I came home from class Monday night to find my husband standing in the kitchen with a look on his face.
We’ve been together 18 years. I can instantly tell in a single glance when something’s not right.
“Your dad called me.” (Yeah, something is definitely not right…) “Your mom is in the hospital. She had a heart attack.”
My relatives all live in Illinois and I’m in Pennsylvania. Since I moved away in the spring of 2000, whenever I’ve been faced with heart-wrenching circumstances, from 9/11 to my mother’s mortality, my first thought is always to jump in the car and hit the gas, heading west.
What am I doing out here? How can the last thing I said/did, to/with my family be [whatever trivial thing it was]?!?
I’m reminded of a scene in “Game of Thrones” that always brings tears to my eyes: Theon Greyjoy’s sister implores him to stop messing around at Winterfell, come back to the Iron Islands, and not to “die so far from the sea.” 🥺
No one died, though, THANK THE GODS. My mother is alive today because of quick action by my dad and the ambulance drivers and the staff at both Skokie and Evanston Hospitals. She’s alive because of her own ability to advocate for herself when it counted. And there’s no doubt a higher power was at work, because any one tiny hiccup in the system that night could’ve resulted in a completely different outcome. 🙏🏻
Mom’s outcome: Life-saving surgery to insert a stent into a 99%-blocked artery. She has since returned home to our house in the Chicago suburbs, the house where my parents raised three daughters over the past 40-plus years.
I did not attempt to drive the 12 hours home, into a blizzard, in the middle of COVID, when you can’t even be with people in the hospital. My first instinct to flee was, as per usual, foolish. But at that moment on Monday night in the kitchen with my husband, just like in some kind of TV show or movie, my entire life with my dear mommy absolutely did flash before my eyes.
It continues to flash, five days later.
If I made this post a tribute to my mom and all the special little — and big — things we have shared over the years, I would be sitting here writing for weeks. I mean, I have a few pretty intense chases I can cut to: Mom was standing in front of me the day I finally admitted my drinking was a problem that demanded to be solved, and prior to that, she was on the phone to “talk me off the ledge” when depression and alcoholism had pushed me to the brink of giving up.
Suicide Prevention and Addiction Intervention…how many moms have played starring roles in both of those melodramas? Mine has some heavy stuff in her parenting portfolio! And yet, for some reason, the image that’s been stuck in my head all week as I thought about my mom is…Lunch Pail Tales.
My mom hand-wrote and illustrated miniature storybooks — using actual paper and colored pencils — to put in my lunch box when I was in elementary school, alongside my bologna or liver-sausage sandwiches (😳). A little yellow-haired girl named Jenny was the heroine of each four- of five-page pamphlet, and while I can’t recall exact plot lines, I’m pretty sure each one involved triumphing over some kind of obstacle. You know, like, having to square dance in gym class or perform mental math calculations in Mrs. Melone’s PEP program or sell Girl Scout cookies door to door…or simply navigate the social dynamics of an ordinary recess on any typical day.
If I had written them, that’s what they would’ve been about. 🤷🏼♀️
Other than an outlet for her boundless creativity, the Lunch Pail Tales were Mom’s way of reminding her firstborn daughter, “You are loved.” I think she wanted to give me a happy little surprise to boost my confidence in the middle of the school day. It floors me that she took the time to do that in such an imaginative way, and that she had the sixth sense to know I needed it. I’m not sure she truly understood how much.
Underneath the “gifted” achiever persona, anxiety and fear were coursing through my veins, and everything I did was fueled by a deep-seated belief that if I didn’t do it all remarkably well, I wasn’t worth a damn.
No, it’s not a random coincidence that I grew up to self-medicate with substances.
Part of being a middle-aged psychology grad student in her third year of recovery, and in regular therapy, is uncovering the truth of who you are, and why. For me, that process has involved reassuring my parents that my issues are not their fault — but as you might expect, that’s not the easiest task. I’ve had many long conversations with my mom about this topic, and at the end of a recent face-to-face chat full of my self-exploratory psychobabble — I think I told her that a nervous mom can transmit anxiety to the fetus in utero 🤦🏼♀️ — she looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, “Sometimes, I just need to hear what I did right.”
More than a month later, faced with the unfathomable possibility of losing my mom, that comment came back to haunt me. I had brushed it off in the moment, then failed to follow up, and now…would I ever have the chance to respond?
Why couldn’t I have taken that opportunity to tell her about the Lunch Pail Tales, or the treasure map she drew of the backyard to go along with our Fisher Price camping set, or the birthday party she helped us throw for the stupid goldfish we won at the fair, or the countless homemade Halloween costumes she sewed that slayed the contest at school almost every year — or the fact she signed me up for my first softball team and helped me discover my lifelong love of athletics?
Why couldn’t I just have said, “You gave me life, then saved my life” and left it at that?
Luckily, I was gifted another chance on Tuesday afternoon, when I dialed Mom’s hospital room and she picked up. I’m not a good enough writer to describe what it’s like to hear the voice of someone you thought you might have lost…
I’m reminded of one of my all-time favorite songs, by Toad the Wet Sprocket: “I will not take these things for granted anymore.” Listen to that, and you’ll get a vague idea. 😭
I was so emotional that I didn’t really know what to say to my mom on the phone, but just before we hung up, it popped into my head. I needed to tell her right then what she did right!
Clearly, I’m not someone with a gift for brevity, so there’s no doubt: The same higher power who moved my mom to say, “This could be a heart attack” and set off that crucial string of events on Monday night, helped me to find the right words in the blink of an eye.
“Mom,” I said, “to answer your question: Everything that matters.” ❤️