My 13th birthday was on Sunday, July 18, 1965. We three sisters usually had separate parties with our friends and our family. Six-year-old Jan celebrated her birthday in March, while three-year-old Michele and I celebrated together with our family since she was born just four days before my 10th birthday.
This birthday was different. Mom (also known as Lois) was undergoing a hysterectomy the following day. Mom had had three very difficult pregnancies and we three sisters were lucky to be here. Nine days after Michele’s birth, Mom started hemorrhaging at home and had to be taken by ambulance to the hospital for an emergency D&C. The fact that she had a bleeding disorder made the hysterectomy a necessity and a worry at the same time. Would she recover okay or have complications?
Mom’s hysterectomy went well and she was released from the hospital a few days later. Grandma Wessling, her mother, traveled from Des Moines to our home in the Chicago suburbs to help us out during Mom’s hospitalization and early recovery days.
In the meantime, I was preparing to attend a weeklong United Church of Christ camp at Tower Hill, adjacent to the beautiful Warren Dunes State Park near Sawyer, Michigan. I was excited to go with my close junior high friend, Jill. We had an exhaustive list of things to bring. Since Mom was unavailable, Dad had to take me shopping, a disagreeable task for him.
In the late afternoon of August 3, I heard my mom cry out, “Art,” from her bedroom. I saw blood on her sheets and raced to find Grandma and Dad. Mom was hemorrhaging. Dad called an ambulance. Our family and the neighbors watched Mom being wheeled on a stretcher outside of our house. Dad followed the ambulance by car.
Meanwhile, Grandma and I brought the sheets downstairs to wash the stains out. Grandma was a calming and reassuring presence as we carried out this necessary task.
The two of us took care of my sisters’ basic needs and reassured them that Mom would be fine and Dad would be home soon. The next day Mom had emergency surgery because her abdominal organs were paralyzed. Her gynecologist performed a laparotomy, which he had only performed twice before, and was taking a chance that the surgery would be a success.
Mom reported later that, during the surgery, she floated above her own body in the operating room for several minutes. She felt completely at peace as she watched the surgeons trying to repair her body.
Mom eventually returned to her body and began her recuperation at the hospital. My other grandmother, Grandma Henrikson, worked full-time and paid for a private nurse to stay with Mom in her room around the clock.
I continued to prepare for my week at camp, although I was fearful about Mom’s recovery and was reluctant to leave my family behind. I was grateful that Grandma Wessling was there to help Dad.
On the morning of August 8, I was packed and ready to put my luggage in the trunk so that Dad could drive me to Jill’s house. Her parents would drive us to the eastern shores of Lake Michigan and our camp.
The telephone rang. Dad answered the phone. It was Elmhurst Hospital. Mom’s organs were not functioning at all. The doctor gave her 24 hours to live. She would survive if her organs resumed normal functioning within that time frame. Otherwise, she would die.
What horrifying news! I was extremely reluctant about going to camp now. What if Mom died while I was at camp? How could I leave the family at a time like this? Who would take care of my sisters while Dad was at the hospital? Grandma had overstayed her planned visit by several weeks. I was ready to cancel my trip when Dad urged me to keep my plans. I still was torn and wondered how I could have fun under these dire circumstances.
Dad came up with a plan. If I did not hear from him after the 24 hours was up, that meant that Mom survived. On the other hand, if Mom did not survive, he would call me at Tower Hill. I put on a brave face and posed for a Polaroid photo on the back porch before Dad drove me to Jill’s house. I decided that I would not mention Mom’s precarious fate to anybody, not even Jill.
We arrived at camp, settled in and became acquainted with our new campmates. We ate in the mess hall and had vespers afterwards. All the while I was frantic inside about Mom. What was happening?
The next morning our camp counselor called out to me and said, “Diane, you have a telephone call.” My heart sank as I trudged to the telephone in the camp office. I knew the call meant only one thing: Mom had died. Dad and I would have to figure out how we would raise my two younger sisters.
As I solemnly said, “Hello,” Dad’s cheery voice boomed on the other end. “Mom is okay. She survived!” I was so shocked and relieved that I could not believe that I was hearing such wonderful news. I thanked him for the call and remained in a happy state of shock for a while. Only then did I mention to the camp counselor that Mom almost had died and I had been scared. The camp counselor hugged me and then reprimanded me for not sharing my concerns when I first arrived. I could not stop smiling from ear to ear for the rest of that day.
I enjoyed the rest of my week at camp with the knowledge that I still would have a mom when I returned home. Dad and I would not have to raise my sisters without Mom after all.
Dad decided to drive the three-hour journey to Sawyer, Michigan to pick me up when camp was over so we could talk about Mom on the way home. (Jill’s mom picked her up separately. By then, Dad shared the situation with her.)
It turns out that the machine that was supposed to make sure that Mom’s organs were functioning was plugged into a non-functioning outlet! It was the private nurse who discovered this life-threatening mistake and immediately told the hospital staff. As a result, Mom was given the gift of life for the next 40 years. Instead of dying prematurely at age 43, she lived to be 83 and saw her daughters and granddaughters grow up.
Ironically, another Lois, the mom of a church friend, died of a stroke while I was at Tower Hill. Another family would have to go through what I dreaded would happen to us.
It was not our Lois’ time. Not our Lois, thank God. Not our Lois.
Diane Henrikson Russell joined OLLI in 2014. She has taken over 70 OLLI courses on leadership, radio, life story writing, Tai Chi, healthy aging, literature, science, politics, sociology, and humanities. Diane volunteers as a proofreader for the OLLI catalog and for OLLI Connects. Diane has been Co-chair of the Volunteer Management Committee since 2019.