Second chance at
An essay from ‘Second Blooming: Becoming the
Women We Are Meant to Be.’ By Susan Marquez
On August 29, 2008, I was happy. I was at peace. I knew that everyone I cared about was all right. My husband, Larry, was content at his job. Both of my children seemed to be on a good path. My younger child, Joseph, was settled in at his second college (so far) and seemed to like his classes. My older child, Nicole, was blissfully happy in New York City and finally on the brink of supporting herself financially.
She had moved there in January, with high hopes of performing on Broadway. It was slow going at first, and we subsidized her rent more often than not. But she was determined to make it on her own, earning her Pilates teaching certification and a job at a fitness center and, with that, the income she needed to be independent.
I was getting used to being an “empty-nester,” and really enjoying it. It’s as though I was finished with one thing and ready to start the next. I had been so busy raising children and having a career and running our home for the past 25 years that I had not taken the time to dream of what my own future may hold. What did I want to do with my life? How did I see life for Larry and me going forward? What were the things that most interested me? How could I incorporate those things into my life? Just thinking about it all energized me. I was excited about the life ahead of me.
One evening, Larry came home from work early and we enjoyed a rare night out. We went to hear a French-inspired jazz group perform at a coffee shop/bar not far from our home. While there, we ran into friends, and I felt content that we lived in a place where people knew us. I loved the familiarity of being surrounded by people I recognized but didn’t necessarily know. They were the same people I saw in the grocery store, the dry cleaners, and at events in our community. I also loved knowing that, in a crowded room, there were several people we did know — from our kids’ school, dance classes, soccer, church, committees — people who knew us well enough to know our kids were out of the house and that we were enjoying a night out.
We even ran into friends of Nicole’s. Friends who had transcended college days and remained friends now that they all had jobs. Her friend Danny asked how she was doing in New York.
“She’s too busy now to call me, I suppose,” he said with a sigh.
That wouldn’t do for me. I always stressed the importance of true friends to Nicole, and the importance of making the effort to reach out and stay in touch. I dialed Nicole’s number, ready to hand the phone over to Danny when she answered. But she didn’t. Instead, I got her voice mail.
When we returned home late that evening, I called again. No answer. I tried not to let my mind wander. I refused to let myself worry about her. “She’s an adult, living her life. She’ll tell me all about it in the morning,” I told myself. I prayed the prayer I prayed each night since Nicole spent a semester abroad in France. “Lord, wherever she is, whatever she is doing, please take care of her.”
The morning came, and Larry went to work while I busied myself cleaning the house. It was a sunny Saturday, and I made reservations to eat at a new restaurant that evening to celebrate Larry’s birthday. Two nights out in a row! All day I had a wonderful feeling that my life was finally my own. My job raising my children was done. They were pursuing their dreams and now it was time for me to follow mine.
When the phone rang about 1:30 p.m., those thoughts ceased. My world came to a complete stop. All the dreams of an exciting life ahead were pulled out from under me. Just getting through the next moment seemed impossible. I went from happy to hell in 30 seconds flat.
What was I supposed to do? Who was I supposed to call? I was not prepared for this. Who really is? There is no instruction manual for what to do when you find out your daughter has fallen from the roof of her apartment building, that she was alive the last time the detective spoke with someone in the emergency room, but that’s all he could tell me.
The next few hours were a blur. Call the emergency room at Harlem Hospital. What do you mean you don’t have a Nicole Marquez? Is this a sick joke? Call Larry at work. Call the emergency room again. Maybe I should call her roommates. I don’t know their telephone numbers, let alone their last names. I had asked Nicole numerous times to give me that information, just in case. Talk to a doctor who asks if she has any distinguishing marks. Do a mental body scan to try to recall birthmarks. Stop on her wrist, where a tattoo of a star the size of a quarter is permanently inked. The tattoo that made me so mad and sad when I discovered its presence. Tell the doctor about the tattoo. Which wrist, he asks. Is he serious? I don’t know. I had tried to forget the damn thing was there.
As I waited for Larry to come home, I stood in Nicole’s room, trying to remember when all was right with the world. A picture frame on her dresser caught my eye. It was a picture of me holding Nicole as a newborn. I was the age she was that day, 25. I hadn’t been around many newborns in my life, so having one of my own was a bit overwhelming. The day we were released from the hospital after she was born, Nicole’s godmother, Carol, was with me. She still laughs at the look of panic on my face.
“I can’t go home yet,” I whined to the nurse. “I have no idea how to take care of her. I don’t even know what to feed her!”
Larry and I didn’t put her in a car seat on the way home. We didn’t own one. That wasn’t a requirement in 1983. I sat in the back seat, holding my little bundle, and I knew in that moment my world would never be the same. At home, we marveled at how tiny she was, and how beautiful. To know that she was totally dependent on us for everything was intimidating, but at the same time, it helped to create a bond so strong that I felt it deep within my heart. I’ll always be here for you, little one.
It’s a rare thing when space and time are obliterated, when the world as we knew it turns upside down and inside out and nothing is or will ever be the same again. Time stands still. Don’t think about the future; you might not like what you see. Don’t focus too much on the past, because it no longer exists. Be here, now. But where is here? This place where love and hope and complacency are being sucked out of my soul. It’s a surreal time when a tragedy occurs, when the loss of what was and what used to be floods our being and there is absolutely nothing we can do. I try, but I can’t even pray.
My arrival in New York was 32 hours after the first phone call from the detective. It was 8:30 p.m., and Larry, who had flown out five hours after me(I got the last seat on the early flight), had been in New York for a few hours already. My trip had not been so easy. A long layover in Baltimore. Confusion with the car service at the airport. An idiot driver who drove around the city with no idea where the hospital was but thought it would be a good idea for us to pull over and pray together.
Larry and I finally met in the lobby of New York Presbyterian Hospital. Nicole had been transferred there from Harlem Hospital, the level one trauma center closest to her apartment. She was upstairs in the Neuro ICU, where nurses were inserting a port in her chest for intravenous medications.
A flurry of activity continued for the next few hours. At 4 a.m. we were introduced to a young neurosurgeon in the hallway. Dr. Angevine looked like he was about 19 years old. He was very serious and spoke confidently about the procedure to stabilize Nicole’s neck, including the possibility that her voice may never sound the same again, and her neck would most likely not have much mobility. As we signed the release forms, Dr. Angevine asked if we had any questions.
All Larry could muster was, “Are you any good?” Larry asked. The doctor allowed a half smile across his lips. “Yeah, I’m pretty good.”
Nicole was scheduled for surgery at 6:00 a.m. By the time Dr. Angevine left to go rest for a while, the Neuro ICU had quieted down a bit. Lights had been dimmed and the only noise was that of the ventilator and heart monitor. Soft beeps in the darkened room meant our daughter’s heart was still beating.
Despite falling six stories, Nicole looked amazingly beautiful. Her face was unscathed, and I noticed that her eyebrows had been waxed recently. She was still wearing mascara from the audition she had been to before she got home and realized she didn’t have her keys. We learned later that she had gotten locked out and tried calling her roommate, but got no answer, so she decided to go to the roof, a place where she and her roommates sunbathed and studied their lines. Somehow, she fell off the roof of the building. The how didn’t matter. Knowing what happened wouldn’t change the outcome. Nicole lay in the filthy airshaft of the building for eight hours before the building’s superintendent discovered her Saturday morning.
Several vertebrae in Nicole’s neck were crushed, as was a vertebrae in her lower back. Her pelvis was broken, and she had broken several ribs on the left side. One of the ribs punctured her lung, which collapsed. It turns out that was her most life-threatening injury. For now, all I could see from the fall was some bruising and scratches along her left arm. She had dirt between her fingers and under her fingernails.
I asked for washcloths and I cleaned her face, arms and hands. I took my time and recalled the first time I gave her a bath when she was a baby. I had gently undressed her and placed her on a towel on our bed, where I cleaned each arm and leg, wiping her gently and marveling at how beautiful her baby skin was. It was dark olive, which she got from Larry. She also had pink cheeks and dark eyes that looked like polished coal.
Here we were, 25 years later, and I was bathing her once again. She was once again dependent on others for everything. Her skin was still beautiful, and as I bathed her, her eyes fluttered open. Long lashes framed coal black eyes that looked at me trustingly, lovingly. Nicole knew she was in the hospital, and she knew I was there, caressing her and soothing her. Some things never change.
Over the next few months we gradually adapted to our new normal as we went from an intensive care unit to a step-down hospital in Jackson, Miss., and finally on to the Mississippi Methodist Rehabilitation Center. In the beginning, no one could predict the outcome. The original goal was simply to keep Nicole alive. Next was to stabilize her neck, then her lower back, requiring surgeries to prevent further injury. It took time for her to recover from her injuries and from the surgeries so that she could begin to heal. The next goal was rehabilitation. We all mentally prepared for the possibility she might spend her life in a wheelchair. We prayed for complete mobility. The prayers worked, because on January 21, 2009, Nicole walked out of rehab.
Probably the hardest transition was coming home. Nicole went away to college when she was 19 and only visited home when she had to. It’s not that she hated home, but she was so excited about exploring the world. She’d had six years of freedom, starting with her college days and the semester she spent studying abroad in France, then on to acting apprenticeships at the Berkshire Summer Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, Mass., and The Actors Theatre in Louisville, Ky. She’d moved home for a few months and worked to save enough money to relocate to New York in 2007.
Being home again, in the room where she spent her teenage years, was difficult for Nicole. Having her there, and having the responsibility of tending to her every need, was difficult for me as well. It was like having a newborn all over again, but this one weighed 100 pounds and could talk. I still had to bathe her, brush her teeth, fix her hair and help her get dressed.
Her spinal cord injuries temporarily affected all of her bodily functions, which meant I also had to change diapers once again. And just as when she was a newborn, I was often overcome with strong emotions, amazed at the miracle of life. It was a miracle to me that she was born 25 years earlier. It was certainly a miracle that she was alive now.
Just as when she was a newborn, I had to hurry to bathe and dress myself each morning, plan my day around her schedule, nap when I got a chance, and be prepared to drop what I was doing to tend to her needs.
At first I couldn’t leave her at home alone, so I was limited on where I could go and when. I depended on Larry to pick up groceries on his way home. My life and my time were not my own. I struggled to be positive. My mind tried to wander to some dark places. On the one hand, I was angry at Nicole for pulling such a stupid stunt. What the hell was she thinking? Who goes to the roof of a building late at night to try to go down a fire escape? On the other hand, I was deeply grateful that she had not only survived but was doing so well.
I had been warned that traumatic events such as this can have a devastating affect on a marriage. Larry and I had been married for 28 years and one week at the time of Nicole’s accident.
To this day, Larry is the nicest person I’ve ever known. We met in college and married the next year. He left his family in Venezuela to make a life with me in Mississippi. He has strong family values and loves his children with every fiber of his being. Nicole’s accident was hard on Larry, especially since he was privy to the difficult details concerning her condition in the hospital. He purposely shielded me from learning how critical her condition was because he wanted me to be as positive and upbeat as possible for Nicole. We clung to each other for support, and our love for each other grew even stronger. I don’t know how I would have managed without him.
As she grew stronger, Nicole needed me less and less. She felt aneed to be independent again. Her struggle wasn’t always easy, but it wasn’t easy for me either. Although my life had been disrupted in the most unsettling way when she fell, I had also been given a gift of sorts.
When Nicole moved to New York, I accepted that we might see her once or twice a year. It was our hope that we’d visit Nicole in New York and celebrate her performances on Broadway. Or perhaps she’d fly home for Christmas each year. But after spending all day, every day with her for a couple of years after her accident, helping her with almost everything she did, being by her side every step of the way, cheering her on as she regained more independence, I had a hard time letting go.
I essentially watched her rebirth as she came out of the darkness of a terrible accident that left her critically ill with traumatic injuries. I supported and encouraged her as she fought to regain the use of her body, secretly aching inside, mourning the girl who used to run, skip, jump, climb, swing, twirl, and dance.
It hurt to watch her painstakingly squeeze a strip of toothpaste onto her toothbrush. It hurt to watch her struggle to put on a shirt or a pair of pants. It hurt to have to help her with a zipper or buttons. It hurt to have to help her go to the bathroom because she couldn’t do it by herself. It hurt. Every day.
I ran out of patience often. I would fix her hair, only to have her disapprove of the job I did. So I would fix her hair again, even though I thought it looked fine the first time. I lost patience when I’d help her get dressed and then she’d want to change clothes. I lost patience when we were headed out the door, and she’d have to go back and use the bathroom. I had to remind myself over and over again that I could be putting flowers on her grave instead of tying her shoes for the fourth time today.
Nicole has moved on now. She has found love with a patient man who is amazed by her story and her determination. She has become a successful motivational speaker and travels the country sharing her message of perseverance and hope. And as she has become more independent, she has put more space between us, which makes me sad.
I can’t help worrying about her because, when I didn’t, she fell six stories off the roof of her apartment building. But I am learning to let go. While Nicole was recovering and going through rehabilitation, our son found his way as well. He changed colleges a couple of times before landing at Millsaps College in Jackson where he flourished. He graduated in May 2015 and moved to Arizona for a corporate job that he loves. My husband and I had an empty nest once again. And once again, I found myself in a position of defining my dreams.
While I didn’t fall off the building, I did go through a trauma. I had to live through the fear, learn to let go and handle what happens on any given day. I am certainly stronger now. I have learned many lessons that I feel make me a better person. I know I can walk through hell and survive. I know I can be angry with God and he won’t turn his back on me. I know I can be frustrated with Nicole and still love her with all my heart. I live in the present more than I ever have, and I’m actually more comfortable doing that. I don’t dwell on the “what ifs” in life. It doesn’t matter. All I have is the “what is.”
Through posting on Caring Bridge, a personal health journal that rallies friends and family through any kind of health issues, I rediscovered my love of writing. Although I had been a professional freelance writer since 2001, writing about Nicole’s journey each day was a soul-soothing exercise in hope and faith. I felt connected to the journal’s readers through their guest-book entries.
After 18 months of chronicling Nicole’s amazing recovery and rehabilitation every day, I stopped posting on Caring Bridge and began a blog. I still marvel at Nicole’s accomplishments in my writing, but I also post about subjects that are interesting to me in my own life journey.
I am working on a book-length memoir about Nicole’s ordeal from my viewpoint, sharing lessons I’ve learned. To help me with that, I’ve attended numerous workshops and seminars on creative nonfiction, book publishing and marketing. Along the way I’ve met other writers who have become my “writing tribe,” folks who understand the process and who support me and the others in our tribe in a way that makes my heart soar.
I have grown more confident in my skills as a writer and have found opportunities to help others, including editing eight books and doing publicity for other authors.
I spend time with Nicole, occasionally assisting her on trips to do speaking engagements. She has become a sought-after motivational speaker, and I have helped her develop that career using my skills as a marketer and public relations professional. It is a wonderful feeling for me to see her on a stage in front of a live audience, sharing her story of perseverance and hope nationwide. She lives independently and has a fulfilling and happy life.
So let’s try this again. I am happy. I am at peace. I know that everyone I care about is all right. My nest is empty, and my life is full!
Reprinted by permission of Mercer University Press, excerpted from “A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We are Meant to Be ,” edited by Susan Cushman, (2017)
ABOUT THE STORY
Becoming one’s true self is the life-long process at the heart of “A Second Blooming,” an anthology of work by women who know a thing or two about the topic. Anne Lamott, Natasha Trethewey, Jessica Handler and Cassandra King are among the contributors, along with Susan Marquez, whose harrowing essay about an empty nest filled up again by her critically injured daughter is today’s Personal Journey.
Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
ABOUT THE WRITER
Susan Marquez is a freelance writer for magazines, newspapers, business journals and trade publications. She is currently working on a memoir about her experience following her daughter’s injury. She previously spent 21 years in the advertising and marketing industry. To read more about Nicole’s accident, visit www.caringbridge.org/visit/nicolemarquez or www.nicole-marquez.com. Susan’s blogs can be found at www.susanmarquez.blogspot.com and www.thewordblender.blogspot.com.