About two and a half months ago, I was abruptly told via voicemail that my mother was going to have emergency brain surgery. Wednesday night’s social work class—the first one of the semester—had just wrapped-up and after the last of my students exited the building, I headed to my office to grab my satchel, lock-up, and head home. Per usual, I checked my phone and saw my favorite niece Lauren had called. “Tio,” she said, “I don’t know if you know this but grandma is having brain surgery in the morning. Has a couple of blood clots. Call mom. OK? I miss you. Bye, tio.”
I chuckled—a bit—at the irony of the situation, as I had ended the class with an exercise that a colleague suggested I try that involved exploring personally held attitudes about specific stages of human development, ranging from birth to old age. I had students stand against the whiteboard in front of the classroom and share their thoughts, thinking this would be a nice way bond as a cohort. Things went along smoothly for about five minutes, until all the crying started. They cried about their childhoods, fathers that left them, bullyings in high school, divorces, and empty nests. I wanted to strangle Cynthia, my colleague. One of my older students (probably in her 50s) got up next. She started to share but then completely broke down. We were all stunned into death-like silence. Apart from her crying, it was so quiet in there that you could have heard a blotter of acid being dropped back in the 1960s. Eventually, she composed herself, apologized, and informed the class that she had just lost her mother a few days prior; her announcement did little to shatter the awkwardness in the room. She talked about how difficult it was to have the tables turned on her and have to watch the people that took care of her all her life deteriorate, requiring her to take care of them, now. Embarrassed, she wiped her eyes and promptly sat down, surrounded by her very empathetic peers. As I watched, I remembered the picture of my mother and I that I have on my refrigerator door that I see every morning when I grab some rice milk for my cereal: she is on a hideous 1970s couch with perfect hair and make–up with me—shirtless in pajama bottoms, holding a copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. We both looked happy. Overcome with guilt, I threw myself upon the pyre and decided to suffer along with everyone else. Plus, I knew they would remember this night, during instructor evaluation time. I took a deep breath, dove right in, and did well until I got to “old age,” but I got through it, somehow.
The hospital my mother was in was about an hour away from campus. It was already after 9:30 PM and I was tired from a long, monotonous day of grading papers and advising students for the upcoming Spring semester; moreover, the evening’s hysterics didn’t help. It’s hard enough holding a space for three hours, lecturing non-stop and engaging students, but when you have twelve grown people crumbling apart before your very eyes it becomes damn near impossible. I was exhausted. Reinforcements were necessary: I needed caffeine and many, many cigarettes.
I stopped by a convenience store on my way to Edinburg to get supplies. I parked the car and turned off the ignition, preparing to get out when the reality of the situation hit me like a flu: my 85-year-old mother was having brain surgery and there was a very real chance she may not make it. This wasn’t like one of her falls, which I had already gotten accustomed to by that point, or one of her patented melt-downs that left her husband and anyone within calling distance flustered and unsure of what to do to calm her. She had been suffering from Alzheimer’s for two or three years, already, and it seemed to be advancing at an exponential rate, especially this past year. She lost her words more than not. Her short-term memory was unpredictable at best. There were even times when she would attempt to speak but couldn’t; she would just sit there with a look of frustration on her face—still, as a statue—then let out a, “Damn!” and then focus on whatever happened to be on TV at the time, as if nothing had happened. Things hadn’t been easy and didn’t seem to be letting up any. No, this was very different.
I made it to the hospital in record time, hauling-ass at around 85 miles per hour after procuring my fixes. After driving around parking lots for about fifteen minutes, I finally was able to find a spot and made my way to the Neuro ICU. When I got to her room, I saw frail frame curled up in her hospital-bed, disheveled and confused, surrounded by a concerto of blinking lights and rhythmic beeps that came from the various monitors she was connected to by tubes and multi-colored wires. Her gown—a yellow so ugly she would have left “against medical advice” if she were more lucid—was off one shoulder, exposing more skin than I was comfortable with (though her sitter, a squat, older lady of about 60, didn’t seem to be phased in the slightest). I looked over at the woman—I believe her name was Thelma–who had been there ten hours, already, due to my mother having tried to get out of bed multiple times that day. “Son,” I quickly blurted in her general direction, attempting to get formalities out of the way. My mother kept trying to pull her gown from her legs, unaware of how scantily clad she already was. I pulled it back over her knees and grabbed her hands to try and calm her along with a serenade of rhythmic shooshing.
“I thought you said you didn’t have a son, Alda,” the sitter said.
Foggy, my mother answered, annoyed, “I don’t.” She looked at me blankly. “I have Lisa, my daughter. I have Katie, her daughter…” She started at her gown, again. “No. I don’t have a son.”
I had prepared myself for pretty much anything on the drive up to the hospital, but it still stung. “Wishful thinking, old woman,” I said, looking into her eyes, smiling and rubbing the top
top of her crepe-papery hand.
She laughed, apparently remembering some things about us. After scanning my face more, a light turned on. “My baby! Anthony! Where were you? I’ve been waiting!”
“Teaching, mom. It’s Wednesday. I just found out about this an hour ago.” I squeezed her hands, noticing how pale she was. I didn’t remember her skin being so white. “You OK?” My eyes began to sting and water.
Seeing the tears start to well up in my eyes, she said, “You love me” with a pitying look upon her face. “No…you don’t love me. You like me, but you don’t love me.” She turned her head away, perhaps distracted by a fly or a moving figure on the TV screen—maybe one of those crazy hallucinations she has from time to time.
“Well, not right now I don’t.” Again, she laughed. “I love you, mom…I do,” I assured, using the tank-top under my maroon dress shirt, as a tissue, to mop up a burgeoning flood of tears and snot. In an attempt to cut through the pall in the room, I tried to lighten things up by telling her about the picture on my refrigerator that I had looked at that morning—not really knowing what else to say—but it didn’t seem to register.
The next hour or so was spent keeping her calm, keeping her covered, dodging heart-breaking pleas to take her home. To make things worse, she would, intermittently, talk in word salad: random words strung together in nonsensical sentences. For a stretch that seemed to go on forever, she talked nonstop and said absolutely nothing. Other times she would snap out it and speak only Spanish, talking to her father, who had died thirty-five years prior, repeating over and over, again, “Ayudame, papi! Ayudame! (“Help me, Daddy! Help me!”).” I just stood there, crying, wishing he would and feeling bad that I didn’t feel bad about thinking it.
At some point, her lucidity seemed to return some, so I took advantage of the moment and asked if she was scared about going into surgery in the morning, but she was oblivious to all that business. “They’re doing a procedure, mom. In and out. Easy.” I smiled, hoping what might be the last conversation I had with her wouldn’t be a lie.
“Not with my hair looking like this, I’m not!” (If you knew my mother, you would know this was a really good sign).
“It looks fine,” I laughed, but as soon as things started to look more optimistic, the pleading and agitation returned. All I could do was stand there with tears, staining my cheeks, and think about everything that could possibly go wrong in the next few hours. When she finally calmed down, she turned to me and looked at me with a suspicious look I hadn’t seen since my early 20s.
“What do you want?” she demanded.
“Cocaine,” I said. She didn’t laugh, but—honestly—it didn’t necessarily sound like a bad idea at the time.
“No, you want something. What is it?” She turned away from me with a stare that peeled off my skin like duct-tape, leaving me feel—for a moment—utterly raw. I thought about my phone and how much I hated it.
Midnight had come and gone, and she showed no signs of tiring. I was physically and mentally spent. I thought about her. The surgery. The “what ifs.” I fought back tears—when I could–holding her hands the whole time, never letting go. Then, suddenly, her restlessness subsided, as quickly as it came. She turned to me, again, and just looked at me. That frustrated look I knew so well had resurfaced. She wanted to talk but couldn’t. Our eyes locked and in that moment, I saw her, the mother on the couch with perfect hair and make-up, and—through all my artifice and bullshit—she saw me, a shirtless little boy in pajama bottoms, holding a copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar and for a few seconds we were both happy, again.
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From Indelible Fingerprints [Alien Buddha Press]; originally published by Down in the Dirt.