My heart dropped into my stomach. Chills ran up my spine and pricked my arms. I could feel every nerve in my body begin to tremble. My lungs were shrinking, taking in less and less air as if the air were growing thinner and thinner.
I could feel the phone slipping from my hand, as my fingers tingled. I clutched it, letting my knuckles go white. There was a slight, uneven breathing at the other end of the line, then silence. The voice was raw, “she has blood in her brain.”
This was the call I received at work at approximately one-thirty in the afternoon on Wednesday, July 22nd. Everything around me was amplified, the dulled sirens of a mid-day summer New York City were suddenly ringing in my ears, the delighted shrieks of young children in the lobby were blood-curdling. I left work, mumbling “sorry” and “family emergency,” dodging questions from my students before leading myself out into the warm July sunshine, which did nothing to warm the chilliness of my skin.
I waited for a cab. I paced on the sidewalk. I avoided the looks of people on the street who seemed to know my every thought as if it were written on my face.
In the cab, I flitted between dry heaving and gagging, before I finally settled on putting my head between my knees for as long as the traffic would hold up. There was radio silence on the other end of my cell phone. No contact.
I stopped at the hospital. Eulogies raced through my brain, each making my stomach drop further and further as I watched families wander out of the emergency room. My hand rested on the door. I closed my eyes.
What waited on the other side would haunt me — I knew this would be true even before I walked in. But, I did so anyway.
I will save you the diagnosis, perhaps out of savoring some privacy for my family but mostly because I don’t understand all of it. My mom collapsed at work during a fire drill. Another woman found her and helped her, a co-worker stayed with her until she got to the hospital. That night, she would stay there. The next morning, she would be moved. I stayed by myself that night. I dodged questions from my sister, who had been rushed onto a flight from my cousin’s and wouldn’t be told until the next morning.
I eagerly waited for hospital updates from my dad, updates which would be few, uninformative, and far between. I didn’t sleep that night. I kept the lights on. I turned on the alarm. And I didn’t sleep. Text messages and calls from family members came in. I ignored them.
The next day, I would spend all day in the neurological intensive care unit at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, saying little, eating almost nothing. Then I went home. By myself. I returned to work the next day, silencing co-workers with one word answers on the state of my family emergency.
I realized later, it was not a coldness or a lack of gratitude in their concern that allowed me to be so short with them, it was fear.
I was fearful of the unknown. What the next few days, the next twelve hours, the next ten minutes, ten seconds would bring were unknown, and yet one second could change the trajectory of my entire life.
There was no future without my mom there. I didn’t see it. I couldn’t see it. The idea that she would not be there — for my graduation, for my wedding, for my children — were unbearable, and so I didn’t sit with any of it. I pushed it all as far out as I could. And after my day finished, and my students had all gone, I hesitated.
It was my duty, my job as a daughter to go to the hospital, and yet putting myself on that train, would make it real. Sitting in the hospital made it real. And being real was so far out of the realm of my imagination, that I waited on the sizzling train platform, and let trains pass before I eventually allowed myself the joy of air conditioning and took the train uptown.
The hospital bedside rendered me silent. It brought back the middle school social anxiety, which I had worked hard to overcome. Words came into my head, and yet would not leave through my mouth. I sat with my lips open, watching as family members and close friends, flitted through the room, speaking to my mother with ease.
If I sat far away from the bed, it felt as though she were just sleeping.
Every two minutes, I would stand and walk out of the room into the hallway. If you’ve ever been in any hospital, you’ll know they don’t particularly enjoy people standing outside the rooms, especially when they’re just pacing back and forth. I endured a mix of annoyed and yet sympathetic looks from nurses and residents as they passed by, acting as if nothing had changed, if everything was just normal. And for them it was.
After my third day sitting in the hospital, saying nothing. I began to write. I wrote letters to my mother, each addressing such insightful snippets into my life as “I mostly ran errands and did nothing,” as well as “she wants to buy a sticker and a hat, which is a fairly odd combination,” and each ending with:
See you soon.
The letters, some of which were written in front of muted reruns of Family Feud, others of which were written from my bedroom at two in the morning, and others of which have been catalogued from New York City benches, are not for my mom. They are for me. Well, they’re kind of for her, but until she can read them, they are for me.
They are a reminder of her love, the conversations we used to share when I got home from school and she came home from work. They are one-sided, yes. They will remain one sided until she has the strength, once again, to speak, to come home, to walk and do what she used to. Those days might never come. But I am hopeful that they will.
My deliberate silence in the hospital room made me weak. My written words make me strong.
My mother has gotten better. In the last two days, since this was written, she has been moved from the ICU into a room overlooking the Hudson, from which you can practically see where we live, little reminders of where she still has to go, where we all have to go. The months that follow this will not be easy. As I return to school in the fall, I am sure memories of those first few hours at the hospital will haunt my every fiber. As I soldier on, I am sure that they will stay with me, always. I will see them when I close my eyes. I will see them in moments, when I am sure that I have finally forgotten them.
The people, whom we choose to love, are fragile; not so easily gained and yet far too easily lost.
It has been a jagged and steep path from where we’ve been and it will be a rugged and difficult path to where we go, but we’re holding hands and the strength of those around us and the hope in ourselves propels us forward. As my mom transitions further in treatment, further in rehabilitation and therapy, the letters will continue, because this story, as all of our stories, is living and breathing. The things which happen to us do not define us, but they do shape us. They make us more resilient and yet more fearful, weaker in some ways and yet stronger in others. My letters to my mother do the same thing for me as it does for my sister to sit next to her bedside and read her stories, or for my dad, what it is to spend all day in the hospital, simply holding conversations and showing her pictures.
I hope that one day, she will get to read them.
My mom’s best friend, when she first came to the hospital and was greeted by a whole waiting room of people waiting to see my mom said to me, “your mom is so loved.” I felt her arms trembling around me, her voice breaking into my neck.
“Yeah,” I replied.
And in that moment, that was all we needed, really.