It’s been two years since I got the call from my cousin, frantically urging me to get down to the hospital immediately.
It’s a strange call to get. Out of the blue, on a Saturday morning. When your only other concern is finishing up the American Express reconciliation for work. When you haven’t spoken to the parent in question in nearly half a decade. I was temporarily shocked into a state of inaction after hanging up the phone. I entered a few more charges into my Numbers spreadsheet before calling my sister, relaying to her what little information I had: Doctors had found a couple of tumors in mom’s brain. They were saying she might not make it through the weekend.
“So,” Lindsay asked, “What are you going to do?”
From my vantage point today, it seems silly. Of course you go. You always go. But back then, there was hesitation. Anxiety. Dread. What would I be inviting back into my life, even temporarily? How would I handle sitting in the waiting room with the aunt who last I saw during a screaming match in a Save Mart parking lot? The uncle I blamed for disowning my sister and my cousin? Mom’s friends who blamed me for every ailment and sadness she had suffered since I first cut her out of my life five years prior?
I change my outfit. I put on make-up. I pace in front of my bathroom mirror a handful of times. How does one appropriately dress when saying goodbye to an estranged parent? Should one focus on comfort? Or on trying not to look too poor/too fat/too sloppy in preparation for the onslaught of impending judgement from the few dozen people one despises most in the world?
I drive to the hospital, unclear of where to actually go once I get there. Something about a cancer center. I try the main doors. They are locked. “Don’t do this,” I think. “Don’t you dare die before I get to you.” Now that my mind is set on showing up, I am panicked I won’t make it in time. More fuel for everyone to hate me. More reason to disappoint the entire world.
I finally try the ER. I report to the front desk, breathless, and give my mother’s name.
“Who are you?” the stone-faced woman behind the glass snaps back at me.
“I’m her daughter.”
She says this like a character in a movie.
Long and drawn out and with a since of knowing, like she and my mother have been friends for exactly the amount of time my mother and I have been estranged. Like she has working knowledge of every deplorable thing I have ever done, or thought, or almost thought in my entire life.
“Hey,” she says to another girl working beside her. “The patient in room 3b? This is one of her daughters.”
They share a snarky glance, and then the other woman looks at me icily as well. Or maybe I just think she does. In this moment, I am convinced my mother has managed to tell her sad tale to everyone at Community Regional Medical Center and I will be on the defensive with every nurse and doctor and janitor I come across during my visit. The first woman gives me a pass that says “Visitor”. It might as well say “Asshole Daughter Who Totally Abandoned Her Poor, Perfect Mother”. I am certain at this point every single person in the hospital can see me for what I really am.
My cousin greets me in the waiting room, friendly and concerned. My aforementioned aunt is next to her. If looks could kill, I would have died right then and there. I decide not to bother with pleasantries. Nothing about the situation is pleasant.
They take me to see my mother. She is unrecognizable, her head swollen and covered in gauze. She is heavily drugged on pain killers and snoring loudly when I enter the room. I eventually, awkwardly, sit down next to her bed and take her hand. I say nothing. I instantly regret that my phone is in my purse on the counter on the other side of the room. I feel stuck. I want her to wake up and I don’t want her to wake up. The chair is uncomfortable and I finally get up to stretch. It is then that she stirs.
“Lindsay?” She guesses, after seeing me.
“No, it’s me.” I say, and sit down again.
“Oh, Haley.”she asks through half-closed eyes.”What made you show up?”
And suddenly I am five years old again, caught with my hand in the cookie jar, burning from the inside with regret and guilt and shame and self-condemnation. Craving acceptance and forgiveness and understanding and peace. For a second, nothing else matters but that she is there, and I am there, and she knows that I am there. She drifts in and out of consciousness. She lets me hold her hand. The machines beep. My back hurts. I don’t move. I watch her sleep, I hold her hand, and I count down the hours until my sister’s scheduled arrival. I know that, whether she lives or dies, I have entered a new section of my life. There was life with mom, life without mom, and then whatever everything from now on was going to be.
For the past two years, I have been frozen with exhaustion, grief, worry, and fear. I’ve stopped living. I’ve stopped writing. Stopped meditating. Stopped taking care of myself. I’ve put on 50 pounds and fallen of the sobriety wagon. I don’t pick things up when I drop them. I don’t wipe up spills when I make them. I kill a bug on my wall and leave the guts there, splattered and morbid, a pathetic reminder of my high levels of depression and low levels of giving a shit about anything, even hygiene. I stay in a secret relationship with someone for a year- someone who tells me from the very onset of our courtship that they will not ever be capable of loving me. I stop offering to ever do more than the bare minimum at work. I opt for sleep over all other activities. I make sure people know why I’m fat and lazy. “This isn’t my fault, ok? I have an excuse. My mom is dying.” I feel gross when I use it as a justification for my behavior or appearance. But that doesn’t stop me from doing it.
It hit me this weekend that it’s been two years of me living like this, or not living, as the case may be. I decided it’s time to take my life back. It’s time I start caretaking for me again, first and foremost. I started this blog ages ago, to write about my experiences as an involuntary caretaker, but I just immediately fell into a pattern of not writing at all. So this is my first entry, going back to the beginning of this last chapter of my life. I know my sister and I are probably the only 30+ year olds in the history of the world who have to post a disclaimer with everything they write, but such is the nature of our complicated relationship with our mother. I have to write about the dark things in order to get to a place where I can express the love and lightness that is also there. And I write about both, because I am a writer. If you feel the need to share these ‘darker’ stories with her, thus hurting her feelings and damaging our relationship further, then you, my friend, are the asshole. Not me.