While my calendar tells me that Mom was in ICU for only five days following her spinal fusion, my head and my heart tell me it was much longer.
ICU is like that. It’s a far from wonderful wonderland where the rabbit hole drops you not at a tea party, but in rooms full of scary-looking machines, infinite cords, and constant beeping and whooshing. An upside-down world where what once felt big now feels small and what once seemed trivial now seems monumental.
I could have cared less when Mom, quite literally, shit the bed. I just moved her onto her side so as not to soil the incision and went for a nurse’s aide. I didn’t bat an eye when in a hallucinatory haze she mistook the ceiling for a waiter and calmly said, “Why yes, a tuna fish sandwich sounds absolutely divine, but are you sure we should have one for breakfast? What if we run out before dinner?” I did, however, get terribly excited when Mom sat up for the first time and pushed her toes against a nurse’s hands.
Perhaps the most upside-down thing about ICU is its insistence on putting down old stories.
For Mom that meant letting go of the story that she could move her spine. The two rods and twenty-odd screws that surrounded her vertebrae were in charge now. In exchange for alleviating her pain, they had exacted a tariff of complete rigidity and zero movement. This wasn’t a temporary thing. It was permanent.
For me, ICU insisted that I let go of the story that Mom would go back to being the Mom she’d been at thirty, forty, fifty, sixty and start figuring out the story of how I was going to relate to the old woman who had taken her place. The one who was lying in a hospital bed not ten feet away.
Ordering tuna fish sandwiches. From the ceiling.
It was into the midst of these lettings go’s that my stepbrother, Wayne, walked in. His was one of the oldest stories in my life, dating back almost forty-five years.
It went like this: When I was a boy, Mom began an affair with a man who was not my father. There was a lot of whispering about the affair since Mom and Tommy were each married to other people. There also was a lot of judgment, since Tommy was twenty years Mom’s senior. But Mom and Tommy proved everyone wrong, building a marriage that lasted until his death in 2008. Theirs was a love for the ages.
It was also a love that, at least in the beginning, didn’t leave a lot of room for other people, including Mom’s children and Tommy’s. Of the four of us kids, I was the only one who ever found that room. My sister never stopped living in faraway places, Tommy’s daughter died from cancer and Wayne, his son, well the story was that Wayne just wasn’t close to Tommy and, by extension, Mom.
There was no animosity in that story. It just was what it was. I never touched it. Why would I? It made perfect sense. I mean, what boy can forgive a father for leaving his mother or befriend the woman who took him away? Wayne also just didn’t seem relevant to my life. In the forty-three years since Mom and Tommy had met, he and I had seen each other, I believe, four times. When Tommy died, I assumed that would be that. Our story, more footnote than chapter, was complete.
Which is why I was surprised when Wayne and his wife, Vicki, walked into Mom’s room.
As I said, “Well, hello Wayne,” I thought “Oh hell no. I do not have time for this.” I did not have time to rehash old stories, time for Wayne and Vicki’s Southern Baptist judgment of my life with my partner, Bryon. I especially did not have time for anything that distracted me from Mom’s recovery.
As it turned out, Wayne and Vicki didn’t have time for any of that either. They weren’t there to rehash or judge or distract. They were there to help. They were there as family.
“How’s Bryon,” Wayne said soon after walking in. “I know this isn’t the best of circumstances, but maybe we’ll get to meet him before Barb goes home.”
“I’m Barb’s stepson,” Wayne said every time someone walked into the room, showing no winked sarcasm as people would look at, first, Mom, then Wayne, noticing an age difference of years, not decades.
Both Wayne and Vicki wanted to hear all the latest updates on Mom’s recovery. They asked how she was feeling and if she needed anything. Their interest was genuine, not Southern. It turned out that they had been genuinely interested in Mom’s well-being for years. But I’d never known about that, never considered the possibility.
Because that wasn’t the story.
It also turned out that Wayne and Vicki were genuinely interested in how I was doing.
“Just tell us how we can help,” Wayne said. “We’ll be here as much as we can so that you can get some fresh air.”
“We went through this with my dad and mother,” Vicki said. “You have to take care of yourself.”
Before they left that day, Wayne and Vicki invited me over to their house, which I’d never seen, even though they’d lived there for twenty-plus years and it was less than an hour away. Like everything else that day, the invitation was genuine. And one I soon took them up on.
Throughout the early stages of Mom’s recovery, no one was there more than Wayne and Vicki. I came to depend on them, to know them and to feel grateful they were there. Wayne and I even started calling each other “brother.”
At first, it all seemed so disorienting. But, over a period of weeks and months, it became familiar. Comforting even. Maybe the way it should have always been.
Which is what I think happens when you put down the burden of old, often make-believe, stories. You begin to feel the relief of letting go of the past and the ease of understanding that what once felt upside-down is actually rightside up.