GeminiMAGAZINE
_____________
MY ABSOLUTION
by Cynthia Lim
It was the first time I had ever attended
a Parent Day without my husband Perry. All
morning I had listened to other parents chatter
about AP exams, driving permits and where to
find a private college counselor, but my mind
was on Perry at the transitional living center, in
the throes of agitation from his brain injury.
Tired of being bombarded by questions about
what actually happened, how he was doing, and
how was I coping, I leaned against a wall near
the catered refreshment table and tried my
hardest to blend into the background.

Then I spotted Adrianna, trim in her denim
jacket, an oversized beige scarf draped around
her neck and her brown hair pulled into a tight
ponytail. She saw me at the same time and we
began moving toward each other, dodging
through the throngs of parents. I could see the
lines of concern on her face as she reached to
give me a bear hug.

“Are you okay?” she said, squeezing me tight. I
hugged her back. Over the years, our sons had
spent lots of time together and I had always
wanted to get to know her better, but we didn’t
move in the same social circles.

“So, what happened?” she asked.

I stepped back to face her. “We were in Portland
for a bar mitzvah, just for the night,” I said.
“Perry had a heart attack and his heart stopped.
He didn’t get enough oxygen to his brain and
now he has brain damage.”

“But why? Why did he lose oxygen to his brain?”
She shook her head in disbelief. “Where were
you? Weren’t you right there?”

I paused. Was she blaming me?

“I was right there,” I said. “They couldn’t
resuscitate him.”

“Wow, how old is he, forty-five, forty-six? He’s
really young for something like that to happen.”

“He’s forty-seven,” I said, but she was already
looking away, having spotted another mother to
connect with. The bell rang, signaling the start
of another class and I moved past her, not
knowing what to say. I was right there, I wanted
to tell her, but it happened so fast I was
helpless.

Adrianna’s comment pierced me that day and
haunted me for weeks and months to come.
Was it my fault? Why didn’t I start CPR right
away? Couldn’t I have just done a few chest
compressions to get blood to Perry’s brain? I
replayed the scene at the Benson Hotel over
and over in my mind. Why did I go blank, why
didn’t I remember the lesson from twelve years
earlier when Perry and I attended a CPR class at
the kids’ elementary school? The dummy’s lips
were worn and the rubber body sticky from
wear but we learned how to do chest
compressions, count, press again. We giggled
through the class; what did we know about
emergencies and heart attacks? We were in our
mid-thirties; Perry had just made partner at his
law firm, and I was a stay-at-home mom. Our
boys were enrolled in private school; we had
bought our first home. The future was bright
and promising. We thought about going out for
a drink afterward since we already had a
babysitter for the evening. Why didn’t we take
that course more seriously?

“Don’t even go there,” Zack, our older son, told
me on the phone from college in New York.
“Don’t get upset by Adrianna. She wasn’t there
and she doesn’t know what she is talking about.
Don’t play the ‘what if’ game. It won’t get you
anywhere and it will only make you feel worse.”

“You can’t keep thinking about the past, Mom,”
said Paul, our younger son, a sophomore in high
school. “We just have to move forward. What
happened, happened. You can’t change it.”

But I couldn’t block out the remorse. If only I
had made Perry go back to the doctor. Three
months before his heart attack, he complained
of heartburn and saw his primary care doctor.
She didn’t do an EKG or order a stress test that
could have possibly revealed the blockage in his
artery. Instead, she sent him home with a
prescription for acid reflux and instructions to
stay away from tomatoes, onions, peppers, and
chocolate to avoid heartburn.

Perry suspected it was the bouillabaisse in
tomato broth that caused his heartburn that
evening in Portland when we dined at Il Pazzo
with his cousin Marc. I should have insisted we
drive to the hospital when he first complained of
pain. Instead, I made him walk with me to
Powell’s bookstore even though he had to stop
to buy Rolaids. In the emergency room in
Oregon, the cardiologist said it was most likely
the clogging of his artery that was giving him
pain, not heartburn.

So where could I direct my sense of guilt? I
longed for absolution, to lock myself into a
confessional box and unleash my sins, ask for
forgiveness, express my sorrow. I wanted to
receive my penance, to say I was sorry for what
I had not done and make amends. I wanted a
priest, a higher power, to absolve me and tell
me to go in peace.

After my encounter with Adrianna, I began
reading obituaries in the newspaper, carefully
combing through each of the squares in tiny
font detailing who had passed, noting when they
were born, how old they were at death. I
studied the ones who died young, in their forties
or fifties, and lingered over the ones that listed
“heart attack” as the cause of death. I mourned
the lives abruptly cut short and wondered about
their survivors. Did they blame the doctors? Did
they administer CPR? I envisioned their lives,
bereft, empty without their husband, wife,
mother or father, filled with an entirely different
type of pain than mine.

Paul came home from school one day and said,
“You know, Mom, there was nothing you could
have done. CPR does not revive someone with
ventricular fibrillation.”

“What?” I asked. “What is ventricular
fibrillation? I thought he had a heart attack.”

“He did and it sent his heart into some kind of
arrhythmia. Then he went into ventricular
fibrillation. Don’t you remember the cardiologist
telling us that after he put in the stent?”

I had dim memories of what was said that night
in Portland. I remembered the cardiologist
showing us a scan of Perry’s heart with squiggly
lines, of Marc speaking solemnly with the
cardiologist afterward. But Paul heard and
remembered everything, just like he did when
he was eight and we bought our minivan. He
had paid close attention when the salesman
went through all the features while the rest of
us were distracted. He was the one who knew
where the spare tire was stored or how to fold
back the rear seat.

I sent for Perry’s medical records from Portland
and scanned through pages of case notes,
printouts of his heart rhythms, lab tests. On the
intake form, “myocardial infarction and
subsequent ventricular fibrillation” were listed
under principal diagnosis. I researched
“ventricular fibrillation,” a condition where the
heart’s electrical activity becomes disordered
and blood is not removed from the heart.
Ventricular fibrillation caused unconsciousness in
seconds and unless medical help was provided
immediately, sudden cardiac death followed in
minutes.

My pulse quickened as I read on. What if we
hadn’t been together in a hotel room at eleven
that night in Portland? If we’d been at home,
what were the odds we would have been in the
same room? Perry was an early bird, often
asleep in bed by eleven while I tended to stay
up late reading or watching TV in the living
room. I would not have been there to hear his
gasp and to reach for the phone.

In each of the reports I reviewed, all
recommended CPR as immediate treatment, but
electric shock from a defibrillator was the only
treatment that would restore a normal
heartbeat. Survival rates for ventricular
fibrillation outside of a hospital ranged from two
to twenty-five percent. The doctors in Portland
had given Perry a fifteen percent chance for
survival. How easily he could have slipped away
that night. I imagined what my life would be
without him, the grief, the empty space in bed
next to me, a future filled with longing and
loneliness.
No, I thought, that alternative would
have been much worse.

There were articles that pointed out the
difficulty in knowing when a person would be
prone to ventricular fibrillation and how to
assess the risks because the symptoms were
often confused with indigestion and heartburn.
Even people with no previous risk factors were
felled by sudden cardiac arrest. There were
stories of patients who succumbed to ventricular
fibrillation after cardiac stress tests revealed no
blockage. I felt a sense of relief after reading
these articles but still, Adrianna’s comment
haunted me. The guilt lingered.

Perry languished in a coma for ten days after
his heart attack, then gradually awakened after
he was transferred back to Los Angeles. It was
not like anything in the movies; his emergence
from a coma was quiet and slow. Gone was the
loquacious lawyer, gone were the deep laughs
that jiggled his belly. Gone was his short-term
memory. His speech came back in whispers,
even after his tracheotomy tube was removed.

After a month in the hospital, Perry was strong
enough to be moved to a rehabilitation facility.
Miraculous progress was made. He learned to
walk again although his balance was shaky. He
fed himself solid food and learned how to brush
his teeth and shave again. His cheerful
demeanor returned: the quick smile, the
liveliness in his brown eyes when he caught
sight of us. He began to initiate speech more
often, although he still whispered. As he became
more awake and conscious, his brain grew more
confused. Then agitation set in as his damaged
brain tried to process information. He walked
into other patients’ rooms, he tried to pry open
the locked doors on the ward, he mumbled
phrases we couldn’t decipher. At random times,
he peeled off his clothes, a crazy, wild-eyed
stare in his eyes, unreachable to me. The Perry
that emerged was not the same Perry I knew
and loved.

At the height of Perry’s agitation, the
rehabilitation hospital was ready to discharge
him. Our insurance benefits only covered thirty
days and the time was up. I despaired at the
thought of bringing him home. How would I be
able to control him? Instead, we found a
transitional living center where he had 24-hour
care and intensive therapy. After two months,
the agitation faded and he became easier to
handle. He participated in therapy; he
expressed his joy and gratitude each time we
visited. But still, I wondered if he would ever be
well enough to attend any future Parent Days.

Halfway through the hundred days authorized
by the insurance company, the case manager at
the transitional living center suggested we try
overnight visits to prepare for the transition
home. I spent a full day at the center shadowing
the therapists and helpers, taking mental notes
on how they cued Perry in the shower or how
they helped him while he was shaving or
brushing his teeth. I listened to their
instructions on giving him choices on what
shorts and which T-shirt to wear, but at the end
of the day I wondered if I was really ready to
handle him at home.

Perry’s first overnight visit began smoothly. He
ate his dinner without prompting from us and
laughed at our jokes. He was alert and attentive
when we sat on the couch and watched a movie.
When we went to bed, he lay stiff as a board,
tense and still. After an hour, he began moving
restlessly, kicking off the blankets, sometimes
sitting up and trying to stand on his feet.

“What’s the matter, Perry?” I asked. “Do you
need something?”

He didn’t respond to my questions but kept up
his restless movements. At three in morning, he
finally fell asleep but I was still awake, listening
to his soft snoring and on edge, attuned to his
every move, every twitch.

The next morning, Perry was hard to rouse and
didn’t want to get up. I let him sleep until nine,
then nine-thirty, even though they usually woke
him at seven at the transitional living center.
He was dazed and unresponsive when I tried to
get him to stand. I walked him to the bathroom
and managed to get him to step into the shower
and sit on the plastic bench we had installed. I
poured shampoo into the palm of his hand and
cued him to spread it on his head, but he
rubbed it between his fingers until it was gone. I
shampooed his hair, then handed him a bar of
soap. He held it in his hand, unmoving. I soaped
and rinsed him off, then guided him to the sink.
As I dried him off, he stood inert, gazing off in
the distance, not making any effort to follow my
cues. When I tried to get his sweatpants on him,
he wouldn’t lift his leg so I could slip them over
his feet.

“Move your foot, Perry,” I said.

He stood still as a statue, feet firmly planted. I
pried his left foot up, slipped the pants over
them, then lifted his right foot. He stared at his
reflection in the mirror when I spread shaving
cream on his face, and wouldn’t hold the razor
in his hand. After I finally got him shaved and
dressed, he walked back to the bedroom,
climbed into bed and closed his eyes. In the
morning I had to get Paul to help me pull him
into a sitting position, then onto his feet to walk
to the dining table for breakfast. He sat
woodenly at the table, barely touching his food.
He ate if we fed him but otherwise made no
effort to lift his spoon with cereal.

I got up from the table, went into the bathroom,
closed the door, held my face in my hands and
cried.
My God, what has he turned into? I
thought.
How am I going to do this when he
comes home for good?
I thought about the case
manager’s insistence that I have a back-up plan,
an assisted-living facility in case this didn’t work
out. Maybe she was right; maybe I wouldn’t be
able to handle Perry at home. Maybe it would
have been better if he had just passed away
that night in Portland. What were we faced with
now and how was I going to muster the strength
for this?

We got Perry up for a walk around the
neighborhood, but as soon as we reached home
he headed for the bedroom to sleep. He was
sluggish and tired the entire day, so that all of
the small tasks, getting him to the table for a
meal or to the bathroom, took extra effort. I
was relieved when it was time to take him back
to transitional living center.

A few weeks later, we brought Perry home for a
second overnight visit. This time, he was alert
and responsive. We had dinner across the street
with our neighbors. Although he didn’t initiate
speech, he followed along with the conversation,
his eyes aware and curious, laughing at the
appropriate parts. At home before bed, his eyes
were clear, his expression serious. “I don’t know
where I belong,” he said. “It feels strange.”

“What feels strange?” I asked.

“Me,” he said. “I have trouble with spatial
relationships.”

Before I could probe further, he closed his eyes
and sank into a deep sleep. He slept soundly
through the night, without twitching or waking.

The next morning, I awoke feeling rested. I got
up while Perry was still asleep, and showered
and dressed, ready to face the challenge of his
morning routine. I went into the bedroom and
pulled up the shades to let in the morning light.

“Time to get up, Perry,” I said, turning to face
him. “Good morning!”

He opened his eyes and a smile lit his face at
the sight of me, his brown eyes warm and full of
love. I pulled the comforter back, then the
sheets. I guided his legs to the edge of the bed,
directed his feet to the floor, and pulled him up
to a sitting position to make it easier for him to
stand. I waited until he gained his balance, then
held his hand as we walked slowly through the
hallway to the bathroom. He lathered his own
hair with shampoo after I poured it into his
hand.

After his shower, I toweled Perry off and
positioned him in front of the sink. I squeezed
toothpaste on his toothbrush and guided his
hand to his mouth. He brushed lightly, then set
the toothbrush on the counter. I followed up
with more rigorous brushing, then filled his cup
with water. He took a big sip, swished, and spit
out. I smeared shaving cream on my fingers,
then spread it on his cheeks. I placed the razor
in his hand and he took a few feeble strokes on
one side of his face, then the other, then his
chin. He handed me the razor, and I shaved the
spots he missed. I pulled his polo shirt over his
head, and he reached his arms through the
sleeves. He lifted his leg, first the right, then
the left as I guided them into his sweatpants. I
placed the hairbrush in his hand, and he
brushed the wispy tuft of brown hair on the top
of his balding head, then the sides over his ears.
He studied his reflection in the mirror with
raised eyebrows and smiled, then turned to look
at me.

“You look so handsome!” I said. Perry laughed,
then pursed his lips for a kiss. I reached to hug
him and inhaled his scent—a mixture of Tide
detergent, Caress soap, shaving cream and
musky sweat—as I pressed my face onto his
shoulder. His arms folded me into a familiar
embrace. He smelled the same and I was
grateful that he was still here. This was my
absolution.


Cynthia Lim reinvented her life and identity after her husband’s brain
injury a number of years ago. She has learned to appreciate small joys:
the comfort of home, the support of friends, taking walks by the marina,
and reading. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Hawaii Pacific
Review, Kaleidoscope, The Legendary, RiverSedge, Rougarou, and various
academic journals. She holds a doctorate in social welfare and is
executive director of data and accountability for the Los Angeles Unified
School District. She attended the Writers Studio at UCLA.
Why did I go blank,
why didn’t I remem-
ber the lesson from
twelve years earlier
when Perry and I
attended a CPR
class at the kids’
elementary school?