News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Mama is cry

In last week’s episode, I shared the story of one Friday in May several years back. My husband headed off on his bicycle to work; our 19-month-old son and I embarked on our weekly routine of taking the city bus to a certain diner. Along the way, we encountered an aggressive, aggravated guy who willfully chucked a big ol’ plank of wood on the sidewalk as we walked by, nearly hitting us.

Instead of confronting Plank Dude, I decided to mentally give him an “Aggro Pass.” Normally, I should probably be ashamed to admit, I was the kind of person who leapt straight to judgment and anger when provoked. OK, maybe I still am, sometimes — mostly harmless, but often annoying, like a chatty gray squirrel with an Irish temper.

On that day, for some reason, I felt acutely aware that Plank Dude could be going through grief, trauma, withdrawal, or pain. I invented the pass just for this occasion — an imaginary Get Out of Jail Free card that would get me safely past my anger into something resembling compassion, and let the incident go.

My son and I took the bus to the diner, singing all the way. The familiar servers and hosts greeted us, always delighted to interact with the radiant, smiling child. We ate our eggs and bacon and scones, played with plastic dinosaurs. Paid our bill.

Our weekly routine continued: I held him up to touch the thrillingly spiky, dangerous-looking posts of the wrought-iron fence. Then he gestured across the street to the apartment building with motorbikes out front. “Motorcycle,” he announced in his baby-toddler voice.

I glanced at my flip-phone to check the time. We had a good fifteen minutes to kill before our bus came. I noticed a voicemail was waiting, too, but didn’t recognize the number. Probably a sales call.

We played in the thin May leaves, leftover from winter, that mounded around parked cars on a quiet side street. With the child thoroughly occupied, I went ahead and listened to the voicemail.

“Mrs. Berger, this is _____,” a female voice began. Like many a sales-robot, they got my name wrong. My husband was Berger. When we married I kept my maiden name.

“I’m calling from Oregon Health Sciences University hospital,” the voice continued.

This was not a sales call.

From this point on, I listened as though from a great distance. Obviously something bad had happened. Why would my husband be taken across the river to big, fancy OHSU instead of a hospital close to our home or to his office? The bad thing must be really, really bad.

These thoughts sailed overhead in bursts while I slowed my breathing and kept an eye on Gusty. Panic must not take over.

I thought of recent dreams I’d had, dreams in which my husband lay in a hospital bed in our bedroom, comatose, while I measured the bathroom to figure out whether a wheelchair would fit. The phone call seemed to be following some kind of etheric script, a script my sleeping mind had somehow got hold of and begun to read in the wrong order.

My husband, the woman said, had been in a bicycle accident and sustained a severe traumatic brain injury. He was in the brain trauma ward in the intensive care unit. I called the number provided; her voicemail picked up. I left a message and returned to the leaves.

Then I took our son in my arms. Did I tell him Dada was in the hospital? Did he notice Mama was in shock? I don’t remember. I know we walked to the bus stop. I know we ran back and forth beneath the telephone pole archway nearby, just like every Friday.

We settled down on the bench next to an older man. After exchanging the brief hellos of bus stops, I told him about the phone call I’d just received. The old man grunted.

“It happens,” he said.

The bus was late and crowded. I stood in the aisle, hanging onto a pole, holding my son’s hand. Near us sat a woman around my age with her 4-year-old child. A motorized wheelchair with many straps and gadgets held him upright. His eyes seemed kind and curious.

She said his name was Angel. She said it with such tenderness, I could see he really was her angel, her light from above.

We said goodbye to Angel and his mother. My son remembered to thank the driver as we exited the bus. We walked one block, and then I sat down on the sidewalk. He sat down next to me and twirled a leaf, very concerned.

“Is Mama cry?” he asked.

Yes, Mama is cry.

I methodically called all our car-owning friends who lived nearby, asking for a ride to the hospital. I left four messages. Mama and child walked home hand-in-hand, avoiding the house where a few hours previous I’d mentally handed out the Aggro Pass. After all, the guy might’ve just lost his mother, might be kicking a drug habit… might’ve just gotten a call from a hospital.


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