Her map has her grandparents at the center

True tales from everyday living

Real life

April 09, 2006|By MICHELLE DEAL ZIMMERMAN | MICHELLE DEAL ZIMMERMAN,SUN REPORTER

The phone call came at 5 a.m. We were asleep. I don't come from a family of early risers, so a call at this time of the morning could not be good news.

It wasn't.

"There was a fire," my sister told my husband, screaming so loudly that I could hear her from the bed. "Grandma and Pop at Good Sam. Very bad." Then she hung up.

I was sobbing before my feet touched the floor.

I called my brother. To my surprise, he wasn't awake. He had recently changed his cell phone number. I called on the land line -- the old-fashioned way that my younger sibling wouldn't think of. He didn't stay on the phone. My brother lives in Florida, just a few miles from my grandparents.

My grandparents had raised me since I was 8 years old, after my parents split up. Grandma and Pop were inseparable, and they made me part of their glue.

They are both musicians. My grandmother sings, and my grandfather plays the piano -- you pick the tune and he'll know it -- like nobody's business. That's how they met. I grew up in a house filled with the beautiful music they made together.

I call them a couple times each week. Visit several times a year. We are close in spirit, although a thousand miles apart in geography.

For many years, they were the center of my world. Eventually, they taught me to find my own way.

And I did. Leaving small-town Florida for the big city of Baltimore was the direction I chose. They were happy for me.

I had just spoken with my grandmother the night before the fire. She sounded tired and complained of a pressure in her chest. I encouraged her to get some rest and see the doctor soon; or if matters did not improve shortly, go to the emergency room. She told me not to worry.

And I didn't. Until the phone rang.

I thought I had prepared myself for this call. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I've considered getting the worst sort of news about Grandma and Pop. Perhaps news of a heart attack or a stroke -- the kinds of maladies that strike down even the most spry 80-year-olds.

My grandfather had a stroke a little over a year ago. It was my grandmother who called to tell me not to worry. Not to come home. Everything was fine. I didn't go.

This time, I didn't want to go.

My husband, Todd, has a cool head. He immediately began calling the authorities -- those in the best position to know what happened. The fire department. The police. The hospital. He finally reached an emergency room doctor who knew something. But what she knew I did not want to hear.

They were resuscitated at the scene, she said. And although they were not badly burned, they had inhaled plenty of smoke -- carbon monoxide and other toxins -- and were unconscious. "Don't go 80 mph on I-95 and get yourself killed, but come soon. They've been through a lot and at their age, it's tough."

My husband made the plane reservations. We were out of the house in under an hour. I wept the entire flight, convinced that I would arrive home too late to say goodbye.

My sister-in-law rushed us from the airport to the emergency room. A nurse led us into an exam area. I did not recognize Pop lying so still, dwarfed by machines and tubes that were keeping him alive. In the next area, several doctors surrounded a small figure on a table. I was told that my grandmother was being prepped for the hyperbaric chamber. I did not get to see her until much later.

As the hours leaked into days and days into a week, my grandparents clung to life with a fierceness usually possessed only by the very young. Then they woke up -- Pop first, Grandma a couple days later. The tubes came out. They breathed on their own. The doctors could not contain their surprise. We could not contain our joy.

We were warned that they may never be the same again. Already, Pop is showing signs of dementia brought on by the smoke and a lack of oxygen. We don't know whether he will remember how to play the piano. My grandmother has lost more than 25 pounds -- weight she could scarcely afford to do without. Her voice is scratchy and rough. She won't be singing anytime soon.

Still they are together. Inseparable in their wheelchairs.

I've returned to Florida to do what I can to help them recover. So once again, they are the center of my world.

...................... michelle.deal@baltsun.com

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