|Freedom for me didn’t come on July 4th, but in the late summer of 2003. It had taken what happened on my 62nd birthday to break free of living life by my family’s rules. A long, deep ditch across the top of my head reminds me every day of this hard-earned freedom.
In the past, I’d made many tentative breaks from my family, especially my New England parents. I’d left home immediately after high school graduation and found a small apartment on Boston’s Beacon Hill. The family wasn’t happy, but I reveled in my first taste of freedom. I did find this limited, though, with family members constantly dropping by to check up on me. Over the next 10 years, my family increased with the addition of 16 nieces and nephews, and the feeling of being smothered by this large extended family also grew.
Despite my parents’ argument about being on my own so far away, I moved to northern California at the age of 28 and fell in love with that state almost immediately. At that time, the hippie movement was in full swing, and I started my life once again living within blocks of People’s Park. The National Guard gassed me a couple times where I lived in Berkeley on Telegraph Avenue. I also crossed the boycotting picket line of César Chávez where I worked for Safeway Stores. What exciting days those were, and what stories I could tell about life back then. I might even do that some day in the future.
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Then came my birthday, August 26, 2003. Something simple as a fall changed my life. The day began like any other day with the sound of Jenna, one of my cats, yowling to go outside. This brought me out of a sound sleep, and I swung my legs out of bed to start off the day in the normal way.
“Oops,” I muttered, finding myself suddenly sitting on the linoleum floor beside my bed. I’d been falling quite a bit all summer, but was always able to get up unassisted. Well, except for the time about a month before when I slipped and fell out in my front yard. Despite neighbors trying to get me to my feet, nothing worked. Only a couple of hastily summoned paramedics got me upright.
This morning, though, at 6 a.m., nobody was around to help me. I sat there in only my short nightgown, shivering from the early morning cold. The hours passed without my understanding what had happened or why I couldn’t stand. “Be quiet, Jenna!” I yelled at the increasingly loud cat. By now, she was standing up on her hind legs scratching frantically at the closed window. She didn’t know why my morning routine had changed. Being an inside/outdoor cat, every morning she would go outside to do her “business” before coming in for her breakfast.
By noontime, Jenna had disappeared into the back of our home, determined to punish me as cats know how to do. Now and then I’d attempt to stand on shaky legs, but always failed and slid back on my bum to the floor. The afternoon went by slowly, and my thirst started to grow. The kitchen was only one room away with a fully stocked refrigerator containing cartons of milk. The milk might have been miles away, since my mind couldn’t figure out how to get there. Something as simple as crawling on hands and knees into the kitchen was beyond my confused thinking. At least I’d warmed up during the day even as my thirst increased.
When the dark of evening came on that first day, the screen window beside my bed let in cool air. I reached up and slowly pulled the blankets off the bed to make a nest for myself on the cold floor. My nightgown was damp from being unable to get to the bathroom and not caring about the loss of bladder function. Thankfully, the lack of any liquid during the day soon ended that particular problem.
By the morning of the second day, my thirst was growing. “Come on, girl,” I whispered, “you can pull yourself up somehow.” Jenna had gotten over her feline snit by now and was sitting silently in the doorway between my bedroom and the kitchen. At least she had plenty of food and water, and I was even willing to drink from her water bowl, if only I could figure out how to reach it. The image of an ice-cold bottle of Canada Dry Ginger Ale in my refrigerator also tormented me throughout the day.
I could hear people outside walking down my country road, laughing and talking. They were oblivious, as they passed by the quiet home, to the plight of the woman inside lying helpless on the floor. The sweet smell of the rose bushes outside my window teased me, as if to say, “We’re alive, and soon you won’t be.” No, I tell a lie! No thought of danger went through my mind at any time, just a feeling of frustration at not being able to get up off the floor.
The second day ended just as the first had, with cold air circling around my shivering body. Even the blankets wrapped around me didn’t help. I scuttled partially underneath my bed, I suppose in an instinctive move to find a safe, warmer place. By now, I wasn’t hungry, and my thirst was starting to recede a bit.
Day three happened to be my birthday. Never in my dreams did I think I’d be spending my birthday trapped on the floor, unable to figure out how to get out from under my bed. In my increasingly confused state, I lay there with only my bare legs showing. About midmorning, I started hearing my phone ringing in the office at the back of my home. The sound was annoying and constant, but I could do nothing about answering the phone. Finally, the phone stopped ringing, and quiet once more filled my home. Even Jenna had stopped whining to go outside by now.
Around three in the afternoon, still stuck halfway underneath my bed, I heard an unfamiliar male voice at the screen window. Online friends in New York and Maine knew something was wrong when I didn’t answer their phone calls. I also hadn’t responded to their emails for over two days, and they called another online friend who lived one town up to come and check on me. The man at the window was her husband.
After he crawled through the window, everything after that was a blur. I found myself wheeled out on a gurney and placed in an ambulance for a rapid trip to the hospital. An MRI showed I was suffering from an atypical meningioma, and another ambulance ride two hours away ended in brain surgery. Now, none of this really changed my life, not even the two weeks in the hospitals during this time.
Until that horrible, helpless week spent in a rehab center, I had pretty much coasted through a charmed life. For seven days, however, I was at the mercy of uncaring people who had the final say over me. When I returned home, I was determined never again to let anyone tell me what to do.
Was it the week in rehab or the minute I first touched the deep scar across my head that made me take control back of my own life? Was it when a family member, without my permission, sent one of my nieces and her boyfriend over 3000 miles to the rehab center, supposedly to help me when I got home? Instead of helping, they made fun of me by calling me Turtlehead. This was because the brain surgery required my hair be shaved off the top and one side of my head. They also laughed when saying I looked like a Klingon. I have nothing against Star Trek’s Klingons, but I really don’t want to be told I resemble one.
After putting up with this snickering for a couple days, I finally told them to leave me alone. Until then, I would have simply smiled and put up with their mean comments, but I remembered a hospital nurse telling me how close I’d come to dying. That convinced me life was way too short to put up with people I don’t like, even if they are family members. That old saying that you can chose your friends and not your family is not always true.
Even almost six years later, that hurtful memory and just touching that dent where the surgeon scooped out my brain tumor strengthens my desire to live free. That in a nutshell (pun intended) is when I achieved freedom to live my life on my terms, without interference from my family.
I rather like the “new” me and plan to celebrate this July 4th with my cats and those wonderful online friends!
This is a contest entry about freedom on the "SENIOR CENTER FORUM
Approx. 1,271 Words)