The Moment Everything Changed

Jennifer White essays

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The sky was a piercing shade of blue. The highway curved through stretches of mountains and craters. Mom and I had been on the road for five hours. Suddenly the highway was littered with tire shreds. I sat straight up in my seat as Mom put both hands on the steering wheel.

And then we saw it. Two semi trucks had collided.

“We're the first ones here,” Mom said.

I knew what that meant. Mom was a pediatric nurse practitioner. We always stopped if there was an accident.

I looked at Mom nervously. I had just picked her up from a nine week stint in rehab two days ago.

I looked at Mom’s clear, focused eyes and I remembered where we were three months ago. We were in this same car, except I was driving. My movements were small and calculated as I drove to the detox center. She had been without alcohol for 12 hours and was already showing the signs of withdrawal. My eyes moved over her swollen body, her red, sweaty face and dirty clothes. She looked nothing like the woman I had adored as a little girl.

Mom reached over and put her hand on my leg. I flinched, resenting any physical contact with her.

We arrived at the detox center. It was a dirty place that smelled like cigarettes. I fought the urge to grab Mom's hand and take her back to the car. An overweight social worker handed me a clipboard with a stack of admittance papers. Mom couldn’t write or remember any of her basic information because she was so sick. I filled out the forms and kept my eyes down, knowing that if I looked too long at the strung out man across the room from us, I would take her home. She had to stay. I was halfway through the forms when the chair beside me began to rattle. Mom was shaking so hard that both our chairs were vibrating against the wall. I looked down and saw that she had wet herself. Her shirt was drenched with sweat. She smelled like body odor and something sweet. She lunged forward to vomit into the trash can, but she missed. She cried silently and held her palms upwards, as if she was asking God for mercy. The man across the room chuckled.

“Please,” I shouted, “Can someone help us? My mom needs medical attention.”

“Fill out the forms,” the social worker said without looking up.

Fine, I thought, they can clean up her vomit. I’m done. I signed Mom’s signature on the bottom of the form and walked over to the woman’s desk.

“Here,” I said as I tossed the forms through the slot.

Mom and I waited. We both looked at the floor. Eventually, the social worker led us back into her office. It was decorated with every inspirational poster that ever existed. There was some sort of candle that made the office smell tropical. I had gotten used to the stench coming from Mom, but when mixed with the floral smell in the office I felt nauseous.

“How long have you been an alcoholic, Joan?” the social worker asked.

Mom looked at me, but I kept my eyes straight ahead.

“Um…maybe one year. I've been going through a divorce-“

“Ten years,” I interrupted.

The social worker looked from Mom to me and wrote two numbers on her page.

“How much alcohol do you consume per day?”

“Maybe…maybe….maybe one bottle of wine.” Mom picked at some dry skin on her thumb.

“And a ton of vodka. And she’s probably on pills. Anti-depressants and sleeping pills. She won't tell you the truth about it.”

Mom stared at me, her eyes filled with betrayal and shock. I had never spoken up about her addiction like this before. But something inside me had shifted. For the first time in my life, I didn’t care about protecting her. I wanted to protect myself. I needed to get out of that place before it swallowed me whole.

“Okay the payment needed is 3,457 dollars,” the social worker said.

“You can't send a bill?”

“No, she won't get admitted until you pay in full.”

I opened Mom’s wallet and pulled out a random credit card hoping it would be approved.

As soon as the card processed and I signed Mom’s name on the receipt, a nurse came in and took her away. The male nurse was big and he let Mom lean against him as they made their way out of the office. The social worker and I were left alone in the vomit, floral, inspirational poster room. She looked down at her papers. The silence left in place of mom’s heavy breathing made me tremble. The lump in my throat swelled. I had to get out of that room immediately or I would break. I had my hand on the door knob when the social worker stopped me.

“You’ll need to bring some things for your mom. Deodorant, any prescription pills, a change of clothes and adult diapers,” she said without looking up from her desk.

I froze in the doorway and tightened my jaw. I was not going to cry in front of this woman.

“That’s fine,” I said and walked out the door.

A week later Mom, was transferred from the detox center to a rehab facility. The doctors told her one more drink would kill her. I didn't call her while she was in rehab, and she let me have my space. I did speak with her therapist and agreed that I would help Mom make the move from Los Angeles back to our hometown, Kansas City, when she completed treatment.

My heart was pounded as I drove to pick her up to begin our road trip. I turned the corner and saw her. To my surprise, Mom smiled as I pulled up. She looked good. She was weak, but, for the first time in a long time, her hands weren’t shaking. I felt a pang behind my belly button.

All I could think was Mom. Mom. Mom.

“You look great, Mom,” I told her as I wiped tears from the corners of my eyes. I helped her with her suitcase and we began our drive.

And then there we were, pulled over on the side of the highway in front of the terrible accident. Mom got out of the car. Two rough looking men in their forties stood beside the truck that had been hit. One of them paced back and forth.

“I’m a nurse,” Mom announced, “Are you hurt?”

“I don’t know how she didn’t see me. I had my flashers on.” The first man said.

“Wait,” Mom interrupted, “Someone’s still inside the other truck?”

“Yeah, she’s stuck in there.” The driver replied, but Mom was gone, running toward the second semi truck.

The smell of gasoline was everywhere. I looked up to the cabin and saw a streak of blonde and a face covered in blood.

“Please God, help me!” a woman screamed, “Get it off me!”

Mom climbed up the side of the truck to face the female driver trapped inside.

“Can you turn your wrist? I need to feel your pulse. What’s your name?”

“Ruby. Oh God! I’m going to die!”

“Ruby, you are not going to die. Ruby, where are you from?”

The steering wheel was beneath Ruby’s chin. Her lower body was impaled by part of the truck.

“I should pull my truck up off her,” the driver of the first truck said.

“No!” Mom insisted, “She’ll go into shock. She needs to have an IV in first. You’re going to be okay Ruby.” Mom's voice was calm,”Do you have kids Ruby?”

All the breath in my body vanished. My mother was in the process of saving someone's life when she was still fighting for her own. I was overcome with empathy for the woman trapped inside the truck and for my mother, who was just starting to break free from the destruction in her own life. I said a silent prayer asking God to save Ruby's life and thanking Him for giving my mom another chance.

My prayer was cut short by the sound of sirens. Mom briefed the paramedics and said some final words of encouragement to Ruby. We walked back to our car, knowing the best place for us now was out of the way. Mom reached over and squeezed my hand. I squeezed back and decided I would let myself love her again, no matter what the risk.

We drove on knowing that everything had changed.

***

About the Author

Jennifer White

Jennifer White is an artist, advocate and story teller. She is the founder of , an initiative that encourages support for grievers by building memorial community service projects.

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