Two months ago, I was told via voicemail that my mother was going to have emergency brain surgery. Wednesday night’s social work class—the first one of the semester—had just wrapped-up and, after the last of my students exited the building, I headed to my office to grab my satchel, lock-up, and head home. Per usual, I checked my phone and saw my favorite niece Lauren had called. “Tio,” she said, “I don’t know if you know this but grandma is having brain surgery in the morning. Has a couple of blood clots. Call mom. OK? I miss you. Bye, tio.”
I chuckled—a bit—at the irony of the situation, as I had ended the class with an exercise that a colleague suggested I try that involved exploring personally held attitudes about specific stages of human development, ranging from birth to old age. I had students stand against the whiteboard in front of the classroom and share their thoughts, thinking this would be a nice way bond as a cohort. Things went along smoothly for about five minutes, until all the crying started. They cried about their childhoods, fathers that left them, bullying in high school, divorces, and empty nests. I wanted to strangle Cynthia, the colleague. One of my older students (probably in her 50s) got up next. She started to share but then completely broke down. We were all stunned. Apart from her crying, it was so quiet in there that you could have heard a blotter of acid drop back in the 1960s. Eventually, she composed herself, apologized, and informed the class that she had just lost her mother a few days prior. She talked about how difficult it was to have the tables turned on her and watch the people that took care of her all her life deteriorate, requiring her to take care of them. Embarrassed, she wiped her eyes and promptly sat down, surrounded by her very empathetic peers. I remembered the picture of my mother and that I have on my refrigerator door that I see every morning when I grab some rice milk for my cereal: she is on a couch with perfect hair and make-up with me—shirtless in pajama bottoms, holding a copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. We both looked happy. Overcome with guilt, I threw myself upon the pyre and decided to suffer along with everyone else. Plus, I knew they would remember this night, during instructor evaluation time. I took a deep breath, dove right in, and did well until I got to “old age,” but got through it, somehow.
I made it to the Neuro ICU at about 10 PM. When I got to her room, I saw her disheveled and confused. Her gown—a yellow so ugly she would have left against medical advice if she were more lucid—was off one shoulder, exposing more skin than I was comfortable with. I looked over at her sitter, who had been there ten hours, already, due to her having tried to get out of bed multiple times that day. “Son,” I quickly blurted at her. My mother kept trying to pull her gown from her legs, unaware of how scantily clad she was already. I pulled it back over her knees and grabbed her hands to try and calm her.
“I thought you said you didn’t have a son, Alda,” the sitter said.
Foggy, my mother answered, “I don’t.” She looked at me blankly. “I have Lisa, my daughter. My granddaughter, Katie) …” She started at her gown, again. “No. I don’t have a son.”
I was prepared for that, but it still stung. “Wishful thinking, old woman.”
She laughed, apparently, remembering some things about us. After scanning my face more, a light turned on. “Anthony! Where were you?”
“Teaching. Just heard about all this.” I squeezed her hands, noticing how pale she was. I didn’t remember her skin being so white. “You OK?” My eyes began to sting.
“You love me,” she asserted after watching me melt some in front of her. “No. You don’t love me. You like me, but you don’t love me.”
“Well, not right now I don’t.” Again, she laughed.
“I love you, mom,” I assured, using the tank-top under my maroon dress shirt as a tissue to mop up tears and snot. I told her about the picture I had looked at that morning—not knowing what else to say—but it didn’t seem to register.
The next hour or so was spent calming her down, dodging her pleas to take her home. Intermittently, she would speak word salad: random words strung together in nonsensical sentences. Other times she would talk to her father, who had died thirty-five years prior, repeating over and over, “Ayudame, papi! Ayudame! (Help me, daddy! Help me!)
At some point, she seemed more lucid, so I asked if she was scared about going into surgery, but she was oblivious. “They’re doing a procedure, mom. In and out. Easy.” I smiled, hoping the last conversation with my mother wouldn’t be a lie.
“Not with my hair looking like this!” (If you knew my mother, you would know this was a really good sign).
“It looks fine,” I laughed, but as soon as things started to look more optimistic, the pleading and agitation returned. Midnight had already come and gone, and she showed no signs of tiring. I was physically and mentally spent. I was thinking about her. The surgery. The “what ifs.” I held back tears, holding her hands, still. Then out of nowhere, her restlessness subsided, and she just looked at me. She wanted to talk but couldn’t. Our eyes locked and in that moment, I saw her, the mother with perfect hair and make-up on the couch, and—through all my bullshit and artifice—she saw me, shirtless little boy in pajama bottoms, holding a copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar and for a few seconds we were both happy, again.
Previously published by Down in the Dirt Magazine.