photo by @doug88888
The text said:
Went to ER last night. Thought I was having a stroke. I’m home now.
She might as well have been reporting the deal she got on strawberries down at the farmer’s market. Most of my mother’s texts are of that sort: “You’re a good mom,” she’ll write during a difficult day at homeschool. Or, “neighborhood association banned feeding Heathcliff and Gertrude” the cranes that live on the pond behind her house, “but the neighbor does it anyway. Ha.”
So, the first time through, I read this one in the same tone. I read it with her voice in my head, careful and precise, a bit of reportage from the retirement villas, which we call The Saturdays, because every day is Saturday when you’re retired. Her nonchalance was off-putting. She might as well have written: “Great price on CT scans these days!” along with a LOL or a smiling emoticon. Or: “Oh, you know, just a little brain hemorrhage. We’re dying, but it’s okay, because Medicare!”
Then the words begin to drill a hole in my consciousness. A stroke?
And so I did what we do in these situations. I texted her back. “Mom!” I included the exclamation point to show her I wasn’t kidding aroud. To remind her that this is serious, missy.
But I couldn’t wait the four seconds for my text to go and another twenty seconds for hers to come back to me, explaining that she was okay. So I called her—the baneful choice of every text-happy citizen.
In the intervening twenty seconds—during which she did send a text that said she was fine— between quitting apps, and sliding my finger across her name on my phone, I began to shake, and I began to remember, and I had a moment to think of more questions than I wanted to come up against.
Her mother had a stroke. Her mother came to live with us when I was a teenager. Her mother died in a hospital, without the energy to speak. And that is what I was thinking when my mother answered the phone, groggy and sheepish, a small laugh at the back of her throat, like a tickle. Chuckling at herself.
She told me once, after her mother had died, that leaving Grandma alone in the hospital grew increasingly difficult. Early in her stay, Mom was careful to tell Grandma, “I love you,” as she buttoned her coat and threw her purse over her shoulder. Grandma always replied, “I love you” back to her. She always completed the thought, reciprocated the sentiment. Of course she did.
It is a commonly recognized truth that the I love you circle must be completed. That we cannot allow a solitary I love you to dangle out in the world, aimless and alone, hitting its target with a whimper. We agree, as a people, that when the I love you circle is complete, the love is more real, more true. When our love is mirrored back to us, we are less alone, we are vindicated in our feelings, we are in relationship, of one sort or another.
We also know the ugly corollary: if the circle is not complete, that if the dangling I love you remains alone, the love feels less true, less real. Just…less. We become embarrassed by our outpouring, or shamed, or reminded of our lonely humanity.
One day, my Mom told me, Grandma did not—could not— send the words back to her daughter, this adult child. Mom clung to the doorway, hoping for a whisper that never came. As she told me, I felt fear like a rock wedged in my airway, and guilt. Daughter guilt. Guilt that comes from being such a pain as a kid. Guilt from failing to see my mother as a person until I was too old to have illusions. We women mothers are good at guilt. If I don’t have something to feel guilty about, just give me a minute and I’ll think of something.
Mostly, though, I felt fear. That kind of permanent fear that attends certain knowledge. No one escapes death. One day, perhaps, a vanishing, dangling, horribly hauting I love you will not return to me. The circle will remain open and I will be alone, without her.