We are not given a good life or a bad life. We are given a life. It’s up to us to make it good or bad. -Unknown
The hospital smelled of sterilized decay. The lobby made no effort to try and comfort or welcome. Perhaps the feeling of a temporary stay was intended. Still, it was all too unfamiliar, and I could imagine her being wheeled into the cold, stone-floored lobby, wanting to run.
The nurse squinted at my father, brother and me, skeptical of our relations to my mother. My red hair and strikingly similar facial features gave it away, and my anxiety was building to the point where my balled-up fists were painfully white.
“Don’t be alarmed when you see her,” the nurse waved us on into the room. “She’s been through a lot, and may be very tired.”
To put it nicely, hospitals had never been anything I was particularly interested in. Immunizations and blood work made me absolutely terrified of needles, most of the time the anticipation being worse than the pain. Walking down the hall, I expected my mother to be hooked up to every machine and every IV the hospital had. I expected nurses and doctors to be examining her body head to toe as she lay there, being prodded and poked. My steps quickened, though my feet felt leaden.
Peering into the room, the pain of seeing my mother in her current state was less than expected. She was fully conscious—tired and a bit pale, but very much alive. There was one IV, one heart rate monitor, and one rolling TV tray with some leftover chocolate pudding beside the bed. There was no one in the room besides her roommate, who kept the curtains closed as she watched All My Children at an invasively-high volume.
As I inched closer, afraid to trip over any invisible wires, I began to see why the nurse had warned us. Bags under her eyes, her hair greasy from sweat and writhing, she looked nothing like the fashionable, put-together mother that I saw everyday. She was almost unrecognizable.
I was afraid to even say “hello” in fear of disturbing this stranger, but I recognized her perfect white smile right away.
“Hi, Mom. How are you feeling?”
She turned her head toward the bedside table to grab a notebook, and that’s when I saw them. The alien-like wires sticking out from her scalp—jettisons of red and green and blue. I coughed, choking from my sudden gasp. She must have heard it, too, as she smirked as she was writing.
Feeling okay. Roommate keeps the damn TV way too loud at night. Haven’t gotten much sleep. The wires are to monitor my brain waves. Making sure migraines don’t start up again.
I was confused. Why couldn’t she talk? I went to her bedside, pushing the table away.
She looked dangerously delicate with the IV in her arm, and I feared I would tear the needle out if I so much as brushed her. I grasped her right hand and mustered up the courage to give her a gentle hug. Her right arm wrapped around me, hugging me tightly to her body. Her left arm lay still at her side.
She smiled at me, and I could see now that it was a slightly crooked smile, the left corner of her mouth seeming to stay in one place. She motioned for her notepad and wrote again:
Migraines caused a transient schemic attack. Kind of like a stroke. Can’t move left side of my body or talk. Probably will move again, but not sure. Doctor’s said probably not, but I don’t think so.
The thought of never being able to walk again made its way into my imagination. Never taking the stairs again, having to wait for the smelly, disgusting elevator at the Park Street T-Station, possibly having to ask complete strangers for help when my limitations were met.
She’s strong, I thought, desperately. She’ll go right back to normal. Screw what the doctors say.
The Hospital for Special Care was where the real healing began. My father’s friend had gotten her a good room; she always seemed to have connections to people wherever she went. I visited often, carpooling with different relatives, and watched her through the entire process. We took walks in the garden; I pushed her wheelchair and he listened intently as I told her about my day at school, and how my grade in math was looking a little grim. I knew what she would say. “Just keep working hard. Do the best you can, and if your grades don’t reflect that, at least they’ll know you tried your hardest.”
After the garden, I would see her to physical therapy, where she would climb stairs and do very basic exercises to see if she could gather any sort of movement in her left side. Not once did she stop for air or complain, and even the nurses found this astounding. She was strong as hell, as always.
Weeks went by, and the treatments did not seem to be working for her. Though her voice was
almost back, nothing else seemed to be moving. This was the first time I had ever seen my
I’m scared. I don’t want you to be scared for me, though. I’m sure I’ll be okay.
I nodded, forcing a smile through tear-drowned eyes. We had always had “girl talk,” just
as many mothers and daughters do, but very rarely does a child see either of their parents in a state of complete vulnerability. I wasn’t sure of what to do—what advice could I possibly give the wisest person I knew?
That sudden release of her strength for just a moment made me realize just how human she was. Though her hair was always polished and her smile always bright, my mother was not perfect by any means, but god, was she close.
The heart monitor beeped slow and steady as we both let go.
As I walked alongside her on the high school track, I felt her strength in those few inches between us. She was here, and she had survived. Her legs strong after a stroke at an age much too young; her feminine glow ablaze after an oophorectomy, just after she brought
my brother into the world; her smile emanating the joy in her heart after undergoing an induced heart attack—literally dying and coming back to life again. She is a marvel of human strength, both physical and mental.
One week after having surgery to remove another tumor from her ovary, she was walking around that track, arm and arm with me, proud to be walking alongside survivors and those people who love them. I felt like a child again, so attached to her, looking to her as if she were the world.
At that moment, she was. The purple sash across my chest announced Caregiver: a title I wish I could have had at the time of her treatment. Though I do not remember her experience with ovarian cancer, I remember what it felt like to almost have lost her.
All of the years I had walked with her, I had not once felt the need to cry. I was just a toddler when she was diagnosed. Perhaps it was the tiny brush with her cancer almost coming back after sixteen years that brought the tears on. I blinked them away quickly, as she had stated before that this was meant to be a celebration, not a time to weep. She always hated funeral—she still requests that there be a parade after her death.
As she walked and I forced my tears back, everyone else seemed to disappear. Through countless medical ailments and real brushes with death, she never showed one sign of pessimism. She took the struggles and strain she endured and turned them into the driving force behind the start of her dream life.
In this moment, her skin was radiant. The sun set on the track, and she was still glowing.