I really don’t know how much my darling understands. I really don’t know how much she should understand. I don’t know how much I do.
It is midday at Cafe Fiddlers, within wheeling distance of their Park La Brea apartment, and Christina Litvinoff is having lunch with her daughter. For the occasion, Gittel Gladwin has been beautifully dressed--pale green pantsuit a la Chanel, silver starfish earrings from Tiffany.
But her seat is a wheelchair, her chocolate mousse cake is being fed to her and she is talking by means of a small keyboard device that expels a ribbon tape.
An acquaintance from their apartment complex stops by the table and makes uncomfortable conversation, addressing Gittel as though she were not there. Then the woman turns to Litvinoff, and, in hushed, solicitous tones, says: “It’s so sad.”
Litvinoff does not let the moment pass. “No,” she says politely but firmly. “It isn’t. It’s something that happened.”
It has been almost five years since the accident that robbed Gittel, then a pretty, vivacious 16-year-old, of her speech and use of her arms and legs. Since then, she and Litvinoff together have built a life filled with joy and friends, hugs and laughter. And dignity.
“There was no way I was going to keep her hidden away in a room somewhere,” Litvinoff says of Gittel. “A lot of parents keep these kids locked away like they were some sort of freaks.”
Their apartment, big and sunny, is a happy place, whimsical and creative like Litvinoff, who once trained for ballet. A 1920s circus poster dominates one wall, papier-mache fright masks another. Twin mirrors--one high, one low, one for Litvinoff, one for Gittel--hang in the entry.
The conversation between mother and daughter--silent conversation--is often funny, often irreverent, always fluent. As Litvinoff talks about “the accident,” about UCLA neurologists’ early diagnosis--that if Gittel lived, she would be a vegetable--Gittel pecks out her response: “U shouldve introduced me as a pea, mom.”
There is laughter; it comes easily.
Over and over again ... I had to call her back from the surely dead, read into her, breathe into her, cajole and will her back to life. She came, willingly and wantonly and lovingly ... she didn’t die--against impossible odds. ... I don’t know to this day if she is half alive or half dead. Gittel Gladwin lay in a coma at UCLA. Already, people had come to Litvinoff, asking her to donate her daughter’s organs. Yes, she said, yes. Then she said no.
She was horrified: Did they intend to harvest the organs before she was dead, when she was judged “brain dead?” Litvinoff, keeping a vigil outside the intensive care unit, decided: “If my daughter was going to die, it was going to be in my arms.”
Around 7:30 the morning of Sept. 24, 1984, as Gittel was driving to Palisades High School from her Benedict Canyon home, she lost control of her black VW Rabbit convertible on the rain-slickened pavement of Sunset Boulevard. The accident occurred at a dangerous bend near Evans Road known to the teen-agers as “dead man’s curve.”
The Rabbit, heading west, careened into the eastbound lane, where it was struck head-on by an RTD bus rounding the blind curve. Gittel was not wearing her seat belt and the impact thrust her head with crunching force into the VW’s roll bar.
Brain Stem Injury
It was eight months before she regained consciousness. The diagnosis: brain stem injury as a result of massive whiplash to the upper spine. There were no broken bones, only a surface slice or two on her scalp.
Gittel had not been carrying her driver’s license, and it was hours before her identity could be established and Litvinoff notified.
What she saw when she was finally allowed into the emergency room at UCLA was a horrifying array of IVs and tubes. Gittel had been placed on a respirator, and she had a shunt to the brain to reduce the swelling.
Doctors told Litvinoff her daughter’s injuries were fatal, but, she recalls, “They were so careful about how they said it. ‘Who would you like to call? Do you have any funeral arrangements?’ They never mentioned the word die. “
From the beginning, she says, “the nurses would let me sleep next to her, on her bed, because they thought she was going to die.”
UCLA Medical Center was Litvinoff’s home for the three weeks that Gittel remained in intensive care. “My friends would come in rotation and bring me food--and Scotch, if I needed it. I couldn’t have done it alone.”
‘Pounded Walls and Screamed’
Once, about two weeks after the accident, Litvinoff returned to her Benedict Canyon home, where, she says: “I walked through the house and pounded the walls and screamed.”
Then she went back to the hospital, where she told Gittel--who could not see her and probably could not hear her--that it was her choice, to live or die. She says with conviction, “She chose to live. I don’t know, but I think she understood.”
Because UCLA is an acute care facility, after two months another place had to be found for Gittel. “Nobody knew what to do with her,” Litvinoff says. “She was in the gray area of coma. It can go on for years and years, and who’s going to foot the bill? That’s why people in coma are institutionalized. Only the state will take the refuse.”
She was placed at Casa Colina for eight weeks, then transferred to Lanterman State Hospital near Diamond Bar, where most of the patients, many of them severely mentally retarded, have little chance of rejoining life outside.
A lair of the almost alive/dead . . .. Real life was totally unreal for me . ... I couldn’t hold a pen. Except for dealing with Gittel, I was dysfunctional. I could hardly dress myself . ... She cannot forget the youth, 18, only about 20 pounds. He had been left there years before by his parents to die. Blind, deaf and dumb, he lay in his crib. Litvinoff used to be able to make him giggle.
One day, about eight months after Gittel’s accident, Litvinoff saw the first real sign of hope. The pupil of Gittel’s right eye dilated; the eye appeared to focus.
Friends brought colorful paper birds to hang above Gittel’s bed and she looked at the birds and smiled. Later, visitors gathered at her bedside would tell jokes--raucous, tasteless jokes--hoping to elicit a response.
Finally, Gittel laughed at an appropriate moment.
“It was a slow awakening,” Litvinoff says. “It’s not like the movies.”
But when Gittel came out of the coma, she could see, and, Litvinoff suspected, could talk, if she could only find a way.
Ten months after the accident, Litvinoff brought a typewriter to the hospital and Gittel painstakingly, using her knuckles, pecked out her first words.
Her mother was sure she knew what her daughter would write. It would be “Why? Why me?”
Instead, Gittel wrote: “Goddamn it. I want a shower right now.”
Litvinoff laughs and says, “I’m tough. My daughter’s tough.”
Litvinoff grabbed the paper from the typewriter, “ran down to the head doctor and said, ‘My God--see this?’ ”
The turning point had been reached.
‘Body Was a Wreck’
“We knew she was home,” Litvinoff says, “but her little body was a wreck. She was a strange-looking creature, arms spun almost around her like a spider’s web. Nothing was functioning at all, nothing.”
Today, listening as her mother recounts this triumph, Gittel smiles and starts pecking on her little keyboard. She writes, “Heck, I’m no dumby. I proved ‘em wrong.” Indeed, she soon challenges a visitor to a game of Scrabble.
That she is non-verbal does not appear to bother her. Not being able to walk is frustrating, and she is lobbying for an expensive walker, reasoning that if she can walk she has a good chance of winning back her old boyfriend.
Gittel never was a terrific student, her mother acknowledges, but in style she was “a real trend setter.” She loved fashion (she had worked at Benetton), the beach, travel, movies and her boyfriend.
Now, in medical terminology, she is a spastic quadriplegic. In human terms, she is a feeling, caring young woman with an impish sense of humor, a passion for clothes and jewelry. On Dec. 5, friends celebrated her 21st birthday with a party at the apartment, complete with crepe paper decorations, a lavish buffet and champagne.
It was a happy occasion.
There she was, tiny and paler than I had ever seen her. Huge, blue shadows under her eyes. White as a ghost. Oxygen into her trach. IVs everywhere ... a room of the almost dead. She stopped breathing. Her pupils dilated. I grabbed her, shook her. I called for help. She looked peaceful, as if this agony was over. I told her, “Don’t dare do this, don’t you dare. Fight back, you ... come back. ...” Released from Lanterman after seven months, Gittel was transferred to Rancho Los Amigos in Downey, where surgeons repaired the curled and twisted limbs and fingers that had contracted as a result of the damage to her neurological system. As Litvinoff remembers, “She looked like a frog. Every limb was in limbo.”
At Rancho, she developed pneumonia, a strain that would not respond to antibiotics. It was another close call. There will be others, Litvinoff knows, for pneumonia is a constant threat. Only last fall, a bout sent Gittel to Cedars-Sinai. Her body is severely compromised, one lung non-functional.
“Chances are,” Litvinoff says matter-of-factly, “she’s going to be hospitalized at least twice a year.” And each time, she knows, she will ask herself, “Is this going to be the one? It’s an ongoing terror.”
The prognosis? “No one knows,” she says. “If she lives, she will probably live a long, full life.” For as long as she lives, Litvinoff is determined: “It’s got to be more than making the best of it. It’s got to be a good life. And it’s been very carefully choreographed to be that way because it could end at any time. She is incredibly fragile.”
Weekdays, Gittel is picked up by her attendant, Bernard Nelson, and taken to the United Cerebral Palsy Center on Venice Boulevard for socialization and rehabilitation therapy. The staff there has suggested that, with Gittel’s interest in design, she may be able to design clothing for the handicapped.
“She wants to move out, have her own apartment, have a job,” Litvinoff says. “Well, that’s not going to happen. She needs full-time attendant care.”
She and Gittel live from day to day. They live with the reality of machines and pulleys and diapers and the tube that continuously feeds a nutritional supplement into Gittel’s stomach.
But there are movies, restaurant outings, shopping excursions, traditional holiday celebrations with friends.
‘She Is Very Brave’
Of Litvinoff and Gittel, longtime friend Carolyn Maxwell says: “I think they’re both quite remarkable. They have an extraordinary relationship. It’s become Christina’s whole life. But she isn’t angry or bitter. I don’t think I’ve ever heard her say, ‘Why me?’ She is very brave.”
From Day One, Litvinoff says, “I made it a point that none of that was to be around Gittel. No tears. That was not going to be allowed.”
There was a moment, early on, when Litvinoff was overwhelmed by the pain, which was “like rats gnawing at me. It was like sharp blocks of polar ice in my stomach and knives on top of that.”
One night, she deliberately took an overdose of pills and alcohol, but in time called a friend for help.
Looking back, she says, “I’m not ashamed.”
Today, she says, “If Gittel dies, I don’t think I’ll survive. I just wouldn’t have the strength.”
She has thought, too, of the other possibility, that she might die first. She cannot imagine what would happen to Gittel.
“It would be cruel and heartless to institutionalize her,” she says. “I don’t know anyone who would take her on. That’s the fear.”
She has initiated a lawsuit against the city, based on the road’s condition at Gittel’s accident site; perhaps, she says, if there is a money settlement, she can establish a care fund.
I dreamt a few nights ago. Something that has haunted me. A small party ... I had left her on the brick patio area at the rear of the house. I looked. She wasn’t there . ... I crossed that lawn with a dread . ... The pool was dirty. Leaves and algae. My girl was at the bottom of the shallow end with her seat belt on in her chair on her side. She was dead. I didn’t know what to do except get large and fly above and yell soundlessly to the party people inside that we needed help
“I’m not trying to convey in any way that this is easy,” she says. “This is not easy, and it’s not for everybody.”
It has been a long, painful journey--one that has taken her from a beautiful art-filled home in Benedict Canyon, from the good life with friends, from the world of the arts, from weekends on Long Island and holidays in Europe, to a modest apartment with Gittel at Park La Brea.
Gittel’s father, who has remarried and lives in Oakland, visits occasionally. But he never has come to grips with what he sees as the tragedy. Litvinoff has separated from Gittel’s stepfather, producer Si Litvinoff.
“We are devoid of the riches of our past life,” she says, without self-pity. “I miss the intelligence of some of the people. It’s very hard with this kind of life to have any other life. I miss the travel, I miss art. But what I want is for my life and Gittel’s life to be very, very small. It’s a reaction to those months of coma when every minute was an unknown. This is our apartment. I’m safe here. There is food in the refrigerator. We can pay the rent. I don’t need the big stuff anymore.”
Although she insists, “I’ve never had ambition,” she knows the reality is she will need to get a part-time job.
She has done what she has done without psychotherapy--"I don’t believe in that stuff.”
Friends Stood By
But, she makes it clear, she has not done it alone. She speaks of the “extraordinary nucleus” of friends who have stood by, of the dedication of Anne Davis and the other nurses at Lanterman, of the efforts beyond the call of duty of social workers Debra Rhodes and Alice Rademacher at Westside Regional Center.
She wants others to know that it can be done: “The key to all this is to not be angry. It doesn’t help. You’ve got to befriend the system, and they will be there for you. It was scary, real scary, but I never felt adrift.”
Litvinoff knows that she and Gittel are among the lucky ones. “If Gittel was still in a coma,” she says, “I don’t think I’d have her at home. If she was awake and not cognizant in any way, I don’t know what my attitude would be.”
And, she says, “I would never have kept her alive on artificial means. Gittel was never oxygen-deprived, she was never brain dead.”
Certainly, she says, “there are moments when I just cry and cry. ‘Why can’t I give Gittel my legs?’ And there is the weariness. I blow about once every six months. But it’s very hard to be sad around Gittel because she’s funny. There’s no anger or bitterness in that face. I would be lost without her. It’s purely selfish.”
Sometimes, she wonders about her own future. At 40, she knows “it would take a hell of a man to realize this is a package deal. I do get lonely. I do miss the sound of a human voice.”
She thinks about Gittel, Gittel whose word machine spits out these scraps of conversation: “Isn’t it amazing, mom, that I’m quote normal unquote?”
Or: “Shame I wasn’t wearing seat belt.”
And Litvinoff says, “None of us knows what’s going on in there.”