One night, when my sister and I were still living at home and going to university, my Dad got up to go to the bathroom. While he was in there, he bent over in the darkness and whacked his eye on one of the uprights of a clothes horse my mother had set up in the tub.
This came as a huge shock to him and he staggered back to bed, feeling dizzy and weak. He managed to mutter, “My eye…” to my mother, waking her up, before passing out and going into convulsions.
We’ve already demonstrated that waking my mother out of a sound sleep leads to nothing good and this was no exception.
For some reason, Mum’s first response to a middle of the night crisis was always to fling on the light, thereby blinding everyone in the room. This always added another layer of horror to our run-ins with nightmares. When we lived in Detroit, one or other of us would start the screaming and, because the sound of a blood-curdling scream when you’ve been sleeping soundly and dreaming of puppies is pretty terrifying, the rest of us would just as likely join in. Then we would hear the thump of my parents’ feet hitting the floor and another, louder crash as my mother invariably headed the wrong way and crashed into the wall. Eventually they would move down the hall, my mother shouting “Who is it? Who is it?” And we would disavow all knowledge. “It wasn’t me!” we’d shout, hoping to forestall the lights going on.
On this night, in Windsor, Mum threw on the light to a nightmare of her own. Her husband lying beside her, grey and twitching, his eyes rolled back in his head.
Her screams were the first inkling that the rest of us had that anything was wrong.
“OH GOD CLIFF!!!! CLIIIIIIIIIIFFFFF!!!!!” she screamed.
Chris and I scrambled from under many layers of blankets and out into the hall.
Chris was that bit faster than me and beat me down the stairs. She ran into Mum and Dad’s room and immediately exited to deliver an impressive roundhouse kick to her then-fiancé’s bedroom door. “There’s something wrong with Dad. You have to get up. NOW” she shouted at him.
Having thoroughly frightened her fiancé, Chris assessed the situation and realized that an ambulance was called for. This was before the days of 911 service and, as an added wrinkle, the telephone operators were on strike.
“Look up the number for the ambulance!” she shouted at me. I dove for the phone book.
At this point, my Dad started to come round and headed back to the bathroom, immediately passing out on floor. My mother leaped to assist and also passed out.
I flipped madly through the book, the pages sticking to my sweaty, trembling fingers, unable to remember how to spell ‘ambulance’.
“Give me that!” muttered Chris, grabbing the book out of my hands and dialing the correct number.
“WE NEED AN AMBULANCE!!!!!” she shouted at the person on the other end, somehow managing to give the correct address before assisting her fiancé in carrying my Dad back to bed.
I ran to put on the porch light and unlock the door.
When I returned to the bedroom, Dad was in bed and my mother was still on the floor with my sister straddling her to keep her down. Hearing my report that the ambulance wasn’t there yet, she sat up, at which point Chris put her hand on her forehead and pushed her back to the floor.
The next little while is all a bit hazy. There wasn’t much I could do to help the patient or his wife. So I paced, checked for the ambulance and sat on the stairs with my hands over my mouth, trying not to cry or scream.
None of us knew what had precipitated Dad’s convulsions and he would have been at the time, roughly the age that I am now, which seemed ancient to my late-teen self so, of course I assumed he was dying.
Eventually, the ambulance crew arrived. Chris got off my mother and Dad was assessed and put on a stretcher.
“Hey, pal,” said the attendant, pulling out her stethoscope and preparing to have a listen. “Having a rough night?” She has no idea how close she came to having way more patients that night. No one, ever, called my father “Pal”.
By this point, Dad was coming out of the fog and able to explain what had happened. It was deemed advisable to take him in anyway so he was bundled off, looking sheepish and annoyed. My sister and her fiancé went with Dad to the hospital, my Mother feeling far too shaky to make the trip.
“You stay with Mum,” Chris said. “Don’t let her faint.”
Once everyone had gone, Mum and I sat at the kitchen table. I made tea while she smoked cigarette after cigarette. “This is how it’s going to be,” she said. “From now on it’ll be one emergency after another. I’m so glad I’ve got you to rely on.” I eyed the pack of smokes on the table, wondering if she would let me have one…
The next morning at breakfast, we were recapping the evening, my father feeling annoyed and telling us that we had totally overreacted and we trying to convey just how frightening it is to watch someone who has never done this before have convulsions.
In the middle of the conversation, my sister gave a yelp. “Do you remember what we were wearing when the ambulance showed up????” she said to me.
I thought for a minute.
The upstairs of our house was really, really cold. Like ice on the inside of the windows cold. So, after a late night of studying, we’d bundle up to go to bed. I had been in a flannel gingham nightgown, hockey sweater and couple of pairs of heavy socks. And Chris? Had been wearing her goofiest pair of giraffe print pajamas.
We all quickly agreed that the middle of the night emergencies should not be a regular thing. And we were never allowed to speak of that night in front of my Dad again.