I didn’t know much about strokes, so I wasn’t sure how to process the news when my brother told me that mom had had one.
I knew it meant she probably had bleeding in her brain. I thought that maybe she’d have trouble communicating. It crossed my mind that maybe she wouldn’t know or remember me. I wanted to Google videos and websites about strokes, but only managed one or two brief readings and a long-ish clinical video before I flew from Saudi Arabia (KSA) to North Carolina to check on her. I arrived a little over a week after the event.
After an uneventful and pleasant transatlantic flight and once I logged into the spotty Charlotte-Douglas airport wi-fi, my brother and I managed to rendezvous so he could pick me up. He asked if I wanted to go straight to the hospital.
I’d never seen — or at least I don’t recall ever seeing — mom lying in a hospital bed, and I noticed how short she appeared. She’s an inch or two taller than me. She has chestnut skin, but it looked paler somehow. Maybe it was an illusion from all the white bandages and sticky residue on her face. My mom is a big lady, but she seemed flatter, almost deflated, and her position on the pillow didn’t look comfortable. Her hair was a straight up mess, having been shaved for surgery, and the color she loved was already in the advanced stages of fading. The first thing I wanted to do when I saw her was wipe the crust off her eyes and apply more petroleum jelly to her lips. I also made a mental note to fetch her nail polish when I went to the house.
People around me filled me in on details of her overall status. Despite the jet lag, as I do retreat into pragmatism, I appreciated this. But while I was mostly listening, I was also thinking about the aftermath…about the meaning of it all. What would it mean for her life from now on? What about mine? What would be required of us all? My thoughts felt entirely selfish and I remember almost not caring about anybody wanted to do or say after that. Aware of my proclivities, I just stood by her side, squeezing her hand, while voices pierced what would have been blessed silence.
Before I left Saudi Arabia, my director, after telling me to go home, asked how it was that I had delayed going to see my very ill mother in the first place. And she was very ill at that point. At first, once stabilized, she seemed okay; she was even awake. But then complications from seizures made her prognosis take a turn. The primary answer was that I was confident in the care she was receiving, and that confidence was reinforced when I saw how diligently the nurses at the Neurosciences ICU assessed and administered to mom.
My half-sister and her son were there already, but left after a while. They’d been spending almost every night in the ICU. My brother spent a few nights as well, and so had my uncle Henry. Having finally arrived, it was my turn.
The night was, unlike my flights, pretty eventful and not entirely pleasant. It is intensive care, after all, so no one gets any real rest. Not the nurses, not the visitor and certainly not the patient. That was my first revelation about the conflict between letting the body do what it does and our needing to participate. Satisfied, and beat, I think I only slept at the hospital one or two other nights after that.
Another gratifying revelation about mom was how many people wanted to know about her, and if possible, come to visit her. These were people I didn’t even know. It seemed like they were coming out of the woodwork. How blessed to be so loved.
Usually, I spent my time just sitting with mom, giving my siblings a break after the week they’d had attending to her through the rollercoaster stages. I listened to music, read the Bible, stared at her, yelled for her, pinched and squeezed her… I learned how to clear her breathing tube by the end of the trip and to not freak out when she started coughing violently. One of our “favorite” nurses told me that since the stroke happened in her left lobe, she may have looser inhibitions. Months later, when I try to have conversations on the phone and from the reports of my brother about her treatment of those around her, I see what he means.
Finally, she was cleared to go to intermediate care; one step down from ICU, but a step up from…standard care? We could tell the difference between the two wings, and immediately missed the nurses at NSICU and their hovering.
I left the States reluctantly, but with a sense of relief.
It was hard, and it still is. It’s pretty much the hardest thing I’ve ever faced or thought about. Moms are supposed to live forever, it seems. Even when my maternal grandmother died, it wasn’t real for hours…days. There was a lot I still didn’t understand or know when I left, and many of these unknowns will never be known. From what little I understand about strokes, and the organic nature of recovery, not much can ever be known about her future with any certitude. All of this mystery is frightening. I’m used to fear with a bit of thrill, but this is pure angst.
Something that dawned on me recently is the idea that after all we’ve been through together, all by ourselves, mother and daughter…She might forget. She’s already forgotten, and then remembered, things about me already, but this may just be the beginning.
She might forget that I’m alive. She might forget where I am. She might forget that I’m single, and if I ever do get married, she’ll forget that. She’ll forget that I became an FSO, when I finally do. She’ll forget, if I ever do, that I have a kid. She’ll forget that I’m safe. She’ll forget me. After all these years of being one of the apples of her eyes, after all these years of knowing me so damn well, of reading me like a book, she might ask “So who are you again?”
And that’s why it was a relief. It’s kind of a relief that I don’t have to see her struggle to form simple sentences. It’s a relief that if I so desired, I could not be reminded of her state. I don’t want to imagine her unable to walk and take care of herself. She’s taken such good care of me; how could she now need her children, or anybody, so much? I’m the one who should be asking for her wisdom and guidance and waiting for her “unsolicited advice.” She’s always been on top of things.
The tables have turned. It’s all wrong.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
One time, on the phone, she said she was proud of me.
In one of her moments of clarity, she said she was happy and proud of me and wanted to see my smile.