This is a status update from Facebook that I published on May 13, 2018, after returning home from a trip to Tucson to visit my ailing mother. It ended up being much more of a story than I first expected it to be, and since it’s one of the rare times I’ve written, without allegory or metaphor, about my family, I figured it was worth preserving from the bottomless well of social media.
Brace yourself: Tales of Parenting And Childing
As many of you know, my mother recently suffered some pretty extreme health issues, and on April 16th I had flown back to Tucson to be with her and my sister, Robin.
My whole life, my mother has met me at the Tucson Airport whenever I have flown in. Literally every single time, except for the three years or so she lived in Bullhead and I went back to Tucson for weddings and such. But I’ve always either been met by my mother, or a rental car agent. This time, at 1 AM, standing in the warm Tucson night, it was my long time friend Josh Galyen who pulled up and that was weird. I climbed into the car, and said, “It’s funny, because as I was waiting for you I kept expecting you to be driving your pick-up truck from when we were kids.” He laughed, and put one hand on my leg with that firm, this-is-a-hug pressure some boys use to express love to one another. Josh and I are always boys together, no matter how old we get.
He dropped me off at the hospital, with a hoodie to give to my sister, who had left her suitcase in my mother’s home and forgotten to bring something warm. When I met her in the lobby she explained to me: “Mom’s running a fever, so they keep the room at 50 degrees. I’m freezing.” But she refused to leave her side for more than a few minutes at a time.
My mother was in a surgery and painkiller induced semi-coma, with failing kidneys, a failing heart, virtually no blood pressure, and barely able to take a breath for herself. She also had swelling infections in both legs, with one turning black to the point that they were considering amputation. It wasn’t looking good. There were tubes everywhere. Virtually nothing in her body was working on its own.
On my first day there, the cardiologist stopped by to chat and told me there probably wasn’t much they could do, but they were trying. She asked me if they should attempt to revive my mother were her heart to fail. I told her no, just as my sister had. Our mother had been very clear that she did not want to come back, once she’d gone.
“I think that’s the right choice,” said the cardiologist. “If she were younger, it would be different. But if her heart failed now we’d need to crack her chest open, it would take so much to heal from and she’s already struggling so much now. It wouldn’t be much of a life you’d be bringing her back to.”
“I understand,” I said, “But honestly it’s just not what she would want. And I will respect my mother’s wishes.”
“That’s good. Your sister said the same. I think it’s good that you are respecting your mother’s decisions. Often times, when this moment comes, families have a hard time letting go and doing that. It often results in some very prolonged, painful experiences.”
“We’ll do everything we can for your mother.”
Later that day the surgeon came by and told us that one leg was doing much better, and the other holding stable. They didn’t think they’d need to amputate or operate further. The kidney specialist dropped by: she was improving. “Far from normal,” he said, “but much better than it was. Let’s wait and see.” On the bed, my mother was stirring. She had responded to my sister’s voice when she arrived, and mine when I first had too. She had squeezed our hands. She could hear us. We brushed her hair and my sister read to her. I went home for the night and cleaned the place, putting away everything she’d left out when they rushed her to the hospital. I washed the bedclothes, and made the bed. I did her laundry. In one hour I handled more women’s underwear than I’m pretty sure I’ve handled in the cumulative rest of my life. I cleaned her fridge out and brought the fruit back to the hospital the next day. “Eat the fruit,” I told my sister. “It’ll make Mom happy to know that even now, she’s still feeding her kids.”
And later that day our mother’s eyes were open. She could now interact with us. For a time she and I sat and looked at the view of the mountains outside her window. The thing about Tucson is that pretty any direction you look there are mountains. That’s partly why we moved there. But not every view is a good one. This room had a good view. There were Palo Verde trees blooming yellow in the parking lot. Sunset on Arizona asphalt makes me feel twenty-one-and-laying-in-the-pool-on-my-back-planning-my-escape again.
The nurse said: she’s breathing on her own. And we’re going to see if her blood pressure can hold steady by itself.
The kidney guy came by: the kidneys were almost normal again.
The surgeon came by: the bad leg was looking better. The not so bad leg was almost
just a leg again.
The cardiologist came by: “You know… she’s improving. The heart is functioning better. We’ll see.”
By Thursday they were joking with us, the doctors and the nurses. They were joking with her. She was talking. She was critiquing the food. She cried a few times. She re-remembered our dead brother, our dead father. That was tough to watch happen. Suddenly remembering the things you forget when you dream on drugs, I realized, was probably something my mother had never experienced before. How sudden and cold is the reality welcome back. But she was doing better, much better. So on Friday I went to lunch with a dear friend, at our favorite restaurant.
Angela Runyon is my “secret” high school friend. We did not like each other freshman year. And then sophomore year we had every single class together. So… we got to like one another better. I wrote a poem about her one day in history class, because she stood in the light in a doorway I just happened to glance at, and I thought she was beautiful. We baked quiches together for French class (she was Angele, I was Serge) and we obsessively watched MY SO CALLED LIFE separately, but recapped the next day together. When we were in THE CRUCIBLE, “The claws, she’s stretching her claws,” line (one of her nine lines in the play) became a catch phrase for us and mutual friends for the next three years. We were part of different crowds, we never ate lunch together, or attended the same parties, she’s not in my terribly embarrassing prom picture with my friends, or in the far worse and notorious “three cars” picture somebody thought would be a good idea to take (I look appropriately unhappy to be there at least) but we were always, always friends. My mom had sewn her costume for A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. Her baby daughter was the first baby of a friend of mine I ever held. She has pictures of me looking incredibly uncomfortable and is the one who once convinced me to confront an ex at his job and force him to apologize to me. I know that she spent a year believing Matchbox 20’s song “Push” was “about her.”
“It’s all so weird,” I tell her, “we weren’t always the closest mother and son. Especially lately. I definitely didn’t call much. I think she always thought she was taking time away from my real life, and so she was always trying to get me off the phone when I called, and I took that as she didn’t want to hear from me. Even this past Christmas, I had to threaten to leave so she would let me set the table for her. It was like she hated me being nice to her. And she never understood me. She was afraid of my homosexuality, afraid of my friends, afraid of my driving, afraid of my lifestyle, like afraid it would hurt me, you know? And like, I didn’t like her boyfriend, or some of her choices, she did not get my art and she never ever listened to me but she’d always ask my advice and I hate when people do that… But then I don’t know, a couple years ago, I called once, like really upset about money and my life and everything and she was amazingly… like she told me I was someone she was proud of. And that she knew she didn’t understand me, but that it didn’t matter because she could tell I was my own person and unlike anyone else and she was proud of that. She was proud that I had become somebody who was themself. Which is like… I mean, that’s the thing about my parents. They weren’t perfect, you know, but I can definitely say that they both let us all figure out who the fuck we are, you know? They never tried to control us, or stop us, or change us. My parents loved us and gave us support and space to fuck up our lives but like, on our terms.”
“I hope my kids can say that about us someday,” Angela says to me. “Because that’s kind of all there is. Like, nobody knows how to do this. My parents didn’t. My husband’s parents didn’t. We don’t. At least we know it, like that’s what we tell ourselves. At least we’re not lying to ourselves. So we mess up, again and again, and we lean in and learn from it. But it’s like we’re always a step behind. And they just grow up so fast. And your life doesn’t stop. If you had asked me five years ago would I be living in a house in the same school district I went to high school in, I would have laughed at you. But here we are, becoming something we didn’t exactly plan and its so suburban and not cool. And meanwhile, it’s coming, I can see it, my daughter is already turning into this other person, this person I’m going to have to get to know all over again, probably many times in my life, and one day it’ll be the same for her brother and then they’ll both be somewhere else, raising their own kids, or whatever, and it’ll just be us again and we’ll just have to hope we loved them enough and hugged them enough and then figure out what to do with the rest of our lives.”
I get back to the hospital. My sister looks exhausted.
“Is Mom okay?” I ask.
“Yeah.” She rolls her eyes. “We just got into a stupid argument so… she’s fine.”
My sister goes to get some food and make some calls. I sit down next to my mother.
“How are you?” I ask.
“Your sister is crazy,” she replies.
I nod and pat the hand that doesn’t have a tube in it.
Happy Mother’s Day, Parents. Happy Mother’s Day, Children.