December 15, 2015 | 7:45am
"No. Not again." I remember those words reverberated in my head so loudly I could hardly see. I hung up the phone and just sobbed. All of a sudden, I felt transported back to my college dorm room, freshman year, when you'd called to tell me I needed to come home because Dad was in bad shape. But he wasn't in "bad shape," he was already gone. You lied to me. When I arrived home you apologized for letting me believe he was still alive. You explained that you just couldn't bear the idea of me wandering through the airport and traveling alone for hours knowing my Dad was already dead. It was difficult for me to process anything at that time. I was only 17 so I remember feeling hurt and betrayed. How could my own mother lie to me like that? You let me travel thousands of miles carrying around false hope. Anger made itself right at home in my heart along with deep sorrow and fear. I understood that as my mom your job was to protect me, but I remember wondering why you didn't have enough faith in me to tell me the truth? After all, you were the one who was constantly reminding me that I was now a young adult. I could have handled the truth. If I'm honest, I think I held on to that for awhile. I was daddy's girl and I hated that it felt like everyone knew about his death before I did. I hated that I felt like I couldn't trust you anymore. I loved you but you lied to me...about something so devastating. I just didn't understand.
That memory had been archived long ago but now it streamed through my mind on a vicious loop. Are we really here again Mom? But this time it's you who is in "bad shape." Unlike then, however, it was difficult for me to stay optimistic. It all felt too hauntingly familiar. I kept wanting to call you to ask you what was really going on, but you were in the ICU, in a coma. I couldn't cry anymore; there was so much to do!
Chris (my new husband) and I jumped out of bed and began what was the most frantic day we've ever had in the four years of our relationship. He booked my flight and I packed my suitcase for three days, two weeks, a month? I didn't know. I didn't know what I was coming home to. I'd never booked a one-way ticket home. You hated that my stays at home grew shorter and shorter over the years. And now I had no idea when I'd leave. Finally, right? I wanted to smile about the irony but nothing inside me felt capable of making that happen. My eyes were burning from trying so hard to hold back the tears; when I felt like giving up I envisioned you regaining consciousness and sending me home as soon as you saw me. Nothing upset you more it seemed than for your children to fuss over you. I snapped myself back from the dark, mental fog that was taking over and realized I was packing a funeral dress. What was I doing? How could I even think that? I'm so sorry I did that. I kept apologizing to you and God. I told my husband and I felt so ashamed. He'd just married me four months ago and was now seeing what a monster I am. I felt sick about it, but unlike 21 years ago, I wasn't a kid anymore. I had to think pragmatically, right? That's how you and Dad raised me to think. I had to prepare myself for the "what if's," particularly when I'd been here before. I remember hearing somewhere that some people expect the bottom to drop out because it always has before. In that moment, I realized that that was undoubtedly me. I hated myself. I couldn't even look in the mirror. I hated that this was happening. I couldn't wait to see you so I could see for myself that you were going to be ok. I desperately wanted to give you the biggest hug and tell you how much I love you...and then make you feel sufficiently terrible for worrying me so much.
We pulled up to LAX and it all felt so overwhelming and giant. This is an airport I'd flown in and out of for 15 years and suddenly, it felt foreign to me. I kissed Chris goodbye and the dark, mental fog enveloped me again because I didn't know when I would see him again. I wanted him with me. I wanted this to not be happening. We were newlyweds and still on a high from our honeymoon, but now all I felt was fear and loneliness. Admittedly, I felt like that lost 17-year-old girl again wandering through the airport alone and fearful because deep down I knew I wouldn't return the same person. For the second time in my life, I was terrified to come home. What would I see? Who would be there? I couldn't stop thinking about dad. What would he say? Would he be right beside you? He'd have those doctors shaking in their boots by now, running things and barking orders. I talked to dad the entire way home. You always told me never to bargain with God, but I found myself promising him that I would get through this OK with grace and dignity, IF he would allow dad to appear to me, just this once. I don't know what I wanted... a hug, a pep talk, my sanity?
Dad never did appear to me, but I talked to him in my heart as I'd done so for decades now. "You couldn't have asked for her already Dad. She's still young. I'm still so young. She hasn't yet become a grandmother and you know how badly she wants that. I just got married. She just walked me down the aisle. This can't be her time...right? My wedding was not the last time I'd ever know what it feels like to have parents was it?
I arrived at the hospital mentally and emotionally exhausted, but as I approached your room in the ICU, a combination of adrenaline, stomach pain and a throbbing in my chest jolted me awake. The nurse pulled back the curtain and it felt like someone was twisting everything between my gut and my throat into a tight rope and I couldn't breathe. There you were Mom, just lying there. I almost couldn't make you out through all the tubes coming out of you. You were on life support. What was wrong with your face? Something was horribly wrong. Were you swollen? This wasn't you. I kept thinking I was in the wrong room. It didn't feel like you so it couldn't be you. All of a sudden, I couldn't feel anything. What was happening? I couldn't even cry. I just stared at you. I felt scared of you. I wasn't going to be able to do this. I'm not supposed to be here. My ears were ringing and I knew that I was either going to pass out or scream at the top of my lungs, until everything went black. I needed everything to go black. I needed you. And then, in what felt like a second, I was gifted a merciful amount of clarity. You needed me. It hit me like a truck. I always knew the day would come when you would need your children to care for you. We used to joke about that day, thinking we were so many years away from it. But here we were; it was premature and unexpected, but this was happening. And like the earth flipped on its axis, a shift of power took place between us whether we wanted it or not and the parent-child relationship as we'd known it was gone.
You were lying there, helpless and dying. And I was standing by your bedside. A lump in my throat the size of a grapefruit was fighting its way out, but I thought about what you would do if it was me in that bed. I gently took your hand and said, "Hi Mom. It's me Steph. I'm here and I'm not going anywhere. You're in good hands and you're going to be just fine. I promise. We're all going to be just fine." I lied. I'm so sorry. All I wanted to do in that moment was protect you in any way I could. Nothing else mattered. And like a dagger, the memory of our phone call in my dorm room 21 years ago pierced my heart. The grapefruit-sized lump finally made its way out and I started to cry. I'm so sorry I was angry at you for "lying" to me mom. I really thought that after all these years I'd come to understand where you were coming from on that fateful phone call all those years ago, but I hadn't; not really, not until this moment. I didn't understand the love between a mother and daughter and the lengths a mom would go to protect her child. I didn't truly appreciate how difficult making that phone call must have been for you. I'm not sure I ever really even understood you. And now you're dying. I'm sorry that I didn't understand love at all.
I get it now mom. Wake up! Please wake up.