At 26, I never thought I was old enough to get one of those life-shattering phone calls. But my phone did ring, and I already know that nothing will ever be the same again.
She asks for carrot cake from our favorite restaurant, and Oreo Thins, and a brownie blast sundae from Sonic. This is maybe the oddest quirk of my new mother, the product of a stroke that happened just months before my 26th birthday. The mother I grew up with hated sweets. But now she wants bourbon-glazed pecan pie, and if I hold the Styrofoam ice cream container on her tray up to her, she’ll use her good hand to claw at it until she’s scraping through the bottom.
This version of my mother also might speak Spanish, because I walk in often to the TV on Telemundo. I ask, “Is that what you really want to watch?” She nods, “yes.” She half speaks, half sings to the nurses, telling them to call her Lola, because she’s at the Copacabana. She does not care much for flowers, something she used to love. All of the gorgeous bouquets and potted arrangements that have shown up are now relegated to the far windowsill and the floor. She does, however, still want her dog, her phone, a glass of Jack and her coffeemaker – and she wants to work, all constants from the past that she will not shut up about, but simply can’t have right now.
* * *
I woke up to see the fabled “something bad happened” missed call and listened to the voicemail telling me my mother had a massive stroke in the middle of the night and was in surgery with poor chances of survival. People always say that when you get news like that “you’ll be paralyzed,” and it turns out it’s true. I didn’t even really think until I’d gotten a call in to my father, her second ex-husband, to ask what to do – which was obviously to get to the hospital, but in the silent film going on in my head I needed to be told. My fiancé was making coffee – the universal adult sign for “we are handling this” – when I saw the bottle of Advil on our bathroom counter and had a spontaneous impulse to take a couple. Nothing hurt, but there was this subconscious urge for numbness that said, “Hey, that makes your head stop hurting when you have a hangover, maybe it will make this stop hurting too.”
As we drove to the hospital, I started obsessing about going to a drug store to buy makeup remover wipes, maybe the kind with a toner in them. I knew how she felt about maintaining a good skin care routine, and she would hate to have makeup smeared all over her face. Thankfully the chilly early morning air coming in through the car window snapped me out of it.
Navigating a hospital, with its sprawling corridors and unhelpful signs, is annoying when you’re trying to go see someone’s new baby, or drop flowers off for someone recovering from a broken bone. But it’s downright infuriating when you’re trying to find your relative who might die. Every receptionist will tell you something different, looking up from vacant eyes that say, “When’s my next smoke break?”
The first in a long line of people who would incur my grief-induced wrath was a squat woman sitting behind the ER waiting room desk. I was trying to find the waiting room my stepdad had directed me to over the phone, the one for patients who were in critical surgeries. The big-fucking-deal waiting room, not the grandma’s-knee-replacement waiting room. This particular woman had as much sympathy as one would expect from an attendant at a towing lot, and said flatly to my tear-covered face, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. This is the only waiting room.” I managed to squeal through the tears in my throat, “Then why are you even here?” when my fiancé led me away by my arm. Maybe she took her job so seriously that to her this was the only waiting room, the place to be.
When I finally found the waiting room that I was told didn’t exist, all of the gathered friends looked at me as though I was made of sand. Like if the air conditioning was turned on I might just blow away. And they were right. But their faces still made me angry. Because I felt guilty for being the last one there, with bleary eyes, the only child who, until this happened, slept with her phone on silent because she didn’t think anything like this would ever happen. And I didn’t need to see it on anyone’s face but mine.
The neurosurgeon came out with his head hung low, and it was the closest I’ve ever come to passing out from sheer nerves – something I didn’t think happened in real life. He sat down and began explaining, all the while repeating the refrains, “It’s okay if you don’t understand” and “I’ll repeat this if you want me to.” I could feel my face getting hot with anger at what I felt was condescension. At one point he referred to himself as a “plumber,” which in retrospect makes perfect sense for how a doctor would explain brain surgery to a grieving family. But in the moment I wanted to hit him with my purse and scream, “Get me a real fucking doctor, then!” In the end though, he was right: the second he left the room I couldn’t seem to remember much of what he’d said, just the general fact that she was alive, but barely, and only time would tell what would happen next as they moved her to the ICU for observation.
My fiancé sensed that I was about to burst into a puddle, and pointed to the TV, “Look, Obama.” Obama and the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Troudeau, were kissing babies. A smile couldn’t help but wash over me, like most liberals watching the coverage that day. And then reality came crashing in as I thought, “My mother will never kiss my babies.”
* * *
For some reason I was a very antisocial griever. Even the close family friends, who in reality were making everything so much more bearable, and bringing me wine by the case, still made me want to scream, “This is MY mom. Everybody Out!” And then there were the acquaintances, grief rubberneckers whom my mother didn’t even like before the stroke, messaging me on any platform possible, only to receive back a curt lie like, “Thank you for your concern, but she’s not allowed to have visitors.”
I wanted to sit with her. Just me. I wanted to distract myself on my laptop while she peacefully snored in perfect cadence with all of the beeping machines she was hooked up to. I wanted to give her sips of water without people anxiously watching for fear she might choke. I wanted to rub her hands with lotion without people whispering in the corner about how sweet of a daughter I was. Because how sweet of a daughter I was didn’t matter. I just wanted to take care of the things I could control. If they weren’t going to give us answers, I’d be goddamned if she was going to have dry skin, too.
I’d never had a sweet tooth before, but in the hospital I would have gladly sipped on a cup of chocolate syrup if you’d given it to me. Every time anyone went to get coffee, I’d chime, “Maybe a cookie too?” I opted out of meals people offered to bring me, and would instead sneak down to the cafeteria and just eat pie. It felt good to just let go. If her life was going to be on hold, so was my control over my waistline. I considered relinquishing control over everything, actually. On day one I was determined to keep up appearances: keep my mascara in check, hair combed, shirt tucked in. But by day three I was thinking, “Do I have to wear a bra today? She certainly doesn’t.” As I watched them put in her catheter I thought, “Maybe I’ll piss myself in solidarity.”
In the end, decorum prevailed. I figured if our contingent appeared classy, maybe she’d get better care. I knew I was projecting the wrong side of our country’s current debate about socioeconomics and healthcare, but I was desperate. And yet health is the great equalizer, and in the eyes of the medical staff, everyone in the ICU was the same, just another person whose ass needed to be wiped. I wanted to yell, “This woman was a CEO!” when I saw them jeer at her bedhead, or roll their eyes when she insisted on being taken to a toilet instead of using the bedpan that she referred to as “my nemesis.” I tried to brush her hair and keep her covered, but the combination of her wily side and her dead one made that hard.
She’d been very beautiful when she was young: high Native American cheekbones, dark, wild hair, great figure. Before the stroke, at 61, she was still capable of making herself glitzy, but she hadn’t put a lot of effort into aging gracefully, and considering what she was going through now, there wasn’t much hope of turning anything around. So I continued to show up in heels and power blouses, with my hair combed and my bra on, to keep up appearances for the family.
But all of this was just a distraction from the matter at hand. My mother had been laid flat by what the doctors were calling an “almost fatal neural event.” One wryly showed me her brain scans barking, “You see this whole white half here. That’s the dead part.” Luckily the part of the brain affected controlled more motor functions than personality traits, but it grew tiresome to consider luck in the matter. It felt like saying, “Well, the robbers took all of your stuff, and beat you to a bloody pulp, but now you can focus on the less superficial things in life!”
* * *
My mother and I had a very “Steel Magnolias” relationship – close, but fraught. Before we ended up in the hospital, I’d spent a lot of time consumed with her relationship with alcohol, and its impact on her relationship with me. Holidays were usually hard for her, because drinking heavily is socially acceptable during the requisite festivities, and she was easily inspired to make a scene. When my fiancé and I announced our engagement on New Year’s Eve, my step-aunt casually asked if we’d thought about where we might get hitched. I told her that part of me did want to get married at home here in Tennessee, but that other places weren’t entirely out of the realm of possibility. My mom stumbled over and gave a crooked smile, as she leaned in to half-whisper, half-yell in my ear, “If you don’t get married here, I’m not fucking coming.” She then proceeded to harass my fiancé loudly and from across the room for trying to “steal me away to where he comes from,” at which point I pulled her to the bathroom where I yelled about how typical this was of her until she slapped me, and then we left.
She was never afraid to drudge up the past, stick a finger in a wound, or hold a grudge. But her good qualities were just as strong. When I was hurting she was always my first call. At twenty, I’d been living in New York, when my boyfriend broke up with me unexpectedly. We’d only been dating six weeks, and he was an Episcopal Republican from Dallas, whom I can’t believe I even fell for looking back, but for some reason I was heartbroken. I’d sit on my stoop every morning before heading to my unpaid internship and call her. Even though she was busy getting ready for her own day, and could have easily told me to suck it up, she put everything on pause to just sit on the phone with me while I cried, thinking up stories to distract me. About the time she and my dad snuck over the border into Juarez after a show they’d played in Texas. About her grandparents who taught her to ride horses and kill chickens in rural Oklahoma. About the time her house burned down when she was six, and her family lost what was already close to nothing. She did that every day for two weeks until I didn’t need it anymore.
Reconciling our bad times with our good while she laid there in that hospital fueled my own unhealthy relationship with alcohol. When I was finally alone with her at night, having struggled all day just to get out of bed to be with her, I’d put down a bottle or two of wine, wishing I had let a little more light in through our mother-daughter window while I’d had the chance. Wishing I’d been a little more gentle with her, a little more understanding. Her own mother, whom she’d had a hard go with thanks to my grandmother’s problems with pills caused by a mid-century misunderstanding of mental illness, had a stroke when I was little, and she’d gone through the same thing I was going through now. I wished I could ask her about it. Instead I’d sit there closing one eye to focus on her heart rate monitor, thinking about all the times she’d tried to force her way into my life, and now saying out loud, “Well, you got me now, Mom. Are you happy?” Of course she couldn’t even comprehend the notion, and would never have wanted it this way.
* * *
The horror stories I’d heard years ago on “Dateline” and “20/20” about negligence in hospitals rang in my ears. Every nurse appeared more inadequate than the next. Actual hospitals are a far cry from the purposeful, dutiful, “Someone get in here and help me save this woman’s life!” depiction on television. Most things in reality are nothing like their Hollywood depictions, but I still couldn’t help but wish we were in the “Grey’s Anatomy” version.
In my eyes, everyone was doing everything wrong – pulling on her arm too hard, tugging out her IV, not wiping her well enough, shrugging when I insisted it was a problem that she’d only had three bites of ice cream in the past week. This became even more frustrating when her friends and husband would act as though I was paranoid as I charged down hallways to hold someone accountable for ripping tape off of her so violently she bled. They were just trying to maintain a sense of calm, for my benefit as well as hers. I raved anyway, because at least it felt like I was doing something.
In the days that came she woke up, and started saying the president’s name every hour when asked by the nurses. But the fact that she simply said “Obama” instead of something more abrasive made it clear to me that she wasn’t all there. She just wanted to sleep, and I just wanted to cry, but we both had to deal with not getting what we wanted. Instead I learned how to efficiently get a diaper on her. I learned to smile while I fed her, as she tried with the side of her mouth that was not paralyzed to spit the foods she didn’t like back at me.
Most importantly I learned just how much she meant to me as glimpses of her came through the fog, like when I showed her the screensaver on her phone, a picture I’d posted to Instagram with my cat that she’d then saved. It was the kind of photograph posted on a dull day, with good lighting and extra cleavage. On the surface it says, “Isn’t my new kitten so cute!” But underneath it says, “I’m a victim of our media-driven society, tell me I’m pretty!” I’d always been embarrassed that she’d made it the cover photo of an iPhone 6 Plus, but in this instance, I just wanted to see if she remembered the name of my cat. As I pointed to him cooing, “Who’s that, Mom?” She looked up at me and said, “Your boobs.”
* * *
She was no longer in immediate danger of dying, so the hospital shooed us out of the ICU and into a rehabilitation hospital. This place was billed as the best stroke rehab in the south. With only three stories, it promised much more concentrated care, top-notch equipment, and therapists who were going to work her day in and day out. To me, though, it was just quiet. Quiet enough for reality to set in, and the shock to dull out, like when your eyes come into focus walking outside in the summertime. I didn’t know it was possible, but I began to long for the ICU where all of the commotion and wires suggested change, mutability. But this land was the land of the slog. Of slow, painful work to overcome what is otherwise stagnation.
In the ICU I had been good at the job of the devoted daughter. Now, in the rehab hospital, I had to try to communicate with this new, flattened version of my mother. I had to not be annoyed with her when she kept asking me to go get her the remote for the TV in her bedroom: “It’s just in the other room, why won’t you get it for me?” I kept trying to kindly explain that this was not her house. I had to just sit there while she stared at me, unsure if she wanted to say a million things but just couldn’t get the words out, or if her mind was just vacant.
The move to the rehab hospital also meant the end of all of the well-wishers, who in their absence I finally appreciated. Her close friends were still in and out for quick visits, but once the urgent matter of life or death was off of the table, I and my stepfather were alone to face our new reality. I tried not to get upset as I watched everyone I knew going about their normal lives, mentioning dinners with their own mothers, or having big nights out where they didn’t have to worry about accidentally crying at the bar. I’d do anything to avoid home though, where I saw her in everything, right down to my own hands that were identical to hers, bony and veiny in all the same places. So I accompanied people on what were average nights for them, but like theater for me: “Yes, I’ll have another shot. Oh, of course I love that movie. Yes, I’m so glad it finally got warmer, let’s plan a camping trip!”
The cycle of being dedicated, just wanting to not be there, and then feeling guilty for not being there, was my new, heavy Sisyphean stone. I didn’t want to admit it, but I resented the fact that my daily routine now included a stop at the hospital. I knew I didn’t necessarily have to go everyday, but I did, didn’t I?
We were making new memories, like when she insisted the iPhone 7 was out, and thus the joke was born between my fiancé and me that she’s just living in the future now. Or when I walked in and before even saying hello she said, “Hey, Chloe try this bath gel. It’s really good,” and handed me a Dixie cup of mouthwash. As I pretended to take a sip, she said in her new robotic, deeper voice, “You can swallow it. It won’t kill you.” I tried to authoritatively reply, “No, you definitely can’t swallow it.” But she just looked up at me defiantly, thrusting the bottle in my hand saying, “Show me on here where it says that. It doesn’t.” It in fact did, in bold.
* * *
It’s been two weeks since that life-changing voicemail, and I’m watching my mother realize, during a talk with the neurologist, that she’s not going to have another surgery that will make everything go away, something she’d previously been fixated on. I watch her take in the fact that even with her hardest-willed efforts, life will be sharply redefined by what happened, even though she does not remember how long it’s been. That writing, walking, talking, using the bathroom on her own – those are all privileges she won’t just wake up with again. She starts to sob the panicky kind of sob that almost suffocates you. I quiet her tears, and refocus her attention to the spaghetti I’m feeding her, all the while sucking down the emotional geyser that wants to explode out of me.
When the doctor leaves I climb into bed with her, hoping if I close my eyes it will feel like it used to when she would cancel our brunch plans and say, “Want to watch crime shows in my bed instead? I’ll make biscuits and gravy.” After a minute she lets out what is now her only reaction to pain, a quiet, monotone “ouch.” For a moment I think that I am lying on her paralyzed arm, and that maybe, just maybe, our mother-daughter connection in this silent hospital room has brought it to life. But it’s the arm that can still feel, and I am squishing it. I take my leave, and walk to my car, considering throwing myself on the ground and just wailing, ripping at my clothes and beating the ground until my fists are bloody. But I just calmly drive home in silence, not even a window down, or talk radio. I don’t have her to comfort me when I cry anymore, so I might as well toughen up.
* * *
Chloe Stillwell has a writing degree from the New School, and is a culture columnist currently residing in Nashville. Her work has been featured in The Frisky, Death & Taxes, Mic, Salon, and Nerve, among others. She is also a UCB-trained stand-up comedian. Follow her on Twitter @chloekillwell.