Sunday, May 24, 2015

Now We Gather

“What do girls do who haven’t any mothers to help them through their troubles?” – Louisa May Alcott

The sign in pre-op read “Visitors are limited to two at a time”. We weren’t breaking the rule, not really. We came in two at a time. Then another two. And so on, and so on…until there were eight of us visitors in the tiny pre-op room.

The nurses allowed it. I think they could see on our faces that we weren’t going anywhere. We were there to stay. Because that woman in the hospital bed? That woman with the IV and the compression socks and the blood pressure cuff? That woman about to undergo surgery for breast cancer? That was our mother. That was my father’s wife. So no, we were not leaving that room.

My mother was diagnosed with a malignant invasive tumor a few weeks ago. And just like that, Cancer invaded our lives. It’s a two-syllable word that carries all the weight of the world with it. My life is inextricably tied to hers. I know her heartbeat, from both the inside and the outside. She gave me life, she gave me love, and she gave me the know-how to be the survivor that I am.

When she told me the biopsy revealed the cancer, it sort of slid around in my head for a while, carving out tracks all over the place. There was nowhere I didn’t feel it. It took a few days before I could even say the words out loud: “My mother has cancer.”

My eldest sister flew in from North Carolina to be with Mom for the week surrounding the surgery, and my brother drove down from Dallas on the day of the surgery, so all five of us kids were there for her that day. This is mom. The materfamilias. The matriarch. We will always rally for her.

We stayed in that little pre-op room for hours waiting for surgery time. There were chairs for two people (as per the sign), so we rotated who sat down. Some of us sat on the floor, some stood, one of us sat at the foot of Mom’s bed. There was never a question of anyone leaving and sitting in the waiting room. I almost can’t remember what we talked about, but I know what we didn’t talk about.

We didn’t talk about what we were all thinking about: we were all thinking about a surgery that never happened thirty years ago when Mom’s mom went into the hospital for her own surgery and died on the table before the surgery even began. We were all terrified that history was going to repeat itself. Mom was scared. Dad was scared. We children were scared – and we definitely felt like children that day.

I’ve had to send my children off to surgery before. That’s a hard thing to do, entrusting such a small person into the care of strangers who will cut on her. This is the first time I’ve ever sent my mom to surgery. The first time I’ve had to hug her goodbye, turn away from her, and walk out of the room because they were taking her away.

What if she didn’t make it? What if she died in surgery? What if this was the last day I had a mother here on earth?

Unbearable. That's what these questions were. I only had an hour before I had to pick up my daughters from school, so I didn’t join the others when they left the hospital to go to lunch. I couldn’t have eaten anyway. I found a back corner of the waiting room, pulled up my knees, buried my head, and just let all the worry, all the fear, and all the emotion I’d been holding back all morning finally come pouring out.

It took a long time to calm down and when I finally did, the knees of my jeans were soaked. I wished I’d had someone to lean on, someone to hold me while I cried, someone to tell me everything would be okay. Even a random stranger in the waiting room would have been comforting at that point. I just needed a hug. But it was just me, so I pulled myself together and left to deliver the girls from school to home.

On the way back to the hospital I received the text that Mom was out of surgery and it had gone smoothly. She was in recovery. Pure relief washed over me.

She was in recovery for over an hour before they moved her to her room for the night. We all – yes, all eight of us – swarmed up to the room to be there when she arrived. She looked so small, so pale and delicate. But she was mom, and she was alive, and they had cut that entire evil tumor out of her.

They pushed her bed into place and hooked her IV to the wall. In a hospital, everything smells the same. No matter what it is – cups, paper, blankets – everything smells like hospital. But when I leaned down to hug my mother, she smelled like her. Her smell. Her heartbeat. Her life. In that moment, the world was right.

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