Christmas and Providence
Christmas & Providence
Words / Cody Liska
Photos / Cody Liska, Courtesy of Sharon Liska
Last year, on Christmas Eve, my mom's heart stopped. She was in the kitchen when it happened, baking and listening to Christmas music, getting ready to spend the next two days with her family. My dad was in the living room, waiting to test another spoonful of salmon dip, when he heard a thump and, thinking she just dropped something, waited only a few minutes before he went into the kitchen to find his wife on her back, not breathing. He began chest compressions while my sister, Kiana, dialed 911.
An effective metric of successful chest compressions is if the ribs are broken in the process. While ribs act as protection to a healthy heart, they become obstacles to an unhealthy one. For this reason, it’s common that they’re broken in the process of trying to save someone’s life. Not all the time, but a lot of the time. You’ll know you’re doing a good job by the snapping sounds and subsequent mushy softness.
My dad did not break any ribs, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. He pushed and he pushed for 15 minutes – in time with the 911 operator – until the paramedics and the fire department arrived. The paramedics worked on her for half an hour, right there in the kitchen, before loading her into the ambulance and taking her to the hospital. She was brought to Providence where she eventually underwent Hypothermic Therapy – her body was cooled to 91 degrees for 48 hours, then warmed back to 98.6 degrees – so that her brain wouldn't swell.
The Anchorage Fire Department used Kiana's 911 call for this public service announcement.
Because she had no known ailments, the term that doctors and nurses kept throwing around was Sudden Death Syndrome – a condition, we later learned, with a 7% chance of survival. At the time, the only thing we knew for certain was that her heart had randomly stopped and chances were she was brain dead. My brother Coltan works in the ER and has seen his fair share of Sudden Death Syndrome cases and the outcome is almost always bleak. So, my family waited, not knowing if mom would wake up and that, even if she did wake up, there was little chance that she would have full cognitive ability. There was little chance she would be “mom” anymore.
“She brought me bacon this morning,” was the first thing I remember my sister saying, tears welling in her eyes. It was a simple recollection, as if to say, “she was fine a minute ago. What happened?” I came to realize that these are the things we say in tragic moments. We say them because they’re manageable. We can understand bacon being brought to us; we cannot understand something like mom – a picture of health – randomly dropping dead.
She was almost unrecognizable lying there in that hospital bed. IVs plugged into her arms, an intubation tube down her throat and a respirator breathing for her. She was bloated and doughy – the result of trauma, water retention, and medicine. It was difficult seeing her that vulnerable, to imagine that the woman lying there was the same person who, at 10-years-old, took care of her four siblings, raising them in a way that only a peer can raise another peer – she made sure they got to school on time, protected them from bullies, made sure dinner was on the table, and tucked them in at night. She did all of this while her mom and stepdad spent their time at the bar. I thought about how, before I was born, she helped my dad raise his son Jake, and later Derek, because their biological mom also preferred the bar. My mom was 27 then, the same age I am right now. I thought about how many times she’s had to save my dad’s ass, be it legal issues or dependency issues. I thought about how she raised me and Coltan and Kiana and all the worrying and headaches we’ve caused her over the years. And I thought about how it was time for us to take care of her now.
Everyone took turns by her bedside, holding her hand and talking to her; conversations that were in fact rhetorical, but carried on as if they weren’t. “Hey, Shari. Brought your boys some coffee and breakfast,” my Aunt Trina would tell her sister every morning as she walked into the hospital room. “We’d really like you to wake up now. Everyone’s here just waiting for you. We all love you.” And then Christmas came. My girlfriend Carrie brought in a small, pre-decorated tree and we listened to mom’s favorite Christmas music – Celtic Christmas by Eden’s Bridge. “Merry Christmas, mom,” I told her after giving her a kiss on the forehead. “You got your wish: you got the whole family together this Christmas.”
Kiana stood opposite me, on the other side of the bed. And as I stood there, I watched her talk to mom and brush the hair out of her face and behind her ear, I realized how much they look alike, how much Kiana reminds me of our mom – strong, intelligent, sweet, and kind-hearted. However, if pushed to her limit, wouldn’t hesitate to knock someone’s teeth out.
My mom was one of the first female stockbrokers in Alaska. She worked at Wedbush Morgan Security, a place my dad affectionately renamed “Wet Bush.” She set up bank accounts for our college funds while also investing money into my dad’s snow and skate venture, Boarderline. If it wasn’t for her, Boarderline and everything it encompassed – the shops, the summer camps, the events, the careers, the memories, all of it – wouldn’t exist. Although its impact pales in comparison to Boarderline’s, she has helped fund Crude any and every way she can. She does these things, I have found, because she believes in us. She may not fully understand the vision at times – as abstract and vague as it can be – but she supports it all the same.
She has always been a strong and decisive woman. She decided to pursue a career as a nurse after my dad and I were involved in a head-on collision on our way to nationals in Mammoth Lakes, California. The constant diligence and care of the nurses at the Pediatric Intensive Care unit at Loma Linda made such an impression on her that she began taking classes at UAA soon afterwards. It’s no surprise she turned out the way she did, she’s been surrounded by other strong women her whole life. I think my grandma Lynn – my dad’s mother – was one of those women. I think my mom learned a lot from her. Lynn has always been the backbone of the Liska family – the councilor, the gossip, and the nurturer. Likewise, her husband, my grandpa Tom, has always been there whenever any of us “kids” get into a pinch. Both of them helped raise me and my siblings and most all my cousins on that side of the family. Lynn and Tom have and always will mean a great deal to us – I love those two. Which is why it was so hard, earlier this year, when Lynn suffered a stroke, causing her long-term trouble with some of her basic motor skills – talking, walking. She’s stubborn though, as Liska’s tend to be. So, it came as no surprise when Tom pushed Lynn's wheelchair close enough to my mom’s bedside so that she could grab ahold of the bed and hoist herself up. She cradled my mom’s hand and said, “Oh, Sharon…” She shook her head slightly, and narrowed her eyes (more was communicated in those two words, and in how she said them, than what could have been said given an infinite amount of words). I imagined she was thinking something like, “not yet, damnit.” When grandma gets angry, grandma curses. And right now, grandma was angry. So close to her stroke, so close to Christmas, hasn’t this family endured enough this year? – But that’s when tragedy strikes, isn’t it? When you’re looking the other way.
In the time we spent at the hospital, there were a lot of things I didn’t understand. For instance, I don’t know why my dad didn’t just come to me and Carrie’s apartment instead of going back up to their house on the hillside, where my mom had collapsed… the scene of the incident. Of course he was welcome to stay at my apartment, Coltan and Kiana were already staying with us. The only thing that makes sense is, regardless of what happened there, that was his home, so that’s where he belonged.
Having never seen “A Christmas Story” all the way through, I don’t understand how I enjoyed watching it five times in a row while sitting in the waiting room at the Adult Critical Care unit. How could I be enjoying anything right now? Wasn’t I supposed to be grieving? – Maybe I was just exhausted.
I don’t know why I grabbed this big brown hand-me-down NIV Study Bible and brought it with me to the hospital. I walked into the room my mom was occupying, set the Bible down by the heater in the back of the room, and forgot about it. As the day went on, people came and visited – friends, family, co-workers, our pastor. It seemed like everyone my mom had ever met wanted to wish her back to health. Phones wouldn’t stop ringing. It was overwhelming. In all this, I had forgotten about that big brown book I had, for whatever reason, brought. It wasn’t until later, after the calls had stopped and everyone had left – when it was just me, Coltan, Kiana, my dad, Trina, and mom – did I walk to the heater and open the book to what I thought would be a random page. It happened to be Psalms and there was a passage, distinctly noticeable because it was highlighted. The passage was Psalms 3:5 and it said, “I lie down and sleep; I wake again, because the Lord sustains me.”
I almost kept it to myself, not wanting to instill any false hope. In the end, I decided to read it to them, if for no other reason than to point out how coincidental it was that I had turned to such a relevant verse. But no one needed hope because it was already there. Carrie told me: “I never thought she wouldn’t make it.” And though at the onset my dad said, “I thought she would live forever,” he stayed by her side every night, kissed her forehead with his coffee breath, and spoke to her as if it was just another day.
On December 29, she woke up, groggy and sedated, but still her. We knew she was okay because one of the first things she said was "smart ass," after I said something to the nurse, I forget what. The doctors had determined that she had an undiagnosed Elongated QT. As a result, she had suffered Atrial Fibrillation. So, on December 31st, she had a Defibrillator/Pacemaker implanted. And on January 1st, she was allowed to come back home. Our Christmas tree was still up and our decorations were still hung. It would have been a harsh reminder of what we missed because of what we had just gone through had my dad not suggested that we keep it all up and just have a late Christmas. So finally, on January 16, we opened presents and ate the meal that mom had been preparing on Christmas Eve.
There was a lot that happened in those nine days at the hospital. A lot that I’m now just starting to remember. We did a lot of crossword puzzles, we reminisced, we cried, we even laughed. My family spent a lot of time together, something we always seem to get too busy to do. There was something else too, a night that I almost forgot until Coltan reminded me: There was this song my mom used to sing to us when we were kids. It was about greed, a buried treasure, and a tin soldier. There were people who lived in a village and there were people who lived in a valley. The valley people were jealous of the villagers because of what they had and because of what the valley people did not have. It’s a short song with an anti-war sentiment. Other than it being from our childhood and the fact that our mom sang it to us, I’m not sure how relevant it was to her situation. However, we sang it nonetheless. I don’t remember who started it, but one night as me, Coltan, and Kiana were sitting with mom, we sang it to her as she had sung it to us when we were children.