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Gale Force

by Jennifer Smith Gray

And every man knew, as the captain did too,
T’was the witch of November come stealin’
– GORDON LIGHTFOOT, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald"

The weather turned sharply that week in November, and with it, my mother’s health.

When I greeted her at the hospital, I was wearing my all-weather coat. She was wheeled in through the sliding emergency department doors—after journeying by ambulance, prop-plane, and ambulance again—and she fussed about me having to go downtown to meet her in the middle of the night. Her eyes, though, weary, thanked me for being there.

Seven days later, when I exited the hospital for the last time, her body cleaned and covered on the metal operating room table, her heart warm but still, it was my puffy down-filled coat that I clutched tightly. To my chest, blocking the cold wind and rain. To my own heart, pressure on the wound.

~

The gales of November had brought down the Edmund Fitzgerald 40 years earlier, about 100 km from our home. My mother recounted to me her memories of that night, the worst wind she’d seen, when Lake Superior’s wrath overtook the big freighter and all her men. I was there, too young to remember, but I know the warmth of her arms holding me while wind and rain lashed at our windows.

It was, really, nothing like that the day she died. It was 10 degrees colder than when she arrived at the hospital, and my outerwear swap had been warranted. But the cold rainy day was not unseasonal for Toronto in November. In truth, or in hindsight at least, her health didn’t turn all that sharply either. She had been ill, fading. We knew that.

The sharp turn came with the realization of just how sick she was.

~

In the weeks after the funeral, I nestled under heavy comforters watching endless streams of TV shows in the dark warmth of my bedroom. It was during season six of The West Wing, after White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry had a heart attack, that the phrase “time being muscle” stole my breath.

I learned that, when it comes to heart injuries, the longer a patient remains untreated, the more damage there is to their heart muscle. My mother’s heart valve first failed four years earlier, but it was replaced in time to avoid damage. Prosthetic bovine heart valves are typically good for about 15 years before they need to be replaced.

Her new valve failed after three. Nobody expected it, nobody noticed it, nobody caught it in time.

Time, being muscle.

~

Mom closed her eyes and her mouth and I watched the slow, deliberate lump of a gulp moving from lips to throat to chest. Swallowing what must have been tears, fear, grief. Glassy eyes met mine and she mustered, “Well isn’t this the shits? Can you believe I got a dud valve? I might not be strong enough to operate on.”

I didn’t swallow my tears.

~

With the realization, the breaking of horrible news, came the storm. It came in the hours, days, the better part of a week, of frenzied tests, options, choices. Waves of doctors in and out with new bits of information, ideas, advice, conflicting, intense, how to save her. 

Surgery sooner rather than later. As sick as they come to us. Keep her alive until then. Less invasive option won’t work. Very high risk. But surgery is the only chance.

Calm. A reprieve, with nurses comforting, soothing, positioning, rubbing, dressing, seeing, knowing, as breaths grew weaker and fears grew stronger.

But then gusts again, frantic talks with us as we struggled to stifle our own fear to help Mom make decisions. Mom, negotiating with God and angels, through long, fretful nights.

Two nights before the surgery, calm arrived again for just a few hours. Acceptance, deep in the night, in the quiet hospital room. During this lull, my mother mothered me. She reassured, advised, comforted, held my hand. Again, I felt again her warmth and strength protecting me from the lashing winds. 

~

The storm intensified as I watched tufts of silky white hair peeking over pale blue sheets when the porters steered my mother to the operating room elevators. Away from me.

It peaked five hours later in the dark, crowded waiting room when the surgeon approached.

We’re losing ground.

I’m still trying to regain some of it.

Jennifer Smith Gray (@IsSheDreaming) lives, works, and writes in the Scarborough Bluffs area of Toronto. Much of the inspiration for her writing comes from memories of her time in Northern Ontario, where she was born and lived before heading south for school and work years ago. Jennifer’s work has been published in Memoir Mixtapes and Birkensnake 6 and shortlisted in the FreeFall Magazine Annual Prose Contest.

* This essay originally appeared in Sweet Literary #12.3 (2020).

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