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Excerpt from The Electric Woman by Tessa Fontaine, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Electric Woman

A Memoir in Death-Defying Acts

by Tessa Fontaine

The Electric Woman by Tessa Fontaine X
The Electric Woman by Tessa Fontaine
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  • First Published:
    May 2018, 384 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2019, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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Print Excerpt

THE ARCHITECTURE OF A WAVE

One day after the stroke
October 2010

Her arms were tucked against her sides. She had been arranged.

"Prepare yourself," my stepdad, Davy, whispered into my hair when he hugged me outside her hospital room. I'd just arrived from across the country after a night of emergency phone calls. I was not prepared. My mom was in a hospital bed, covered in machines. There were remnants of fluid, blood and yellow secretions, dried all along her head. A ventilator taped across her mouth pulled her skin taut.

I started to whisper something to Davy, but he stopped me. "She can't hear you," he said. "She won't wake up."

"Until when?" I asked.

He let out a sigh that caught in his throat halfway, the air turning into a sob that turned into a cough that turned into silence. We stood beside one another, not touching.

She was in an induced coma. They had filled her with barbiturates to knock her out. That's what a nurse told me, when I asked, after being in the room with my mom for ten minutes and then fleeing to find some goddamned information. I pinched and pinched and pinched myself.

"What is happening?" I asked another nurse. She squeezed my shoulder like a football coach.

An induced coma reduces the rate of cerebral blood flow. After her blood slowed, they hauled out the chain saw. I do not know if they actually used a chain saw. Probably not. But it had to have been a big saw to cut away half of a human skull.

When I came back to her room, Davy, my aunt, and my uncle stepped outside.

"We'll give you a few minutes alone," they said. "To say what you need to say."

* * *

Two weeks before, a handwritten note had arrived from her that said, for no reason, she was proud of me.

* * *

I walked into the room. Sat in a chair beside her bed. I knew she would not open her eyes. She would not say babygirl, that high-pitched, delighted greeting that was all mine.

The bandage covering her head poofed out over the opened area because her brain was so swollen, because the bleeding would not stop. It looked like a piece of popcorn that had begun bursting from its kernel. Her head was shaved.

Her hospital-room window looked out onto the roof of another building, a large, flat rectangle coated with something like pressed gravel. There were seven seagulls standing on the roof. Fat, white bodies with bright orange beaks and spindly legs.

She had had a hemorrhagic stroke.

I needed to say the important stuff.

* * *

"Mom," I said, touching her arm. All my insides were aflame.

I kept my hand on her arm. The ventilator wheezed. Took my hand off to cover my mouth. I thought I'd scream. I thought I'd throw up every single thing I'd ever eaten. I needed to tell her the things I'd done such a shitty job telling her. Open. Your. Mouth. Speak.

The fire in my lungs turned to ash. Every word I'd ever known was burned.

Out the window, the seagulls were all facing the same direction. Seven seagulls, evenly spaced, their faces pointed the same way. I stood up and looked where they were looking. A parking lot, scattered trees, a road. I didn't believe in omens.

Davy came in and sat beside me. He gave a few details. The very private specifics of an emergency.

The vomit and shit when he'd walked into their bedroom.

The eyes rolled back in the head.

The speed with which the paramedics came.

The unknowing at the hospital.

The chaplain assigned to him as he waited.

"When I saw the chaplain, I knew," he said. "That's when I knew how bad it was. I didn't know until then, but it was the chaplain that made me understand. The hospital assigns them to families who are losing someone. Even after I said no thanks to his counseling, no to prayers or hand-holding or any of that shit. He kept coming back, checking on me, asking how Teresa was doing. So I knew. They thought she'd die for sure."

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Excerpted from The Electric Woman by Tessa Fontaine. Copyright © 2018 by Tessa Fontaine. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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