A visit to my beautiful home state of Virginia approaches and I’m part nervous, part warmly excited, part dreading the trip. To friends, I make light of it with conspiratorial jokes about the five hour car ride alone with my children or the prospect of sleeping in a small room with both of them. In truth, what should be a lovely trip is usually preceded by melancholia. Whilst there I am the epitome of false light and bravado and upon leaving, I feel relieved and guilty.
It has nothing to do with my parents and yet, everything to do with them. Even though I’m married with my own family, the three of us (my parents and I) are all we have and all we’ve ever been. Even as a kid, as far apart as we could possibly be from each other, we were always a unit. The unit is tremulous these days; things unspoken, fears go unreleased. We live in the day by day, hoping to make it through okay.
Four years ago I entered a hospital ICU room with my Dad and saw my mother like I’d never seen her before. Her body purposely swelled with liquid during surgery and covered in long plastic tubes of warm air to keep her at an optimum temperature. She wasn’t breathing except for the ventilator that was doing so for her. She looked like my grandmother; her face puffy yet drained and old. Tubes and wires spiraled from her chest, stomach and arms like a sacrificial bloodletting. She had been a snatch away from death.
A cry tried to escape but became stuck in my throat. My Dad looked so dismayed. We stood on either side of her bed, holding a cold knuckled hand not knowing what to say, or think, or do. Stunned and silently weeping, were grateful just to still have her.
My mother has always been a fighter and two days later when we walked in, she was sitting upright although heavily propped with pillows and cushions. The ventilator was still operating but the doctors were determined to have her begin breathing on her own. She recognized me then and I could sense her embarrassment that I’d come all this way. I don’t think she understood the enormity of the event that had just played out. I stayed a while with her and suppressed so much in her presence that my heart was sore. I watched and encouraged her to try to catch her breath, learning to find the life force that was continually out of reach. Her eyes bulged with the effort of gasping. I cracked jokes, listened to the doctors, and had quiet asides with my Dad. But all through the time, I wanted to scream and cry and pound cushions. Why did this happen? Why her? What the fucking fuck? And, oh my god, I know this is hereditary and will it happen to me or my children? It was as if someone hit my heart with a crowbar and it wouldn’t stop reverberating.
She has been a paraplegic since that day. The doctors told us it came down to life or limb, and limb it was.
My visits are once-yearly with the kids and once a year, my parents make the five hour drive North to us. A couple of days away isn’t so bad for an able-bodied person but for a paraplegic there is back pain, skin sores, urine pouches, appropriate bed height, hotels that are equipped with adapted showers and ramps and doors wide enough. There are medicines, medical supplies, towels, bowel training (which a trip will completely interfere with), and a host of other needs and necessities. My Dad has become my mother’s caregiver, and at 68 I am concerned about his ability to continue beyond five, even ten years.
When I visit, I do what I can to help; I cook, I clean. I make small talk with my Mum as if nothing ever happened. We don’t talk about the depth of the situation. We gloss over physical therapy, the trip to Mexico for stem cell treatment that seems to have made no difference. My mum is eager to please the kids and I let her…she wants to buy them things to show her love. They are nervous around the wheelchair so need some quiet explanation and encouragement alone. My Dad, who has no-one else to talk to, sits down and vents to me in the evenings. And I let him. I sit and listen and nod and take it all in because everything not said during the day comes out in the night with him.
My heart aches for him the most.
And so I sit here with four days to go, pre-anguishing. I’m preparing with food and money and supplies and things to occupy the kids with. And I’m preparing myself emotionally and mentally for the onslaught of hidden emotions that always surface from now until the day we leave.