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It was a cold, snowy day when we got the news. I knew was coming, it was only a matter of time, but I was dreading it just the same. My 19 year old son brought the news to us at the end of his "drill weekend" with his Marine reserve unit. He was going to Iraq, and that was that. It was bound to happen but I can't say that I was pleased.
For my husband, Joe's dad, it took a few days for the news to sink in. Lou was sinking deeper and deeper into the brain fog that Alzheimer's disease brings. The diagnosis had been made about a year earlier, but we had suspected it for several years. He had already been through the early and middle stage drugs, and we knew that he was entering the final stages. I explained to him over and over again that Joe would be going away soon and his reaction was different each time. One time he would be overjoyed that Joe was going to be traveling (as if he were leaving on vacation), another time he would worry that he could be injured, but most of the time he was too confused to understand at all.
I had always been a worrier, so that's what I did. I worried about Lou sinking into the abyss ofAlzheimer's, I worried about Joe going off to war, and I worried about my other son who lived much too far away. I worried about what I would do if Lou didn't make it until Joe's homecoming. Should tell him if his dad passed away while he was in Iraq? I finally asked Joe about it and we decided that I would not - he would need to keep his mind on the task at hand.
I wanted to be as informed as possible, so I joined the Key Volunteer network, a group of Marine wives and mothers who helped relay information between the Corps and the families of deployed Marines. By becoming a Key Volunteer, I would hear the news first, then pass it on to the families in my group.
Joe left for training, first to Ohio, then to California. He trained for several months, during the summer, in the middle of the desert. It was actually hotter in the California desert than it was in Iraq and, finally, after four months, they were ready. They were allowed a quick trip home before returning for the final days of packing gear for the trip. When I saw him, I was amazed at how lean and muscular he was. He was obviously in top physical shape.
We had just one short week with him then, all too soon, it was time to take him to the airport for his trip back to California. As he told his father goodbye, Lou said "have a great trip. I sure wish I was going with you. You're going to love Europe." He was oblivious to the truth, sinking deep into his disease and Joe was convinced that it was the last time he would see his father alive. I worried about him going off to war with that thought, but I couldn't do anything to change it.
I watched him as he went through the security checkpoint, then he turned and waved as he moved up the escalator toward the gate. I had always hated saying good bye, always cried at airports, and I was crying again as I exited the door to the parking lot. As I walked toward the street, I looked down at the ground and spotted a lone penny lying near the curb. "A lucky penny," I thought, "perhaps this is a sign," and bent down to pick it up. As I sat in my car and watched the airplane gracefully climb into the sky and turn toward the west, I was optimistic. I had to believe that, no matter what happened, everything would turn out alright. I had to believe that, somehow, everything would work out. I could never have guessed the truth but through it all, this belief would sustain me. And the signs would keep coming.
My journey started with a phone call, that terrible phone call that all parents dread ... the phone call they hope they will never get. The one where your child is on the other line saying, "Mom, I'm in the hospital". But in my case, it was so much worse...... my child was on the other side of the world..... and in a war zone. Yes, it all started with that phone call.
I hadn't had a good night's sleep for over a week, ever since that other terrible phone call - the one where he told me they were leaving the United States the next day. When the phone rang at 4:00 am, I didn't answer it fast enough and it went to voice mail. "Hi, mom, it's me, it must be early there, and you're probably still asleep. I'll try to call again in a couple of hours. I'm in the hospital but it's not real bad. I'll call later. Bye." What? In the hospital? What could have happened? Gunshot, explosion, vehicle accident? My mind raced, but I never could have guessed the truth. I tried to sleep, with the phone right next to me, but sleep didn't come.
The second call came about three hours later, the ringing startled me, even though I was waiting and wishing for it to happen. Hello (please let it be him), and there he was! "Hi, mom, it's me." What's happening? "I'm in the hospital in Iraq, but the good news is that the doctors think they know what it is and how to treat it." He proceeded to tell me how his legs had started to go numb, and how the numbness grew worse and spread upward until he couldn't stand. He said the doctors suspected a virus and might transfer him to a hospital in Germany. He chuckled when he told me that the highlight of his day had been when they put in the catheter. I chuckled too, imagining my strong Marine, who had never had a major illness in his life, being told that he was about to get a catheter inserted! I questioned his treatment - just Tylenol for the headache. Nothing else hurt; but he couldn't feel his legs, just numbness from the waist down.... I thought for a minute of my own numbness from the waist down, during the C-section I had on the day he was born....
Then, as if to reassure me, he mentioned the ventilator that was sitting beside his bed "just in case the numbness moves up to my lungs". What? What had he just said? Now my mind was really racing, how bad could this be? How bad could it get? I heard a female voice, and then he said he had to go. No, wait, not yet, what about the ventilator? "Don't worry," he said, "the doctors here know what they are doing". No, wait, can you call me later, before you go to sleep tonight? He asked the nurse then relayed her answer. "She says she'll bring the satellite phone back in a couple of hours so I can call you again." Well, OK, take care of yourself, don't forget to call, I'll keep the phone with me. "OK, don't worry." OK, love ya. Then he was gone, and that was the last I heard from him.
The Long Wait
Now, if that call had come from a local hospital, I would have been in the car and headed toward the Emergency Room in no time flat. But what do you do when the call is from the other side of the world? You do the only thing you CAN do - you wait for the next call. It was Sunday morning and my husband was still asleep, as he moved deeper into the Alzheimer's disease, sleep was a blessing. I didn't want to wake him. I didn't think he could comprehend it. There would be no more sleep for me, so I quietly got dressed, did a little house cleaning, and sent some e-mails.
Lisa was my Key Volunteer Coordinator and also the wife of Joe's commanding officer, and I sent the first e-mail to her. The second e-mail went to my Aunt Velda, who lives in northern California. She knows lots of people, is very good at the computer and good at finding out stuff. I called Major Corrado, the Family Readiness Officer for Joe's unit in Kansas City; he was not aware of the situation but agreed to contact his superiors. I got the impression that he thought I was a hysterical mother, which was OK, as long as he was willing to search for information.
I went outside to mow the lawn but kept the cell phone on me the entire time. I come from a large and confusing family. My parents divorced when I was young, then both remarried, so I have full, half and step siblings. I called my sister, Teri, and had her call my mother's side of the family. Then I called my dad & step mother, and was glad when Grace answered the phone. I broke down as I told her the story and asked her to tell my dad, and to call my other son, Steven, who lived in Albuquerque. How do you tell your child that his only brother may be dying?
I went back to the lawn, finishing the front and moving to the back yard. Soon my phone rang, but it wasn't Joe, it was Steven. He had gotten the phone call from his grandma, but it had gone to his voicemail and he hadn't been able to get her when he called back. So he called me to see what was wrong, and I was devastated to have to tell him! I knew he would be sitting by the phone worrying until we heard from Joe again.
I went back to the lawn, glad to have something physical to do to keep myself busy. Soon, Lou appeared at the back door. I shut the mower off and went in the house to tell him the news. He didn't fully understand, and was happy that Joe might be coming home. "Maybe in a box," I thought. I had some Kava Kava, herbs known to calm nerves, so I took a couple. As the day wore on, I took it several more times. They seemed to help and I thought they were better for me than a prescription medication. I was calmer and able to think more clearly.
The phone rang again, it was my Aunt Velda from California and she had been doing some research. "This sounds like Guillien-Barre", she said, "and if it is, you better start making plans to go to him. He may not make it home". Well, that was comforting - but it got me to thinking, and I called Steven in Albuquerque again. I knew that Lou was not well enough to travel and, if I had to go, I didn't want to go alone. Steven agreed to go with me and said he'd start making arrangements with his employer. I called my friend, Julie, who is a nurse married to a physician's assistant and they both agreed that Joe's symptoms sounded like Guillien-Barre.
It was mid afternoon, so I ate some lunch and waited for a phone call. Iraq was nine hours ahead of our time and I knew it must be getting close to bedtime for the patients. The call could come at any time.
By 3:00 pm, midnight in Iraq, I knew something had gone terribly wrong. I had to start getting ready for work; the 5 pm to 9 pm shift at Taco Bueno. It was a new job for me, the restaurant had only been open a couple of weeks and I worked as a cashier in the evenings. It was my second job, and I worked there to pay off the credit card bills that my husband had secretly charged up. I had learned, too late, that many Alzheimer's patients do this as their financial common sense leaves them. Since he was home during the day (while I was at my main job), it was easy for him get the mail and hide the bills from me. By the time I discovered what he'd done, there were thousands of dollars of debt. I had worked two, and sometimes, three jobs at a time for over a year to pay down the debt.
Before I left for work, I left a note with my work phone number on it and instructed Lou to call me immediately if he got any calls - especially one from Joe. He said he would, but I wasn't sure that he would remember. I spent the night questioning every call that came in to the restaurant, but none were for me. When I got home, Lou confirmed that nobody had called. I tried to call Major Corrado but got his answering machine.
I kept the silent phone by my bed, and tossed and turned all night. I worked as a secretary in a high school counseling center and it was an especially busy time of year for me. School had just begun and I was still enrolling new students, while helping returning students settle into the proper classes for the year. I had lots of work to do, and taking a day off was just not possible. Besides, I thought I could get more done at work than I could at home - with Lou asking the same questions, over and over again. So, I gathered up my collection of phone numbers and headed out the door. One of the first things I did was send an e-mail to the entire staff, asking them for advice. I knew that my co-workers had a variety of different lifestyles, contacts, and knowledge and I knew I would get some good advice from them. I also started calling and e-mailing everyone I could think of who could help me. When you need information quickly, your network of friends and acquaintances are VERY valuable.
As the day wore on, I got lots of good advice: call the Red Cross, call your congressman, call the Marine Corps., etc. I tried everything. Lisa e-mailed that she had heard from her husband in Iraq but all he knew was that Joe had been airlifted to Balad on Saturday. My congressman's office said they'd check into it and call me back. I sent an e-mail to MarineParents.com. My friend, Doris, called her husband (a doctor) and he also suspected Guillain-Barre syndrome. The local Red Cross had been constructing a new building and was in the process of moving into their new offices on that very day, but I talked to a extremely helpful lady named Pat. She didn't even know where her phone was (she was using someone else's), but agreed to see what she could do. I called the Marines again, still no word.
It was late afternoon when Pat, from the Red Cross, called me back. School was out and almost everyone had gone home, and Pat had finally found him. My heart raced as she told me what she knew. My Joe was in a hospital in Balad, Iraq but was in a coma and on a ventilator. I knew it. I just knew it. She said that they planned to transfer him to Germany that night (it was already after midnight in Iraq) and I should hear from the doctor sometime tomorrow. Well, at least I knew.
I started walking toward the main office, but two of my co-workers stopped me. They could see the pain in my face. I got out the words, "He's not breathing on his own" before breaking down and we stood in the hall, embracing and crying together. They both agreed that I should go to him as soon as possible. Our principal walked out of his office, headed for home, and stopped to hear the news. His only words to me were "I want you on the first plane you can get on, we'll take care of things here". I knew then, that my job would be OK, one less thing for me to worry about. Before leaving school, I called my employer at Taco Bueno and got the same response, "Do what you have to do and your job will be waiting when you return."
When I got home, I tried to explain it all to Lou, but he still didn't understand how serious Joe's condition was. I called Steven to tell him to be ready and learned that he had already talked to his employer and everything was set on his end. I also called the rest of the family, then settled in for another restless night, waiting for a call from Germany.
I had seen something on TV about the medivac flights from Iraq, and I knew that they left late at night, with the runway lights dimmed and the airplane lights off so they wouldn't be shot down. I knew it was dangerous, and I knew that Joe would be unconscious and breathing with the aide of a ventilator. It was hard to sleep.
Once again, the phone woke me up in the wee hours of the morning - 5:00 a.m. this time. I grabbed it quickly, but it had already gone to voice mail. How many times had it rang? Twice? Three times? I wasn't sure. I waited for the voice mail tone. Ding-dong. There it was. I grabbed the phone and pressed the buttons. The message was from a doctor in Germany - Joe's doctor - he had just examined him and wanted me to call him back. He left his phone number, but my cell phone didn't seem to be able to call it.
I no longer had a "land line" phone; I had it taken out about a year earlier when I discovered that many of the purchases Lou had made were from telephone telemarketers. Since I couldn't stop him from buying (taking the cards away didn't help as they already had the card numbers), I finally had the phone taken out. All I had was the cell phone which I left with Lou each day while I was at work. He had a phone to use, but the telemarketers didn't have the number. I called my cell phone company and I was told that I didn't have international calling on my phone, but I could add it during normal working hours. I didn't want to wait to talk to the doctor, so who could help me?
Excerpted from First One Home by Barbara Lopez Josef Lopez Copyright © 2009 by Barbara Lopez with LCpl. Josef Lopez. Excerpted by permission.
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