Bedside Vigil…

       Life is constantly throwing you curve balls. Sometimes it can be serendipitous, wonderful surprises, and other times… well…
       Last Saturday I received a call as I was getting dressed to head to an awards banquet, where BRUISER was being honored. It was my father. Right away, I could hear in my father’s voice that something was wrong. I could hear the drone of an ambulance siren in the background. My mother had had a stroke. No warning. One moment she was fine, the next she was slumped, unable to speak and unable to move her left side.
       I remember pacing around my bedroom like a chicken without a head, trying to finish getting dressed, but ending up with one sock on one sock off, unable to think clearly enough to figure out what to do next. I had my daughters with me – do I take them to Las Vegas, where my parents live. Do I drive? No, it would take too long. Do I fly? How soon can I get to the airport? And how do I let them know at the Awards ceremony that I’ll be a no-show?  And how could I be worrying about such a thing when I didn’t even know if my mother was alive or dead. When you get such crushing news, it takes a while until your brain absorbs it and realizes just how crushing it is.
       Ultimately I asked my friend, Eric Elfman go to the ceremony in my place, and hopped with my son Jarrod on the next Jet Blue flight out of Long Beach to Las Vegas, and was at the hospital within a couple of hours.
       The situation was grave. The doctor’s said they were surprised she was even alive – but my mom’s a fighter. They operated to relieve the pressure in her head and to stop the internal bleeding. Then she was in a medically induced coma for three days, to let her brain start to heal. According to the doctors, the kind of stroke she had – a “wet stroke” is most dangerous during the first few hours – but if you survive the initial stroke, your prospects for recovery are much better than that for a “dry stroke” (which is the kind where the brain doesn’t bleed).
       By the fifth day she was awake and alert, but couldn’t even attempt to speak, because of the breathing tube. Each day my father and I would sit by her bedside from early morning until the evening. Each day I had come with all the writing, and rewriting I need to do, figuring I could work by her side when she was asleep, but all I could do was stare blankly at the computer, and the pages unable to do a thing. How can you focus on fiction when real life is assaulting you so brutally, just holding it together takes a massive dose of will?
       So rather than sitting here in a stupor today, I decided to write about the reality, and not the fantasy that usually gushes unchecked from my head.
       Right now I sit near the window. It’s dark. Six in the evening. The nurse enters wearing electric-blue scrubs so bright it hurts the eyes. I had a car like that once. Dodge Durango. Loved that car.

electric blue durango

electric blue scrubs







My mom now communicates with me by gripping my hand. One grip for yes, two for no. Yesterday a doctor came in to tell us she wasn’t responsive, and her grips were random – that her mind wasn’t really working, so I said “Mom hold up two fingers.” And she did. Then I said “Mom what’s two plus two?” And she held up four fingers. I could tell she enjoyed showing the doctor he was moron. I’m actually surprised she didn’t give him one particular finger!

machine that goes "bing".

machine that goes "bing".

She plays with a cord leading to the heart monitor. The nurse says she’s just bored, and has nothing to do but play with the cord. My Mom is a busy lady, always doing something.  The boredom of lying in a bed with a tube down your throat, with nothing to do but play with a cord must be horrible.  I wish I could find a way for her to pass all this waiting time more easily.  Another nurse comes in, this one in a bright red Hawaiian shirt, and I try to figure out what’s up with the uniform code here? The new nurse is the respiratory specialist. There are more specialists here coming in and out on a regular basis than I can count. Respiratory, pulmonary, physical therapy, circulatory, neurology, lab technicians, and the guy who takes care of the machine that goes “bing.”

Looking at her in that bed, it’s hard to imagine that just a week ago she was perfectly alright, talking to me on the phone, giving me far too many details about a subject I can’t even remember. I was trying to work on the Unwind script, and I remember politely asking her to get to the point. And now we don’t even know if she’ll be able to speak after the stroke. How often do we take for granted the conversations we have with the people we love? What I would give now to hear her talk about anything for as long as she wanted to.

The care here seems to be very good, but to a layman it’s like being at the mechanic’s. “We need your consent to introduce a picc-line because the venal approaches are not as clear as the arterial blood-gas line, and she may need a new carburetor.”









By now, though, my dad and I are beginning to feel like experts in, at least the specifics of treatment for stroke victims. (The medication she was on, by the way, when she was in the induced coma, was propyphol – the same stuff that killed Michael Jackson. It’s powerful and dangerous stuff if not monitored 24/7 by professionals in a structured hospital setting. Conrad Murray should rot in jail.)

I hold my Mom’s hand now. I can tell she’s glad my Dad and I are here. She’s also frustrated, as we all are, that the pulmonologist won’t take out the breathing tube yet. Today we were told she’s developed pneumonia. From the breathing tube. Yet they can’t take it out, because she has pneumonia. It’s maddening.

It’s very difficult to be patient when you can’t be sure what the next moment is going to bring. When you’re not sure if the alarm going off is just a lose connection, or cardiac arrest. When you have to unplug your hard-line phone and turn off your cell at night, because you can’t sleep due to your terror of the “middle-of-the-night call” from the hospital.

Right now every day seems to be two steps forward, one step back, but all we can do is hope and pray that those forward steps will all begin to add up to recovery – and that when Thanksgiving rolls along, we will have something to be truly thankful for.

My mom


35 Responses to “Bedside Vigil…”

  1. Lori Sabo Says:

    Thanks for sharing this part of your life’s journey. Prayers for your mom, the fighter….who I will forever think of as showing the doctor that he was a moron. So glad you are by her bedside….advocate and beloved son.

  2. Melanie Jacobson Says:

    I’ve been where you are. And when my dad came out of the other side of it like your mom will, the thing that had mattered to him most was that 1. the nurses thought he was cute and called him their boyfriend and 2. that one of us was always there, even when he was so drugged we thought he couldn’t possibly tell. Good luck. It will be fine. Slow. But fine.

  3. nealshusterman Says:

    Update! The breathing tube came out this evening, and she’s sitting up. Two more steps forward!!

  4. Hope Says:

    This blog post was wonderfully written. Tell your mother to be strong! I hope you’re strong too. I have all your best wishes in my prayers.

  5. Stephany Says:

    I seriously have tears in my eyes right now. I feel so bad for you right now. Your mom does not deserve this and I honestly hope she pulls through all right. Please send her my well wishes. Though she doesn’t know me, well, neither do you really, You mean a great deal to me, so why should she be any different? PLease keep as updated as you know, and can. Obviously family comes first. ❤ P.S. I love the use of the pictures randomly in there for comparison. 🙂

  6. fishgirl182 Says:

    I am sorry to hear about your mother but she sounds like a fighter. my dad was recently in the hospital for over a month when he was supposed to be out in 2 weeks. I understand your frustration and worry. People always say it’s hard to be a parent but it’s hard to be someone’s child, too. Seeing a loved one ill is never easy. Glad you’re there with her though. Hospitals are never fun and I am sure she’s happy you’re there. I will be thinking positive thoughts for you and your family.

  7. Christy Handkins Evers Says:

    This is so touching and heartbreaking. You’re mom is a beautiful lady and it’ sounds like there is hope. Hang in there. I’ll be praying for your mom and the whole family.

  8. Lia Keyes Says:

    This must be a brutal shock to you all. I’m touched by your bravery and humor, but most of all I’m touched that you’re there for your mum and she knows it. Hospitals can feel like very impersonal places, and I personally hate that powerlessness of waiting and hoping. If your mother can hear and process, perhaps she’d like to hear a story to keep boredom at bay?

    I wish her a full and speedy recovery, and peace for you.

  9. Scott Gellerman Says:

    Wow! Excellent and very emotional blog. Thanks for sharing. And even MORE excellent with the “update” about her recovering enough to remove the tube! Really encouraging news. All your fans and friends are pulling for her.

  10. Saadia Organics Argan Oil Says:

    So sorry about your Mom, but I’m very glad to read your update! May she keep taking significant steps forward.

    And while I’m writing… I want to say thanks for doing what you do. My husband doesn’t read all that much anymore – but lately he’s been ignoring me as he’s so glued to _Unwind_. It’s *fantastic*. 🙂

    All the best to you and your family. j~

  11. Cari L. Sadler Says:

    Neal, Your details bring me back to my own, long hospital visits- sitting along side people I love, trying to entertain, trying to get passed the equipment and the feeling of hardness in the physical environment. Even with great care, it seems all hospitals have that feeling. I found it comforting to bring in my family members favorites. A favorite blanket of color, music, pleasant and easy-to-affix posters for the walls, a little room aromatherapy. Even for short stays, a few added touches made a difference. I hold you and your family in my thoughts and wish your Mom a very speedy recovery…

  12. Laurie Halse Anderson Says:

    Thanks for the update, Neal. You are being an amazing son (and father!). It’s OK to put the writing aside for awhile; it will be patiently waiting when you have the energy and focus for it.

    My mom liked having something really soft, like a baby blanket or stuffed animal, that she could touch when she was emerging from medical nightmares. It helped with her restlessness.

    You are all in our prayers.

  13. Craig Says:

    Hey Neal,

    Hang in there! You and your mom are being thought of in Nor Cal !

  14. Ira Steinberg Says:

    Neal, as you and I have known each other a long time, and having met your mom all those years ago, please know that it is from the heart when I say that I and my family are sending lots of positive energy your way. I know she will come out of this ok, perhaps a new kind of ok, but ok nonetheless. Be well my friend, best, Ira

  15. jan elfman Says:

    Neal, I see my sweet, loving, beautiful friend Charlotte with a boxing glove on her one hand and a straight up-to-the-sky middle finger on the other meant for any clown who doubts she’s going come out of this thing. She’s a brave, tough, determined fighter who isn’t going down so fast. And they can take that to their blood banks!

  16. Sara Says:

    I’m so sorry about your mom! I’m glad to hear she’s doing better, though, and that the breathing tube is gone! I hope she feels better soon!

  17. Myrna Fields Says:

    Wishing your mother a spectacular recovery. Thank you for sharing your observations and feelings.

  18. Kirk Garcia Says:

    Neal, you are a gifted writer sharing such an intimate experience. My thoughts and best wishes are with you, your Dad and family, and of course for your Mother’s recovery. You are all in my prayers. Alofa tele & God Bless – Kirk

  19. mfryhover Says:

    Oh, how my heart aches for you and your family. This is a really tough time, but just keep focusing on your mom. The human spirit is an amazing thing, and it sounds like your mom’s is quite strong. Thanks for sharing. We’ll keep you and your family in our thoughts and prayers.

  20. Denise Doyen Says:

    I was at the awards luncheon and can report that Eric, natually, did a gracious job standing-in.
    I love the story of your mom demonstrating that her mind was intact. (Boy, I wish she had flipped him the bird. Ha!)
    Note: I found that my parents got the best care when I asked doctors and caregivers point blank, “Are you doing all you can? Are you doing what you would for you own mother?” Don’t know why, but it seems to make a difference.
    Sending you and your mom all good wishes, Denise

  21. Jeff Gottesfeld Says:

    Good lord, Neal. May the One who brings peace to the heavens bring health to your mom. We all really are walking on the knife’s edge of life. All good wishes to you and yours.

  22. Dee Says:

    Hi Neal,

    This is Miss Dee from Nebraska. We are all thinking of you and your mother and wish for a full recovery. I had such a call many years ago when my sister was killed at age 17, to this day a phone call in the middle of the night still sends shivers down my spine. I am so sorry that you received a call that a loved one was ill, thoughts and prayers from Nebraska.


  23. Haley Says:

    Mr. Shusterman, are you left-handed?

  24. Storm Says:

    Mr. Shusterman I’m glad to hear that she’s doing better and I’m so sorry that it happened to her. My grandfather had a stroke years ago and it really took a toll on my mom and her siblings.

    You and your family are in my thoughts. I wish you all well.

    (And kudos to your mom for showing the MD he was a moron.)

  25. Dawn Says:

    Many thanks for sharing your most personal and painful thoughts with all of us.

    My thoughts are with all of you.

  26. Stephanie Tjaden Says:

    If your mom is going to a rehab facility, I have been dealing with elderly parents/nursing homes, etc. for a few years now and when my step-dad gets stir-crazy in the hospital or rehab, he loves it when I bring him a stuffed dog. He has a life-size pug that stands guard since he misses his dog at home so much. My mom also brings the dog to “the home” to visit, so check with the rules and see what you can get away with.
    God bless the people who work to keep our family members alive…except for omnipotent doctors. They are a pain.
    I am happy that your parents have you, and, as my dear friend Lori Sabo (comment above) said, advocate! She’s so wise.

  27. Mickey's Mom Says:

    Your Mom is a beautiful lady. So sorry that this has happened to your Mom and to your Dad and your family. My daughter is 14 and just recently wrote an essay for her English class about why Unwind is her all-time favorite book. That is what brought me to your site tonight; to learn more about the book and the author. It is obvious from this blog that I just read that you are a wonderful author, but more importantly, a wonderful son and caring human being. I will keep your Mom in my thoughts and hope for a full recovery for her. I know how helpless you and your Dad are feeling right now. Just remember to take care of yourselves, eat, sleep and keep your spirits up for your Mom and for each other.

  28. Olivia S Says:

    I’m so sorry to hear about your mother, but at the same time, very glad to hear the update…you and your family will be in my prayers. Thank you for taking the time to post this emotional piece to your blog and share your feelings. It’s definitely nice to put down the novel (or in my case, essay) and write from the heart once and a while.

    Thinking of you in Wisconsin!

  29. Rick Hernandez Says:

    If there is one thing I got out of your book, “Bruiser” is humans capability of feeling empathy for one another. Your books have reached many of us fans. It was an honor meeting you at the Austin 2007 Book Festival and receiving a hand written letter from you a year from that date. We all go through difficult times, and judging by your books I know that you know that all too well. I hope you find the strength to face all the obstacles you have to face, especially these that easily strike closer to the heart. On behalf of my little brother and myself (and I do believe I can speak for any other of your loyal fans out there) we wish upon you and your family all of OUR strength. Thank you for sharing this.

    I’d like to believe you are a star who, upon sharing your stories with us fans, granted us a shard of yourself like that of your “Scorpion Shards” trilogy. We fans are all connected now, and we all feel your struggle. I hope my small simple words can maybe provide a small bit of comfort if any.

  30. Emma Says:

    I hope both your mother and you are doing well. 🙂

  31. Estelle Silbert Says:

    Neal, Something told me to try to reach your Mom. I googled her and found you and read your BLOG. Please tell me she is recovering. I am a cousin who went to H.S, with your folks at Tilden. Best to your Dad and your lovely Mom.
    Estelle (Kushner) Silbert

    • nealshusterman Says:

      Hi, Estelle — My mom is stable now, but paraplegic, and unable to speak due to three more strokes she had after the first. She’s still alert, and aware, and we keep hoping and praying for her recovery. She’s a fighter! I’m visiting her and my Dad now in Las Vegas. My Dad says hello.

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