When my daughter was two days into her seventh year, my right heel slipped on black ice and my whole body was tossed into the cold January air, my head landing—after a long second—on the crumbling concrete of our steep driveway.
I had thought motherhood was always going to be soccer games and piano recitals and reading spy novels inside of forts. I had thought we would always be able to make pizza pie slices with our skis down Mt. Hood, stamp our rain-booted feet through thick muddy trails in Tryon Creek, throw our arms into the sweaty air as the cranky little roller-coaster at Oaks Park dipped downward. I had held her soft pudgy fingers before her ear tube surgery, made funny faces through the school windows before I rushed to work, sang her You Are My Sunshine every night before bed. I had not thought that one hard bang could dissolve it all so instantly and turn motherhood into a crumpled piece of paper found under my daughter’s bed that read I’m scared Momma’s going to die.
But that ice, so black at nine o-clock, so invisible, so slippery, so unexpected, flipped me up and then down our driveway like I was nothing but an inconvenience, not even letting me finish the sentence I was delivering to my husband about needing to get the car out of the garage. Our daughter was not with us; she was tucked snugly under her covers in her purple bedroom upstairs, unaware of the outside screams that came from my loud mouth, my head, my head, my head. My husband scrambled down the mulched garden that ran parallel to the driveway and hoisted me up, carried me through the garage, up the garage steps, through the laundry room, onto the green couch. Everything grinded to an abrupt stop; my hair was so cold against my raw palms, the laminate wood so hard underneath my sneakers. My skull was on fire.
But my husband and I thought it was all going to be okay. Even the doctor on call said so—you didn’t vomit, you didn’t lose consciousness, she said. My husband and I believed the doctor because we were amateurs at that point, not understanding anything about head injury, and so the next day, my husband got the car out of the garage and went to work and I took my daughter to her seven-year-old pediatrician appointment, rationalizing away my thick and bloated mind, something swirling in my head. I ignored the heat that seemed to radiate from beneath my skin, the feeling that my feet were not attached to the floor, the pushing of my body through heavy sea water.
I ignored all this until I couldn’t ignore it anymore, a crying mess on her pediatrician’s floor.
My daughter’s pediatrician told me to go the ER, helped me call my husband. While my daughter and I waited under the bright florescent lights for my husband to come take us there, my daughter asked if I was going to die. I couldn’t respond. My concussion had rendered me useless, so vacant that I couldn’t get words to form using my lips. There was so much trembling panic in her small body, and I was nothing but silent, watching her slip away, watching motherhood begin to unspool itself.
Although the ER doctor said I would get better after a few weeks, I did not; my head was filled with so much concrete. My daughter and I had sledded down our steep driveway only a day before my fall, squealing in delight as our purple sled crashed into Wayne’s bushes across the street. The day before that we had celebrated her turning seven with all her friends, twelve fellow first graders with chocolate cake crusted into corners of mouths, and she was beaming the entire time, her hands folded across her heart when we all sang her happy birthday in our off-key chorus. But now, instead of any of that, I yelled at her singing Billy Liar while cartwheeling around the house. I couldn’t bear the loudness of her footsteps or her body smearing its colors as she chased the cat around the couch. I snapped at her when she wanted me to play school with her stuffed animals or needed help in the bath. I can’t, I hollered and her whole body recoiled. I cried all the time, like when we ran out of milk and I couldn’t get to the grocery store or when my husband became the person to read her bedtime stories. My mind seemed to be entombed under water, sluggish and dense, until it would burst at the seams and I would morph into a frothy rabid madwoman. I didn’t know what was happening to me. Doctors just told me not to play sports for a while, to rest, that I would surely be better within three months. But nobody mentioned the even uglier parts of concussion—those sudden mood swings, the incessant crying, the inability to think of others, the utter abject loneliness. My husband held me whenever he could, rubbed my back, but all that yelling and crying can break a family, a mother-daughter relationship. It hurt to be near her and so I stayed away, shutting myself inside the warm covers of my bed, even though I could hear her sometimes wailing into my husband’s arms, Is Momma coming back?
I even did what mothers are not supposed to do. I begged for death. I sat deep in the closet, trying to burrow away from all the light, pleading with the universe to take me, to finish the job. I slapped at my husband to let me die, to take away this agony of confusion and dizziness and eyes loose in their sockets and the incredible pain in my head—drilling and prickling and pounding of iron shovels against my skull. She probably heard me but I didn’t, couldn’t care, my neurochemicals were too shaken, my brain was too inflamed. I was some half-dead creature.
This went on for month after month after month.
Motherhood felt like a stranger—all those years of putting Aquafor on the back of her kneecaps and braiding her hair and taking her to Timbers games and singing her bedtime songs, gone. Even after three months, I could not get out from underneath the very stormy sea. I forced myself through all kinds of physical and occupational and speech and vision rehab. I had to return to work, but mostly I was on the floor in my home office, underneath my desk with an ice pack circling my head. People told me I was strong. You’re my hero, they said. But they didn’t really know. They didn’t really know how much I cried and screamed and wailed into the air at my husband and at my daughter. They didn’t know how much I wanted to give up; they didn’t know how much I wanted to abandon motherhood, even while I felt my daughter at the edges, shadowed feet through the crack of light in the bottom of the door, sometimes the soft turn of the knob and her face poking inside.
By six months, I started to surface at times, a smile on my lips, a tight squeeze of my daughter’s shoulder, but then the screaming again, the howling, the sitting stoic with empty eyes. Doctors kept telling me everything was fine—your MRI looks normal, they said—you should be better soon, they said. But I was not fine. Everything was so blurry and confusing and my head pounded at all seconds. My daughter kept circling the outer fringes though. She gushed over my pink-tinted prism glasses. It’s like you’re going to the prom, Momma, she said. She dutifully brought water and ice packs and blankets to my room without even asking. She was the first one to check on me whenever she and my husband came home, popping her head in to make sure I was okay, still there. She told me one night, her hot apple breath on my face, that Alexa and Lucy hadn’t let her play on the monkey bars at recess. She said this after she had slinked into bed with me and I did not respond, my eyes and forehead covered by an ice pack. She told me she solved the problem by thinking of me and how you never give up and then she kept talking on and on about peanut butter sandwiches and penguins and the tears from my eyes became trapped under the ice pack, cold and raw. I didn’t understand this. I didn’t understand how she still saw me as a mother when this identity had been scrubbed clean. I didn’t understand how she still saw me as a warrior, even when my fighting consisted of trying to wash my hair. She still saw me when all I wanted was to be seen, and under the covers, she placed her damp warm fingers on top of my cold trembling hand.
I wanted to die. Motherhood shouldn’t be confined to a bedroom, I thought. You can’t be a mother if you can’t raise your child, I thought. These thoughts made it easier for me. To leave that is. Because what kind of mother wants to leave their child?
It’s not because I stopped loving her or that I really wanted to die. It’s that I already felt dead, my brain only a flat line, a gelatinous blob in a body that somehow could still beat a heart. Ending my life felt less like a suicide and more of a completion of an act that started when my head hit that crumbling concrete.
I sat with my car running in a closed garage for a while but that didn’t feel right. I held a pile of yellow pills in my palm for a while but that didn’t feel right. I concentrated on feeling the icy steel barrel of a gun against my temple but that didn’t feel right. Then I thought about a slick carving knife pressed into my wrist. Then I thought about standing on a bridge and dangling my foot over the water’s edge, a light step and the wind through my hair.
But none of these felt right.
By ten months, I was surfacing more and more and became someone who started to circle my daughter’s fringes. I watched her shuffle down our front steps to another waiting parent who would take her to soccer practice. I watched her through the window of our neighbor’s house, eating a hot dog and drinking orange juice. I stared at the pictures sent to me from the other moms who were now raising her—sitting in a yellow raft wearing her horse-dotted bathing suit, smearing gloss across her lips before a dance recital, proudly displaying a unicorn at one of those paint-your-own-pottery places, hanging from monkey bars, at the school carnival dressed as Hermione.
I was watching her bike up and down the street from my bedroom window when I first heard about dying in Switzerland from a podcast. Doctors upon doctors had nothing to offer me but a shrug of the shoulders or a prescription for a new colored pill. No one knew when I would be better—if I would be better—and the ticking and tocking was always so loud in my ears. I was nowhere near normal. There was so much fogginess and dizziness and I missed reading and watching movies and having coffee with friends. There was so much loneliness.
I found my prism reading glasses and looked up Dignitas on my phone and the relief I felt that there could be a logical way out that wasn’t gruesome or ugly, that would not leave me to be found unconscious or bloody. It seemed almost peaceful, medicalized in a way that might even allow for my daughter to understand. When I told my husband about this legal way to die—you just take a lethal overdose, I explained— he seemed a bit stunned, almost as if this systematic approach to death was much worse than my teary outbursts begging for it. What about our daughter? he anguished, wild fingers through his graying hair.
I let my concussion do all the talking. She’ll be better off this way, I said. I told him he was still young, only thirty-nine, young enough to find someone else, a new mom for our daughter. Isn’t that what good mothers do? Sacrifice themselves for the greater good?
But saying it all out loud led me to pause, so much so that the tapping of the rain outside became louder. My new brain was trying to convince me that she would be better without this shell of a mother, but something in me was shuddering, was trapping me under water again.
This continued for month after month after month.
Until I found myself at fifteen months and in her bedroom late one night. Everything felt so still and the moon bled its silver light through the clouds so I could see the shadows of her stuffed animals, all those stuffed dogs and llamas and lions and turtles lined up at the foot of her bed because she probably had been playing school with them, given the post-its of verb tenses stuck to the window pane. My head was prickling and tingling, but I took a few steps toward her soft eight-year-old body, wrapped in a thin butterfly-clad sheet. I was concentrating hard on keeping my balance as I watched her thick parted lips, her long black eyelashes, her frizzed curly hair circling her head, her bent elbow holding her stuffed rabbit named Tiger, an open Nancy Drew book on her chest.
I noticed for the first time the pictures of unicorns we had colored together the week before, taped to her wall, and I remembered how amazed she had been at my ability to shade blues and greens together. While I had filled in the unicorn’s horn with the color yellow, she had chatted about Alexa’s new slime and the mean thing Theo had said and about how really good blueberries are like eating Twizzlers.
I bent my knees so I could lean against her mattress, her breath thick with mucous. I wanted to tell her I was sorry that I cried in front of her so much, thick tears sliding and then falling and then mixing in with the soup we always ate for dinner. I wanted to tell her I was sorry that I couldn’t go on the field trip to see the Portland bridges even though I had promised, that I was sorry that she didn’t have anyone at her soccer games and the other parents always forgot to take pictures, that I was sorry that whenever she blew an eyelash off the tip of my finger I knew it was always the same lousy wish. It should have been about first crushes or scoring goals or getting the new pair of earrings she wanted. I wanted to tell her I was sorry that I wasn’t the mother she needed me to be, that I wasn’t the mother I wanted to be, that I was sorry what happened to me, happened to her.
She rolled to her side and Nancy Drew slipped off her chest.
I had only ever wanted her. When I was pregnant, I knew I was supposed to say I don’t care if it’s a boy or girl, as long as the baby’s healthy, but I really wanted a girl, I really wanted her, and after the sonographer outlined the labia in the twenty-week ultrasound image, tears leaked from me, because I knew I would have her.
She breathed through her mouth, thick raspy inhales because her nose was always congested. My husband and I had just made a deal. If I wasn’t better by the following November, a mere eight months away, then he would entertain the idea of thinking about Dignitas. But just knowing that an out existed had started to slowly fade it away, and looking at all those colored unicorns again, hearing her soft snore, I knew—even in my concussed mind—I knew that leaving really wasn’t going to be an option.
Months continued to pass.
My shaken neurochemicals started to settle. I did my vision rehab exercises every day even though they caused my eyes to pulse, my head to spin. My eyes became less loose in their sockets. I decreased my weekly work hours—thirty-two to twenty to fifteen to twelve to ten. I had more energy to cook a meal, to drive myself to appointments, to fold the laundry. I went for short walks. I found a yoga class for people with traumatic brain injuries and I became less alone. I tried new kinds of rehab, the zapping of nerves in my feet and tongue with electricity, the thrusting of my head in different directions while I stared at a green dot on the wall, the vibrating plates where I stood with a laser strapped to my head. I could finally turn my head without losing my balance.
At twenty-two months, I showed up one day to her soccer game. She usually went with another teammate’s parent, my husband always having to work on Saturdays. I didn’t tell her ahead of time just in case the pounding of my brain was too much.
I walked up to the side of the field with no cheering parents, wearing my bulky noise cancelling headphones and my dark sunglasses. I glanced at all the parents on the other side of the field, chatting and laughing and waving their hands in the air. I knew most of them, remembered chatting and laughing and waving hands in the air with them and it ached to see what I was missing. The outside world felt so incredible close and it startled me, startled me that life had just continued, that the world still revolved on its axis.
My daughter was in the middle of the field, zigzagging around players, dribbling the ball to the goal. A player tripped and she jumped over the fallen body, regained control off the ball, slanted her body, and then kicked the ball, hard, so it zoomed by the goalie. After her shot, while high-fiving her team, she looked up and saw me standing there. She squinted at me for what felt like a long second and then smiled, smiled so wide that I could see her dimple. A lump settled into the back of my throat. I clapped my hands as I watched her run back to the midfield. I hadn’t known she could play that good.
Twenty-three months came and went. That dreaded November. Dignitas was still there beside me, casting its long ghostly shadow, but I didn’t bring it up with my husband again. He didn’t bring it up either. We just kept going on.
And then I made it to teacher-parent conferences and saw on the wall her “All About Me” poster where she wrote that her dream is to own a horse ranch and that she is proud of her dad opening a veterinary clinic and that her greatest fear is her mom’s concussion. I stared at my mom’s concussion on the wall, penciled so carefully, and wanted to take a thick-tipped pen and smear those letters so that this, so that I, wouldn’t be the thing that scared her.
At thirty months, I stopped work all together. I tried even more kinds of rehab, got stabbed with endless injections, even tried nerve surgery. I found I could start watching TV again and we made it to my first movie and she put her head onto my shoulder while she took mouthfuls of popcorn. Then we made it to a park and I saw her skip every other monkey bar. Then a friend slept over at our house and I made them squeal with a scary ghost story. By month thirty-four, I drove her and a friend to soccer practice and we were both giddy with the normalcy of it all.
Despite these small movements forward, though, I was still mostly a blob in bed, unable to work, on disability. I worried all the time that she would only remember me as this blob in bed. I read a research study that concluded few experiences before age six become lifelong memories. This made me fret and so I reminded her, constantly, about our trip to Costa Rica when we zip lined through Arenal. When we went to Seattle and rode the Ferris wheel. When we watched harbor seals. When we blasted music and made up dance routines, strumming invisible guitars and using pencils as microphones.
I worried all the time that I wouldn’t be able to support her. That we’d lose our house, that our car would break down, that we couldn’t afford to put her in a school where she wasn’t bored out of her mind.
I worried all the time that one day I would crash again because sometimes the fatigue was too much, the pain too much. I learned that concussives are three times more likely to commit suicide; the average time between a mild concussion and suicide is 5.7 years. I was about to hit month forty, only 3.3 years, and I had so much longer to go before I was on the other side of that statistic. It was hard not be able to do the things you used to love. I wanted to be able to read a book. I wanted to be able to come home from an exhausting day of work and pour a glass of red wine and sink into the couch. I wanted to kayak in Lost Lake.
I worried all the time about how much I’d screwed her up. She wouldn’t let me sing You Are My Sunshine to her anymore. Even at month forty, it shook her little body too much when I tried. Please stop, she wailed. It only reminds me of you before, she said. And so I stopped because I couldn’t bear to hurt her anymore.
One day I came across a book she had made, folded over pieces of paper stapled down the middle, while putting away her clothes. She had titled it “Dark Days” and it was her version of a graphic novel and it showed pictures of a happy girl who then turned sad as she watched her mother lay in bed day after day. I flipped through the pages and then carefully placed it back within her clothes.
After finding this book and then that crumpled piece of paper under her bed— I’m scared Momma’s going to die—I decided to tell my daughter this: I don’t think strength is always having hope. I think strength is grueling. I think strength is letting yourself grieve, to howl, to pound. I think strength is learning how to hold onto moments so they last longer—moments like when we work on our cat puzzle and the moments we watch American Ninja Warrior. I think strength is tilting the pain a bit to the right and looking at it when the moonlight is grazing the surface. Maybe it’s not about roller coasters and long hiking trips. Maybe there are enough quiet moments to grow a new motherhood.
Right around month forty-four, my daughter and I were eating dinner by ourselves, taking bites of enchiladas that my husband had left for us in the fridge. We were both tinkering with a new cat puzzle and a thousand tiny jigsaw puzzle pieces were crammed on the dining room table. My daughter was going through each minute of her day and she had gotten to the point right after lunch recess when something about the book they were reading in language arts made her think about wishes. I wish you never got a brain injury, she said. I kept my head down and picked up another puzzle piece, turned it around, tried to make it snap into another one. I felt her head tip up toward the ceiling; then, a long silent beat. But, I don’t know, she continued, then we wouldn’t be as close.
I turned to look at her. She was now ten years old and she looked so much like my husband with her curly hair, hazel eyes, long nose. The thing about my fall down the driveway was that there wasn’t a fretful ambulance ride or a drawn-out coma or an emergency surgery. It was just a hard bang, and then invisibleness. A disappearing of sorts.
But my daughter had not let me disappear. All that circling. All that needing. All that loving.
I put down the puzzle piece that held a flicker of a cat’s ear and reached over to squeeze her hand. It was a quick movement, fleeting almost, and then we both continued the hunt for the right piece. From afar, we might have even looked normal, a mother and daughter with heads bent over a jigsaw puzzle, but no one could see how tightly I had squeezed her hand.
Kristin Moran is an educator, writer, and concussion-advocate living in Portland, OR. Her work has appeared in Getting Smart and Scholastic Administrator. She is currently working on a memoir about her concussion recovery.