My mother is now home and recovering well.
A few months ago, in an interview published here, a friend asked me about my worst day on the road. At the time, I had been blessed with relative safety, and my hardships had been limited to sweltering days on the Kazakh steppe and roadside gastrointestinal catastrophes.
This past week changed that, changed me, and now I have my answer.
My worst day on the road began at 4 pm on Saturday, October 1st, 2016.
My mother and I ate lunch around 3 in a sleepy town at the head of a gorge. She had volunteered for two weeks in clinics at the refugee camps on Lesbos, and was joining me for a section of road stretching north through the southern Balkans. We’d spent the previous day climbing more than 1000 meters through the coast range of Montenegro, and were excited to descend through the steep, narrow gorge that would take us to the border of Herzegovina.
We hit the road again, and soon arrived at the first of the gorge’s 40-odd tunnels. Tunnels in Montenegro are dark and narrow affairs, and we stopped to throw on our high-powered lights before plunging into the darkness.
200 meters into the second tunnel, I heard my mother call out behind me and then the metallic smack of a bike on pavement. I stopped and yelled back to check that she was okay. It was dark, and her lights appeared faint next to the light of the tunnel’s mouth.
I yelled again, and then I was running with my light in hand, and she was lying slumped on her side in the dark road, unmoving but for these deep, gasping, automated breaths.
Years-distant First Responder training told me to knuckle her sternum and try to rouse her. Nothing but those same ragged breaths. I pulled her lids up to check her pupils. Pinpoints in the half-light. The rush of a car echoed to a roar. Lights appeared around the bend in the opposite lane. I waved them down, signaled to call help, and they drove to the end of the tunnel. Then a car came from behind, in our lane. Its hazards flashed and it slowed to a stop. A woman climbed out, tried a Slavic tongue and then English, and they pulled a little ways up the road to signal approaching cars.
I crouched by my mom in the glow of headlights. A flood of adrenaline rose in me and swept whole minutes away, with me talking and talking to her unconscious there on the pavement.
A breath becomes a groan and she tries to push her weight off her shoulder. Try to stay still, your name? Lauren. My name? Forrest. President? Bush. Obama. What day is it? I don’t know. Where are you? Silence. I don’t know.
Minutes pass, and I keep talking, telling her what we’re doing, not to move, that the ambulance is coming soon. The police arrive. Mom asks where we are, how we got there. I’m vague, hoping to test her memory later.
Then we’re in an ambulance and the bikes will be at the police station. In the first town, a man in a faded leather jacket takes a look at us, speaks with the police, and sends us on to the next town. Mom asks where we are, how we got there. I give her the same answer. Five minutes later, she asks again. Two minutes later, again. She has a look now like she’s retracing her steps through a wood and her path is too long in appearing, and she knows each moment with more certainty that she is lost.
In scraps, among the flashing shadows and in the waning mountain light, she remembers. She worked with children on an island. Is Maia okay? The boat where she slept, the cliffs in Greece. There were potatoes at lunch.
We’re in and out of a hospital. Mom has lost two weeks but not her medical training, and she’s directing her care, asking for a scan of her spine. She’s remembering more, and most of her sentences are full, if halting. But she’s having trouble walking, and in the taxi to the hotel, she vomits, and I decide we need to make the trip to the capital. She sleeps.
We check into a hotel near the capital hospital. Mom’s still having trouble balancing on her own. Her left pupil is more sluggish than her right, and she says part of her face feels numb, and that scares me enough to override her desire to sleep, and take her in.
We spend all night there, waiting on an x-ray of mom’s shoulder and the CT scan that will tell us if there’s any bleeding within her skull. Around 3, they give her a sling for her collarbone, which is broken. I talk with my father at one point, but mostly I sit next to her while she dozes in her chair. Sleep is thick in the air, and doctors and patients alike seem to jolt from room to room on the directionless track of a dream. I lose myself there in a post-adrenaline haze.
Then, in an instant, I’m back. Two strangers stand in the doorway. They don’t seek the hospital staff, but turn immediately to their left and walk down a darkened hallway. They have the same, set manner about them, wide wide awake but with their eyes distant, moving ahead of them down the corridor to something they must soon see.
It only takes another pair with that identical expression, who also turn blindly to their left, to make me sure of what’s happened. For the next hour, as the dreamers sit dazed and my mom sleeps beside me, the survivors filter through and down the hall.
At five, the neurologist, a short, balding man in jeans and a button-down shirt, calls us in to say that the brain scan is clear and that he’s willing to let us go home.
A taxi is waiting, and as we pass into the early morning silence, we walk by men and women of all ages. There are thirty of them, individuals and small groups scattered across the drive. They droop, weary for now beyond their own endurance, alone in their thoughts. The last of them, on her own on the dark periphery, is a girl in her late teens, who is sobbing quietly. I wonder who it is that is missing, where among them is the sudden empty space. My mother is already asleep in the seat beside me.
It feels like a month at least since we were cycling north through the mountains of Montenegro. Over the week of trains and buses that it took us to get north to Copenhagen, my mother has returned slowly to herself. She still gets tired and struggles to remember certain images and names, but she’s alive and recovering, and that’s all I can ask.
This little catastrophe has taken me far from my intended route, and it’s clear at this point that Europe is beyond my budget. So it’s time to move on south and prepare for COP22, the UN climate conference that is being held this year in Marrakesh, Morocco.
There, I’ll be contributing to The Verb, a newswire service run by young climate and sustainability professionals, “bringing their technical expertise of environmental issues into the media and communications space.” I’m absolutely over the moon to be a part of this community, and excited for the challenges that this work will bring.
Morocco is one of 5 countries in the world that climateactiontracker.org ranks as taking “sufficient” action to reduce its carbon emissions. Hopefully showing up early will give me the chance to see some of these changes in person and get a sense of what’s happening there.
Keep an eye out here for updates from my travels through southern Europe, as well as my work at the Marrakesh conference, and for any of you that know her, please do send your well-wishes to my mother.