An hour ago I walked down the corridor, head down, walking past the square reflections of the lights. Along my left side a bank of windows looks over a snowed-in courtyard where, in warmer weather, the doctors and nurses and interns and students go to eat. There’s a small gazebo there covered in snow. For just the briefest moment I can see Alicia standing there in the spring snow. She’s dressed in all black, a long black sweater coat, big black boots, a black watch cap covering her bald head, a blue surgeons mask — her arms flung wide.
Waiting in the curtained off room with my mother as her surgical team came through — her surgeon marked her right side where they would be deflating her lung for the operation, the young student doing rounds with anesthesia said he wanted to be a neurologist and I looked up at the acoustic tiles and noted the subtle butterflies etched there — and I told him that my son had fallen off his longboard a few years ago and had a severe TBI — and then crowded in that curtained-off room was Gerry and me two-and-a-half years ago — Willi, pale and intubated beneath a huge looming canopy of lights and emergency equipment, everyones voice hollow and echoing in my head — “is this mom, ” walking to Gerry and the noise of the machine breathing for him and being outside of my own body as the normal world swirled around us. I kept saying “I’m just his stepmom” and someone said “you are mom enough” and a nurse swung through the door saying “there’s always hope for a miracle” and I remember thinking “wait, what. What. A miracle. What do you mean a miracle. It’s just a stupid skateboard fall on our suburban street.” And two years later our lives are completely changed.
And then I am back. In the room with my mother. She called me right before Christmas and told me on the phone because Gerry and I were headed out the door to a hockey game on a rare date. She told me quickly and off-handedly about it and what needed to happen. Like so much in life there isn’t anything to be done except move forward.
The night she told me I lay in bed with Gerry and the two dogs, and the cat and I felt this perilous trap door beneath my heart open up… and spent about ten minutes feeling terror grip me — the kind I hadn’t felt since my father’s death. Something primal and outside of language. My brain wanted to tell me all the stories of my mother just then — from making violet chains in the shadow of a barn in an Illinois field when I was a toddler — to her desperate rages that stalked our years together after my father’s death. She and I curled up together on the couch — her head on one end, mine on the other, reading through winter weekends. Sleeping in her old Honda on my way to college. Running in the rain after Alicia’s wedding with our fancy shoes in our hands and our silk dresses flattened against us.
I walked down that corridor and was alone. The gazebo in the courtyard was covered with snow. I thought to myself that there is no escaping the truth that we all will face a life that takes people that we love and that what we have is our own heart, our own mind, our own company to live with. I thought to myself that I needed to clear out all the detritus in my own heart and mind to live there — fill those empty spaces with love and let go of the stories that only serve to feed resentment. I want my heart larger, not smaller. It’s the hardest work to do.