talking tenderly together. They held hands like she and her mother did when sharing secrets.
Tilting her head to one side, as children are wont to do when listening intently, she closed her eyes, a look of solemn concentration wrinkling her brow.
Sitting up suddenly, the little girl squealed, “I remember you now!” Clapping her hands excitedly, “You used to be mean, you’re not anymore. You were gone for so long, I hardly recognized you. I like you so much better this way.”
“I hardly recognize myself sweetie, but all that is going to change because I like myself better this way too,” the old woman said squeezing her daughter’s hand, grateful her child squeezed back.