Freudian Slips: A Christmas Story

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Location: Irony, New Jersey, United States

Life takes us many places. It's a box of chocolates and a Hansel and Gretal trail of candy wrappers. I have filmed as an actor in The Happening, Invincible, The Lovely Bones, The Bounty Hunter, The Greek American, Bazookas, Limitless, TV's Its Always Sunny in Philly, Outlaw, New York, The Warrior, The Nail, Game Change, Cold Case, & commercial work includes The Philadelphia Eagles, Septa, Coors, Turbo Tax & Carnival Cruises. Freudian Slips spotlights irony in short story format.

December 26, 2004

A Christmas Story

My mother is the most selfless person I have ever known. Her charity and gift giving rivals any store Santa Claus so maybe her recent hospitalization can be told as a Christmas story for future generations of the Tornatore family. To give readers some insight into my mother’s personality, she had a stroke right before my wedding and failed to tell anyone. Mom didn’t want to rain on my parade so she limped through my wedding day without saying a word. She has been hooked to a feed line of oxygen ever since.
Mom never let on about how sick she had become this Christmas either. I truly believe she didn’t want anyone to fuss over her and ruin everyone's Christmas. Her vital signs deteriorated to the point my brothers were forced to calling an ambulance on December 22, 2004. Despite not being able to breathe on pure piped oxygen hosed to her nose, mom was literally wrapping her grandchildren’s Christmas presents right up until the ambulance came. If the ambulance had not come for her then she would have been frying the seven fishes on Christmas Eve. You get the picture.
At the time of her emergency room arrival, my brother’s described mom as gasping for her every breath and getting nowhere. Doctors discovered pneumonia in her good lung and a partially deflated second lung. She had suffered a bad asthma attack that had been compromised by a seven week cold, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, and asbestosis. Signatures flew and she was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit. You know your heart isn’t working for you when doctors order a catheter to save trips to the bathroom. But that’s just it. That is the irony, the irony of this Christmas story. My mom’s heart had worked hard all of her life giving of herself to others. Her kingdom heart gave until there was nothing left to give. The heart that had worked so beautifully for others, could not work for her.
By the time I got to the hospital, mom had given Advance Directives and given away all of her possessions including the kitchen sink full of dishes. She hadn’t been moved to ICU yet so I joined her in the Emergency Room. My brothers gathered around. She looked fatigued but alert, so did my brothers.
Mom acknowledged my presence almost off the bat. “Joe, you need to take back the doll collection you gave me.” She paused to catch her breath. “It’s time for someone else to enjoy those gorgeous dolls.”
Mom never rested her laurels in martyrdom but I found her statement to be so typically selfless. I have always wondered if she is human. On rarest of occasions with her guard down, Mom would weave a strange tale about a distant planet and the mother ship. Throw in some heeby jeeby psychic ability and you have a rare bird. When a nurse came in asking for blood, mom confused even him of her origin.
“What type of blood do you want?” she asked sardonically.
I saw my one brother holding a list which had already been dictated on legal pad. Her wispy voice proceeded with instructions. “there is an IRA in such and such a bank…you will find xyz in a shoebox in the closest…dig four steps out my back door and you’ll unearth...” Bile had come up out of her lungs cutting her latest wishes short.
“Mom, you have a will. Save your breath.”
“This is the other stuff, Joe.” my brother admonished. “Mom’s been at this awhile. Do you think we didn’t try to stop her? Mom feels it is necessary.”
“Where’s my checkbook?” she asks. “I need to write a check for….”
“Mom will you knock it off.” I said.
Life should always be a balance of work and play. All sense of play was gone from my mom’s life, although she seldom complained. Life had become all work and the workload and payoff was nothing more than breathing. When your oxygen is subject to taxation before consumption, life is not a many splendor thing.
I looked at my mother lying in bed, wheezing. I worry that she doesn't want to be alive anymore. She misses her late husband so. I view life cumulatively and accept things not as they are but how they align in the context of other things. So maybe this is why I am so pragmatic and a treasure hunter of irony. I probe for answers.
“Mom you aren’t going any where.” I assured. “You haven’t perfected any one of us. There is work to be done. Look at any of my brothers and you will surely see the work that lies ahead.”
She smiled as she fought for her next breath. The pathetic scene makes me delve for more irony, deeper meaning. My mother recently shared with me a short story she was working on called Taking Up Space. It chronicled the aging process juxtaposed with take-a-number hospitalization. It was mom’s angst of how people live past their prime because of technological advances iin the business of managed health care so lacking in personal care. I stared at my mother as she breathed laboriously and wondered if she thought she had become the main character in her own unfinished short story.
After hours of sedation, blood gas readings, nebulizer treatments and tests, Mom seemed to be a doctor’s order away from requiring life support to breathe for her.
Seizing a quiet moment alone with her, I asked “Mother, do you know whether you are dying?”
Mom has been a soothsayer from the moment she arrived on this planet. I guess that is why I expected more of an answer. “I am not privy to that knowledge.”
“If you were to die tonight, would you have any regrets?”
“Joe, if I knew I was dying, I would be at peace. Not knowing whether I am dying, makes me not know how hard to fight.” She answered with a forced breath.
“Tell me what is going on in your life?” she queried.
I talk to my mother a few times a week. Her question served the purpose of how she could help me out while she argued God for air. At first, I didn’t know what to say. I am embarrassed to admit mom eventually got me blabbing about all kinds of things that mattered little if these were her final hours. “An ear to God on sodium penethol.” is how I can best describe talking to my mother.
As her eyeballs rolled back in her head she heeded, “Listen, tell your friend I will catch up reading on his Website when I get home.”
I think this was mom’s way of reassuring me, a way for her to reaffirm her own life in a parable. Her breath was shallow and she retained not enough air to blow out a candle, although her sons could never jointly hold a candle to her. The sedatives created an unhealthy build-up of CO2 in her system. It seemed like I had a hard time breathing when I heard doctors ask mom if she consented to being hooked up to a ventilator.
Mom sighed, “Yes, it’s just too hard to breath on my own.”
I could see from the monitors that her heart rate spiked even asking for a machine to breathe for her. Her breathing was more like ineffective contractures. She couldn’t go on living like this. Worse, living had become nothing but breathing and rare spurts of charity and good will to others. As staff wheeled an iron lung into the room, my brothers and I said our goodbye’s one by one bedside. This was by no means hallowed ground. My dad died in this same hospital only yards from where we stood.
I looked into my mother’s eyes knowing she would miss Christmas and worrying if this would be a final good-bye. “See you on the other side of midnight…and Merry Christmas, mother.” I kissed her on the forehead.
She said she loved all of us, laid back, and readied for the intervention with dignity. The mother of four children and patron saint to so many more saw to it that the patients for a ward in a psychiatric institution would have a Christmas party paid for before she went on life support. God knows how many side deals, how many random acts of kindness she had made to make a better Christmas for which she would not partake. Her giving was always with humility and not advertisement. In her lifetime she has helped relatives, friends, friends of friends, ex-wives, strangers, friends of strangers, and enemies who were quite few. She was an equal opportunity giver and most of the time you need not ask. I made a point to tailor what I said to her because if you mentioned anything, anything at all, it would appear as surplus in your life ten fold. Mom is a genie, a Jesus-like multiplier of fish.
Doctors prescribed more Ativan and we were asked to leave the emergency room. We left not like a band of brothers but scattered like a rag-a-muffin crew without a captain. I grabbed my jacket and took a walk outside in the bitter cold. The cool winter air reached deep into my lungs. Because my mom couldn’t do the same, the fulfillment cheapened with every stinking breath. I felt something in my coat pocket tugging on my chest. I wondered what lay dormant for I had not worn this coat since last winter. I pulled out a folded piece of paper with someone’s phone number scribbled on to it. I took a closer look. It was a page torn out of Life’s Little Instruction Book Item #511 staring at me in the face of darkness. I shone it to reflect a street light. Item #511 read, “Call your mother.” I wept.
As I lifted my head from the parcel of Life’s Little Instruction Book, a man dressed in hospital clothes had just finished saying “Merry Christmas” to two nurses ending shift. He parted ways. “Got to go put this lady down in ER.”
That’s when I knew he was the horse doctor with the bad medicine and he referred to my mother. I abandoned my outdoor retreat to check on her. I could see my brother’s from a distance down the hall. By their demeanor alone, I would have known it was not going well. Despite injection after injection, my mother’s body would not relax enough to accept intubation. When I heard my mother making inhuman noises over the plunging instruments, I had enough. In 2001, I had to be put on this same ventilator machine after getting stung by a bee. I didn’t remember any of the hospital intervention until now. The struggle and thrashing brought an unwelcome fill-in-the-blank for me. I began to whimper. My one brother followed me out in the hall to comfort me.
“Joe, are you all right?” he asked.
“I can’t go back in there.” I relented. “Not until she is on the ventilator.”
As I type this entry two days later, I am watching the sun rise on Christmas morning. Christmas is about giving. It doesn’t take the pilgrimage of Three Wise Men for the world to know my mother is all about giving. There is some cruel irony in that my gift to her will be the only gift left under the Christmas tree. If this truly be a Christmas story after all, I beg for only one gift in return this year. Sweet Jesus, wake-up and pull through mom.

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Blogger PaxRomano said...


Please know that my thoughts are with you and yours now, especially your mom, who, through this blog-life, I've come to know a bit.

Whatever happens, please know that if you need anything just call -- and that's not an empty offer.

2:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love you Joe and I will always be here for you. I am so lucky to to have married into such a special family. Your mom will be Ok and she will read your story and be reminded of how loved she is not only by you but by so many others, whose lives she has touched in her special way.

9:01 AM  
Blogger Zelda Parker said...

I usually look forward to reading your blogs. I cannot continue as I cannot see through tears. Normally, I would enjoy searching for irony, but the note in your pocket was just too much. My thoughts and prayers will be with you and your family.

11:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

it's one thing to have readers but having readers who care makes all the difference in the world. thanks all.
--the host

4:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

joe,i was extremely touched by your story your mom has a beautiful heart and soul and truly exemplifies the spirit of christmas with her giving and radiating love and light to everyone fortunate enough to know thoughts and prayers are with you and your and light.

8:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

joe,i was extremely touched by your story your mom has a beautiful heart and soul and truly exemplifies the spirit of christmas with her giving and radiating love and light to everyone fortunate enough to know thoughts and prayers are with you and your and light.

9:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you described your mother to a "T" (and I'm not referring to your brother). I'm so sorry to hear this! Please know that I'm praying for her recovery. - Steph

8:15 PM  

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