A Season In Hell: My Medical Nightmare – Part 10
By Don Millard
In February of 1994, after 28 years of life, I was about to hug my birth mom for the very first time.
As my mother got closer to me, I could see my face in her face and my smile in her smile. Until recently, she had been a complete stranger, even
though she had given me life. Everything seemed to be in slow motion now as we got closer and closer till we finally embraced each other in a giant hug. Although it was a cold February night with snow and ice on the ground around us, I wasn’t cold at all. I was very warm. It really did feel like a scene right out of a movie.
Although most movies that end in a freeze frame usually suck (see COCKTAIL), I really must do my own literary freeze frame of this moment in order to do it justice. This moment was the culmination of my search as well as a beginning of the rest of my life. It was a moment of pure joy that life could never take away from me no matter what happened from this time forward. There was also an ever greater joy and satisfaction of seeing my Mom’s happiness. My adoption had been a heavy burden and a secret heartbreak that had crushed her spirit since 1965. To know that I had taken away some of this pain and sorrow from her heart after all these years made me a very happy man. I felt like I was in an episode of QUANTUM LEAP and I was trying to put right what once went wrong.
The best way I can try to express how this moment felt and what it meant to–what it still means to me–is to reference yet another movie. If you’ve ever seen MY FAVORITE YEAR, there’s a part at the end of the film where the narrator and character Benjy Stone says of the swashbuckling hero loosely based on Errol Flynn played by Peter O’Toole:
“I think if you had asked Alan Swann what was the single most gratifying moment in his life, he might have said this one right here.”
When my Mom and I finally let go of each other, the normal speed and sound of life seemed to resume. I now focused on the other people in this biological receiving line. I saw that my half brother and sister as well as my mother’s sister and her husband made up the rest of the people there to greet the long lost Terry Lee Wichael. I’d spoken on the phone with my brother and sister a bit and recognized them from the photos my mom had sent me. My brother was wearing a flannel jacket and sporting the official hat of the South–a baseball cap. He may have been wearing a hat, but his curly orange hair was still billowing out of it in much the same way his shirt was hanging below his jacket. He sure didn’t look like a bit like his mother–or his father, for that matter. But, as we shook hands, he seemed genuinely glad to meet me. From what my mother had told me, he seemed to enjoy the idea of suddenly having an older brother. When he first learned of me, he said, “You mean I have a brother older than Sissy?”
Next up was my sister, or “Sissy.” She too had curly hair, but it was light brown like mine. She looked a little bit like Junelle, but as I would discover soon enough, that was where the resemblance began and ended, especially on the inside. She was wearing a leather jacket and had a country and western look about her right down to her cowboy boots. But even with with her cowboy boots, I doubt that she was 5 feet tall. My mom had told me that she loved horses and horseback riding. What she lacked in length, she made up for in attitude.
By the way, I would’ve already been in Harrisonburg a few hours earlier if not for Calamity Jane insisting that I not arrive until she could meet me when I got off the bus. In order to do this, I had to go back to Richmond and then take a different bus so I wouldn’t get to Harrisonburg until SHE could be there. The last thing I wanted to do in the world was add even more hours onto my bus ride, but for my Mom’s sake, I honored this demand.
As I approached my sister, I thought it would be kind of silly to shake her hand. We had talked on the phone and she’d been very nice, even though I had already heard some disturbing stories about her and how she’d treated Junelle. As I went to hug my sister, she immediately recoiled and took a step back as though I were a leper or something. It was very awkward, and I felt like saying to her, “Thanks for the 100 extra bus miles, bitch.” For the first time since getting off the bus, I felt cold.
After this Hallmark moment, I walked over to Junelle’s sister, Janet, we hugged. I could be wrong, but I think Janet might have hugged me even tighter than Junelle had. Then I shook hands with “Mo”, Janet’s skinny truck driving husband who was wearing a belt buckle bigger than my sister’s head.
Once I had retrieved my big black bag from the belly of the bus, it was time to get out of the cold and into a car. My sister had driven her and my brother to the bus station, so my Mother and I climbed into the backseat of her car for the 20 mile ride back to the house my mother and brother lived in, while Janet and Mo followed behind us in their car. My sister lived closer to town with her boyfriend of several years, but he hadn’t come along.
We hadn’t been driving but a few minutes when we came to a complete stop on a dark country road. My sister looked at my brother.
“Do it, Sissy. Do it,” said my brother.
“How do you do it again?” she asked, wanting to know how to do the latest redneck burnout involving the emergency brake.
“Sissy, don’t!” exclaimed my mother.
Our wheels spun and the tires started to squeal as we remained in the same spot for a few moments until we shot out onto the main road. This little stunt upset my mother, but when she had protested, the two of them just laughed.
“That didn’t bother you, did it, Don?” my brother asked me.
I said nothing.
“You see, Momma, that doesn’t bother him,” declared my brother.
As we sped down the country road toward my mother’s house, I hoped her house was near, as I wanted out of this car as soon as possible.
Thankfully, my sister soon slowed down and hit the brakes as we approached a modest brick home set off a bit from the road amongst a group of pine trees. We pulled into the long gravel driveway, and I could see my mother’s shiny school bus parked beside an outdoor garage which housed a monster truck as we came to stop in front of my mother’s house. As we were all getting out of my sister’s car, Janet and Mo turned into the driveway and parked next to us.
“Didn’t mean to leave you in the dust back there, Mo. It was Sissy’s fault,” my brother said with a grin.
“I had a cramp in my foot,” replied my sister.
I could clearly see how this had upset my mother and so could my brother and sister, but they seemed to enjoy that it had done so.
When I entered my mother’s home for the first time in my life, I was greeted by Floppy, Junelle’s rust-colored miniature Daschund who instantly made me feel more at home.
“Who’s that, Floppy?” asked my mother, as he wagged his tail and I began petting him.
“Yeah,” said my brother, “that’s Floppy alright. If that little bastard bites me again, I’m gonna put a cap in his ass.”
“You leave that dog alone,” replied my mother.
Floppy, my mother told me in one of her recent letters, has been a surprise Christmas gift from my brother and sister two years ago. He was about 5 years old, as they had got him full grown from a previous owner. My Mom had told me that she was sure he had been abused by the father of the little girl who had to give him up. She told me of how the little girl would still send the dog a birthday card every year and it would be addressed to “Mr. Floppy”. If there is a Hell, one of the hottest spaces should be reserved for those who abuse animals. Anyone who can’t treat an animal right won’t treat YOU right, either.
“That dog does not like me,” my brother said.
“I wonder why,” Junelle replied.
“Watch this,” said my brother.
My brother began talking to the little dog by simply saying “Floppy” a few times in a normal, non-threatening tone of voice. From the very first time my brother said his name, Floppy started to growl and each time my brother said his name, the dog’s growl grew louder and louder until at last his teeth were exposed.
“Stop it!” said my mother.
“That dog does not like me,” my brother said again, with seeming admiration for how mean the dog had become in a matter of seconds.
“Man, Floppy don’t like you, Bungy,” said my sister, calling my brother by his nickname and laughing.
Anyone could tell by Floppy’s reaction that he had likely been abused in the past just as he was now being abused in the present.
It was about this time that I saw the special cake that had been made up for this occasion sitting on the kitchen table. It had white frosting and was in the shape of a heart with purple lettering that said, “Welcome To Our Home Don.”
The next thing I noticed in my mother’s house was all the antlers on the walls. The house had originally been the hunting cabin of Junelle’s husband and he and my brother had furnished it in Early Death Panel. Sarah Palin would’ve felt right at home.
My brother quickly took me on a tour of all the dead animals in the house, with particular emphasis on the ones he had somehow miraculously managed to kill with a high powered scoped rifle. I’m not a hunter and have nothing against hunting per se, but killing Bambi with a high-powered rifle does not make you Kit Carson.
As I was having to look at all the dead animals on the wall, I spotted a very old, very cool crank phone hanging on the wall as well. I asked about it and my mother told this has been the original phone that had been in use in her parents’ home when she grew up. Hanging up on the wall near this antique phone was a beautiful, old calendar clock from the late 1800s. My mother explained to me that it had hung for years in a local bank in town and proudly told me of how she had won it in a silent auction when the bank closed years ago.
I love antiques and always have. Probably one of the reasons for this is because I love history as well. I had to smile when Junelle told me during our first phone conversation that she liked antiques. I guess it’s in my blood. My Mom also had a lot of other collectible figurines around the house and in a curio cabinet as well as some Depression glass. She told me that whenever she got depressed, she’d go to yard sales. She had amassed quite a collection of antiques and collectibles over the years. My brother and sister must not have inherited her antique gene because they referred to it all as “Momma’s junk.”
Junelle once asked my brother what would happen to all her antiques after she died. He told her he would back a truck up to the house and take it all to the dump.
As we all settled in, my brother introduced me to his favorite beer, OLD MILWAUKEE. I’d drank my share of cheap beer in college, but had never tasted this brand before. After one sip, I discovered that it was a notch below PIEL’S or MEISTER BRAU. Oh, well, I needed a beer–any kind of a beer–at this point. The OLD MILWAUKEE we were drinking was a perfect compliment to the deer jerky I was eating out of a green Tupperware bowl. My brother had made it, and it was actually pretty good. I’m pretty sure this was the first time I’d ever eaten deer meat.
It was starting to get late and my sister was the first one to leave. She reminded everyone that SHE had to work in the morning, as if she was the only person on the face of the earth who had a job. I had a sneaking suspicion that she was related to that other incredibly unique individual, the one who declares, “I pay taxes.”
After saying it was nice meeting me, my sister said to Junelle: “Bye, Nellie.”
WTF? Who the hell calls their mother by their first name? And not even her first name, but a nickname made from it. This struck me as just about the most disrespectful thing a child could do to their mother. My adoptive mother’s name was Amalia and she went by “Molly”, but it was her HER choice to be called Molly.
If I had ever tried to call my mother “Molly”, I probably would’ve been slapped in the mouth by her or my father–or both–not that it would have ever even occurred to me to address my mother in such a brazen way. I would have no sooner called my mom “Molly” than I’d call the First Lady “Shelly.”
“Junelle” was a beautiful name. My mom had told me that she’d always liked her name because it was somewhat unique, so I was pretty sure she had no desire to be called “Nellie” by ANYONE, let alone her her own daughter.
Junelle and Janet had already told me some disturbing stories about my sister before I’d even left Florida, but I was trying to keep an open mind. Junelle had told me of how my sister had called her a “hussy” when she tried to quiet her in church. My mom said my sister was about 7 years old when this took place. She would later tell me that Janet had once said to my sister, “When your mother dies, I don’t want to see any tears from you, as bad as you’ve treated her.” I’d already seen enough with my own eyes to know that my sister made the girl in THE BAD SEED look like Pollyanna.
Once my sister left, it was like all the air came back into the room and everyone began to relax and even enjoy themselves. I noticed, too, that my brother started acting better. We even shared a few laughs together and I found that he, unlike my sister, at least had a personality. Quite frankly, I already hoped this was the last time I’d see her on this visit–or ever.
After Janet and Mo left and my brother went to bed, my mother and I sat there at the kitchen table and stayed up all night talking, talking. Talking and smoking. Junelle hadn’t wanted me to know right away that she smoked, much the same way I hadn’t wanted Frank to know right away that I smoked. I guess you could say we were a little bit alike.
Junelle wanted to know everything about me and my life for the past 28 years. I did my best to fill her in while deflecting any direct questions about my health. I can’t tell you how great it was to be able to give some of my baby photos to my actual mother. We must have gone through every photo album of hers that night. She also showed me the albums she’d already put together of the photos and letters I’d sent her.
While we were sitting there talking, we suddenly noticed that it was getting light out so we finally went to bed. It had been an amazing night. I slept in my sister’s old room and hoped that none of her rubbed off on me. There wasn’t there much danger of that happening since they only think left of my sister in the room was a horse calendar that she’d left behind. As I looked at it, I thought maybe if my mother had been a horse, my sister would have treated her humanely.
Junelle had arranged for a substitute bus driver so she could have the week off. Finding somebody to do this wasn’t easy, but I found out that my mom was well-liked and even loved by just about everyone in the county–everyone, except her own kids. Well, that was about to change, at least with me.
My Mom and I spent much of that week visiting and talking with some of her oldest and dearest friends. I could see how each of them had helped her deal with her troubles through the years, even though they never knew that she had given me up for adoption in 1965. I saw how all of them had an ever deeper understanding and respect for my mother after finding out the original source of her pain and the terrible burden she had carried with her for nearly 30 years.
My brother threw a party at the house on that first weekend of visit and invited every redneck in the county. My brother had just graduated from high school the year before and my mother allowed him to party at the house. She said it was better and safer than making him do it somewhere else. He partied in a building his father had built just 20 feet or so from the house. His father had been working on the wiring of that building when he’d dropped dead right in front of Junelle. Perhaps because of this, the building had never been completely finished or furnished. There was no heat in it, but it did have electricity now and a pool table. In the winter like now, party goers would drink and stay out there for as long as they could stand it, then come in Junelle’s house and warm themselves by the roaring wood stove. I still remember us all laughing when one drunken teenager staggered in and set his beer on top of the red hot stove.
But thank god for that pool table. It was the only bridge between my world and my brother’s. I’ve always loved to play pool since I was a kid and learned to play on a friend’s warped table. Playing pool was the only activity I could do with my brother and his friends that didn’t involve guns or a 4 wheel drive truck. I’d never seen so much flannel or heard so much Lynyrd Skynrd in my life. I’m sorry, but there should be a thousand year moratorium on playing FREE BIRD. If I never hear that song again, it’ll be too soon. I tried to fit in as best I could with my brother and his friends–even chewed a little tobacco to blow their minds. But it was hard. I’d never heard the word “reckon” used so many times in all my life, either. Actually, I’d never heard the word used in real life at all. The last time I’d heard the word “reckon” was when we read HUCKLEBERRY FINN in school. I knew I was in for this kind of culture shock ever since The Guns of IGA. I couldn’t change who I was. I was Don Millard, not Terry Lee Wichael.
If I had been abducted by aliens and taken to another galaxy, I don’t think I would’ve have felt any more out of place than I did right here in rural Virginia. Indeed, Junelle told me that Frank had already warned her not to get her hopes up about me moving here by saying, “Now, Cuz, he’s a real city slicker, so don’t expect him to ever come live around here. But he’s also just about the nicest young man I’ve ever met. You’ll be very proud.”
When I was trying to describe my suburban Connecticut upbringing once again, Janet asked me if I’d ever picked potatoes.
“Yeah–aisle 8,” I replied.
During the second week of my visit, my mom asked for and received another week off from driving her school bus. Junelle took me with her to meet her boss who told her she could certainly have another week off considering the circumstances. He told me that my mom had endured a hard life, but had really stood up to it. I could think of TWO reasons in particular why her life had been hard.
On Valentine’s Day, I took my mom out to dinner at the Buckhorn Inn, the old, rustic country buffet restaurant where she worked on the weekends. I told her she could be my Valentine this year. Her co-workers were very happy for her that we had found each other. When one of the waitresses came over to refill our iced tea, she smiled and said, “You’re both left-handed.”
It was true. Growing up, I’d always wondered why I was left-handed when it came to writing and eating since I was right-handed when I played sports. Junelle was the only lefty in her family and I was the only one of her children who was left-handed.
A few days later we had a happy visit with Frank and his family, which meant a lot to me. While we were there, I thought, why can’t my brother and sister be like Frank’s kids?
Although I loved and cherished the time I was spending with my mother, the hardness of her life was laid bare during this visit. It broke my heart.
Junelle told me about my brother and sister’s father, the man she DID marry. She spoke of how he had always liked her and had pursued her ever since high school and how she wasn’t interested. But after being left at the altar 4 months pregnant with me and then giving me up for adoption, she felt as though no man would ever have her now. So, when my brother and sister’s father learned what had happened, he saw his opening and came calling for again and this time my mother accepted his marriage proposal. She said he was a good, church going man, but that he also had a terrible temper, a temper that my brother had inherited along with sky high cholesterol. She told me of times when he’d knocked over a table where she was working on a jigsaw puzzle when he got mad at her. I shuddered to think of the things he’d probably done to her that she didn’t tell me about. She then talked of the things my brother had broken or damaged in the house during his own fits of anger. She’d married a man who’d always pursued her, but then abused her when he got her and gave her two kids who grew up to mistreat her in the same way he did. And, in a way, all because of the shameful act of my birth father who made this all possible with his cowardly act.
My mother’s life had been as hard as mine had been easy until my own personal medical nightmare in 1989. It made me sad to realize that my happiness had come at the expense of hers. Growing up, I had thought of my birth mother in vague, sketchy terms. I thought of her as just the vessel who had brought me into this world; as someone who was probably in high school and didn’t even want to pregnant so young. How wrong I had been. This was my first real glimpse into just how much my mother had suffered and how truly unselfish her decision to give me up had been.
But she was so happy now that I’d found her. How could I ever tell her about my horrible medical condition now? She had endured so much pain and sorrow in her life already, how could I lay my nightmare at her doorstep? I knew telling her what really happened to me would break her heart for good. I didn’t want her to know how much I was suffering or how it had my illness had robbed me of my life without so much as leaving a clue as to what it was. Yes, I’d told my mother I had some serious health issues, but there was no way she could imagine how truly horrific it was. How could anyone? I was the only one trapped in my body and suspended between life and death. Whenever my mother probed me about my health–which was often–I simply told her that I had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and it had finally been diagnosed a few months ago. How could I tell her that my entire body had shrunk right before my eyes in the span of a week? How could I tell her that my symptoms matched nothing ever recorded in the annals of medicine? How could I tell her that I thought it was a fate worse than death? And how on Earth could I tell her that I STILL feared that it might be all my fault? No, I couldn’t tell her this–especially not right now. Best to just crack another OLD MILWAUKEE and have some more deer jerky.
I guess I didn’t a good enough job of hiding the inner torture and sadness that this caused within me because Junelle said to me one night out of the blue,
“You’re keepin’ something from me. What is it?”
I couldn’t tell her. I just couldn’t do it.
I had originally planned to spend about a week in Virginia and had told my boss/roommate as much. but my mom had begged me to stay longer and I couldn’t say no to her. She had missed the first 28 years of my life. What was I supposed to say to her? No? Or, sorry, Mom, but I have to cut my visit short because of my dynamic new career as a telemarketer? I knew job would be there waiting for me no matter how much time I took off. After all, I had already shown them I was management material by showing up two days in a row on numerous occasions.
But after two weeks had gone by, however, I told my mom that I really did have to think about getting back to Florida soon because my rent would be coming due shortly, as well as a few other bills. This was all very true, but it wasn’t the only reason. I didn’t have the heart to tell my mom how out of place I felt in this area, nor could I dare tell her that the thought of no longer being around my brother and sister made me almost ecstatic.
As I was getting ready to finally leave for Florida, a heavy snow was fore casted for the very day I was supposed to leave. My mother told me that she was praying for a blizzard and a blizzard is what we got–almost a foot of snow. This act of God gave us nearly another week and my mother was so happy.
The evening before I was to leave for real, my mother snapped another picture of me as my brother and I were sitting around the kitchen table.
“Dammit, Momma!” my brother shouted as his face turned red. “I’m sick of it!” he yelled.
He got up from the table, grabbed the camera out of my mother’s hand, and smashed it against the counter.
Junelle burst into tears and I just sat there, stunned.
I had never been around behavior like this and sure as hell didn’t want to be around it now. You can’t talk someone out of having a violent temper like this. This was his nature. The sins of the father… After this last incident, I couldn’t get on that bus fast enough. I wanted to spend more time with my mother, but by the same token, I didn’t want to spend another second around my brother and sister.
Throughout this visit, I had tried to be mindful of my brother and sister’s feelings and wanted to cut them slack despite some of the stories I’d heard about them. I was no angel. I tried to put myself in their boots and imagine how I’d feel if the situation was reversed and my mother was suddenly lavishing all of her attention on a long lost son no one had known about for 28 years. This wouldn’t have been easy for me, either, and it was only human nature for there to be some jealousy and resentment. But the kind of behavior I’d seen went way beyond this. Furthermore, the two of them had mistreated my mother for YEARS–long before they ever knew I existed. Their words and actions were just the latest manifestation of the same malignancy and it was never going to change. There was nothing I could do or say that was going to alter their course. As Maya Angelou said, “When people show you who they are, believe them.”
It was time to go. At least for now. I needed some time by myself to let this all sink in and wrap my head around it. I almost wished I was only child again.
As we drove to the bus station the next day, we made a quick stop at the local mall so I could say goodbye to my sister who was a hairdresser there. I had only seen her twice in the whole three and a half weeks I’d been there. I would’ve rather had a root canal than see her again, but I did it for my mom. As we left the beauty salon, my brother showed up. He had a bag in his hand, which he handed to our mother, saying: “Open the bag, Momma.”
Junelle opened the bag, reached in, and pulled out a brand new camera.
“Thank you,” she said.
The cycle of abuse was complete. I couldn’t help but wonder how many other things my brother had to buy to replace what he’d broken. I had a feeling that this was a sad ritual between the two of them. My brother had also bought film for the camera which he promptly loaded for her.
After arriving at the bus station, I checked my big black bag in again and got ready for another hell ride courtesy of Greyhound. When it was time to get on the bus, I kissed and hugged my mother and told her not to be sad. I told her I’d come back to visit her again as soon as I could. She took one last picture of me with her brand new camera. When I disappeared behind the door to get on the bus, I looked back for a moment and could see that my Mom was already crying.