The year I walked through hell

I know it's Labor Day, not New Year's, but I'm declaring it officially the start of a new year. This last year was the hardest year I have ever had in my life. Good things happened too, I'm not saying that, but I would trade those good things to reverse some of the bad. A year ago today, I was involved in a horrific car accident, then moved home and took care of my mom while she was on hospice, and then ended up in the hospital.

The accident
We were driving to dinner. September 1, 2013. I had my hand on my husband's knee and we were smiling and talking about nothing.

Past his shoulder suddenly: a dog. Appearing so out of nowhere it's like magic. A black lab running flat out toward us. Pink tongue streaming behind. Black leash streaming behind.

It looks totally happy. Happy and clueless.

No time to scream. No time to brake. No time to react.

A second after we first see it, the dog and car meet just past the driver's side front bumper.

And then we are screaming.

We pull over in the gravel, still screaming. It has to be dead. It has to be. Oh my god. It seems like we are a long ways away, blocks and blocks, but later I see it's not even half a block.

I get out. It's worse than I thought.

Not one dog, but two. Two dogs lying on their backs in the street, paws in the air.

I've never seen dogs lying like that. Cars are already stacking up. A young man kneels by one, a young woman by the other. Screaming, crying, begging. What will these people think of us? We killed their dogs.

As I get closer, I can see they are street kids. The girl with red-gold dreads and pants made of patches. The guy with red-gold hair and a black T-shirt. (I later found his picture online.) They carry their dogs to the side of the road. The guy is begging. "Aldo! Aldo!" The black lab is moving a little. And then it dies.

The little dog is still alive and whining.

I try to look up Dove Lewis, the emergency animal hospital, on my phone. I keep typing the wrong letters, and the harder I try the worse I get. The lady who answers says to bring the dogs in. I tell my husband to get the Subaru.

These two kids are wailing. Stumbling from one dog to the other, shaking, weeping so hard that snot runs down their faces.

The guy lifts the lab into the back - even though we all know it must be dead - and then climbs in beside it. The girl sits in the back with the little dog and I pick up their two huge packs (they were setting down their packs when they lost control of the dogs) and bag of groceries and somehow manage to shove them all in the car.

And then we drive. Too fast. I keep telling my husband to be careful, that the guy is just loose back there.

Otherwise, the car is mostly quiet. The guy is curled over the dog, weeping soundlessly. The girl is trying to reassure the little black and white dog, named Karate Kid. Neither of these two are that much older than our daughter. But somehow they've gone from being someone's precious babies to two kids living on the street with their dogs.

At the vet hospital, a tech in blue scrubs comes out to the parking lot, puts her hand to the lab's neck and shakes her head. She's a tall girl, broad-shouldered, and she manages to carry his body in by herself. Three hours later, we are looking at X-rays of the smaller dog. (It turned out that another car actually hit him.) The ball on one hip joint has been turned into paste. Everything has been pushed to one side.

And after they say goodbye to both dogs, both kids stagger back out into the waiting room. Eyes nearly swollen shut with weeping. We were strangers thrown together, sharing a nightmare.

Becoming an orphan
2011-07-22 12.23.02Eleven days later, I drove down to my home town on a few hours sleep. I had gotten back from a business trip to North Carolina and New York City the night before. My mom had declared that September 12 was when she was going on hospice. She had congestive heart failure and interstitial lung disease and had been put on oxygen a few months before.

I think she had hoped that the magic of going on hospice would cause her to die right away. But then the hospice nurse said she might live for months. My mom and I exchanged horrified glances while the nurse prattled on, oblivious. It took her a long time to figure out that Mom wanted to die and soon.

For years, my mom has been dying on the installment plan. She was ready to die. There was nothing unsettled, nothing unsaid. She thought it was funny when, after she had decided she would go on hospice, her fortune said, "You are soon going to change your present line of work." She firmly believed in God and and afterlife, although she had no preconceived ideas about what it would be like.

mom and frankThe nurse only took her off a couple of her meds. On her own, Mom decided to go off the others. She stopped her oxygen. Then she stopped eating. Then she - sort of - stopped drinking.

It was a very strange three weeks. Good conversations. Watching a lot of old movies and documentaries, as well as the entire first season of Homeland and the Forsyte Saga. Being bored. Wondering when/ hoping/being afraid she would die. Weeping in the laundry room and biting my hand so she wouldn't hear me. Being scared. Laughing. Telling her to stop apologizing for my being there. Trying to write a little. Eating my way through so much junk food. The day t2013-09-21 07.43.35
he wild turkeys came - and my mom's favorite memory involved a drive in the country and a flock of wild turkeys.

I was getting an award October 5. I was going to cancel. Mom told me not to, and then died quietly October 1, a few hours after the hospice nurse said she would live for at least a week, maybe longer. Of course, I was flat out useless at the awards. I basically stood at the podium and wept. It got so bad that one of presenters gave me her already used Kleenex.

When you hear hoofbeats, don't look for zebras
Doctors have a saying. "When you hear hoofbeats, don't look for zebras." In other words, it's probably a cold, not a rare fatal virus.

2014-01-08 12.21.572013-12-28 11.30.16Or in my case, just before Christmas when my leg turned red and started swelling up, it was probably cellulitis. And when it didn't respond to three different antibiotics, they decided it was MRSA cellulitis, and I ended up in the hospital for three days. In case I was contagious and might pose a danger to people who were already physically sick, they put me on the psych unit. Let's just say, that was interesting. Then I had a rare reaction to IV Vancomycin called hand-foot syndrome. First my hands and feet felt like they were on fire. Then eventually all the skin peeled off. Oh, and somewhere in there, the doctor thought I had a blood clot in my heart that was throwing off bits. It was a month or so of suck.

I did a LOT of lying on my back, staring at white acoustical ceilings, and crying. And wondering whether I would lose my leg or die. I actually came out okay (except a scar from a biopsy). It turns out that an errant kung fu shin clash probably led to something called traumatic panniculitis (dermatologist's theory) or a crush injury (orthopedic doc's theory). Unfortunately, even though everyone eventually agreed I never had cellulitis, they couldn't agree on what I did have, so I coudln't be featured in the NY Times' Think Like a Doctor series. I couldn't even persuade the hospital to not charge me my copay, since they never tested to see if I had an infection.

Write or Die
I like that program, Write or Die, for forcing you to write, forcing you to create instead of criticize or dither.

This past year was write or die for me. I turned in a book February 19th. February 20th I started a new book and turned that in June 1, despite doing school visits and events in St. Louis, Detroit, Chicago and Houston. Both editors said the books were the best I had ever written. And I sold a new book over Memorial Day. I'll finish it in November.
Girl I Used to Be Deal
So that's it. The highlights of my year. I hope to have a much quieter one this year.
Tags: ,
I live on a hill. Six years ago, a woman in my neighborhood was taking a neighbor girl home from church. She parked her car on the sloping driveway, put on the brake, and got out to talk to the girl's mom. The girl walked behind the car and it rolled down the hill, crushing her. In the next two years both families moved out of the neighborhood. I never realized until then that tragedy can be a double sided thing. It's hard to lose a person (or dog) you love, but it's also hard to live with guilt. I'm sorry you had to go through this, but at least you were able to create during this time.
That happened with a car in our neighborhood, but it just hit our house, not a person. What a hard thing for everyone involved.
What an incredibly difficult year, and the hardest things packed in the span of a few months. I'm so sorry you suffered like that. I hope this next year is considerably better.