In the final months of my mother’s life I was present. I had always been the child who had not moved far from home, who had gone to a college just down the road, who had called most every day. I was the child who, when my mother had an accident my freshman year, came home many weekends to help take care, to try to distract her from the pain she’d never shed. On Sundays my father would drive me back to the urban campus, to my studies, to small complications of my own, and so I came and went, and I was never sure if I ever actually helped her. In the years afterward, when the consequences of my mother’s accident multiplied and deepened, I tried to help but nothing finally helped. I did what I was capable of.
I was marrying, I was working, I was mothering, I was writing. Time was always short.
But now was different. Now we were older, both of us were. Now there was the sense of something ending. The medical news was confusing. No patterns held. No underlying theory explained the symptoms, which were very real and pressing. My mother was in and out of the hospital, back and forth with doctors; suggestions were made, but little that was said or done was helpful. Every medical measure seemed stopgap. All the clinical words were vague. The tests were too many and they were intrusive. They were black-hole procedures.
I bought my mother orchids, pumpkins, Popsicles. I bought her socks and sweaters, brought her pictures inside frames. I left a bag of groceries melting on her stoop because she could not, on that day, come to the door, because, I thought, she wouldn’t. I roasted a chicken in the middle of one afternoon and hurried it to her house—not lunchtime, not dinner, just something.
I said to her, I’m sure it’s nothing.
I said to my husband, This is a terrible something.
I got in the way and out of the way. My timing was imperfect.
The doctors were imperfect, too. The doctors failed to conclude in time, to establish a proper protocol, to set her on the path toward a cure. It all could have been different but for a day or two. She would have been saved save for this: in the hospital, this time, they gave her blood thinners for a condition she didn’t have. Upon a too-long at last, when they had established a reliable diagnosis, when they had a reliable treatment plan, they couldn’t do anything until her blood was right again.
We’ll operate Monday, they promised.
You’ll feel so much better, they promised.
This will all be over then.
Please, we said, can’t you operate now? Save her now? Fix her now? We said it. All of us did, my mother, too.
But the thinners were in the blood, and the operation had to wait, and the stroke the surgery would have prevented struck my mother later that same day.
My father was there when it happened. I was out, it was late, I felt something harden in my heart, caught myself, caught my breath.
What’s wrong? my husband said, there in the dark, as I knelt to the floor, among a crowd of dancers.
It’s my mother, I said.
My phone rang early the next morning, and I knew.
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