I was seriously thinking about killing my mother. And it wasn’t even 6 a.m.
It was late September, 2018. We had just parked the car at Medical City in Plano Texas, where Mom would be having two major surgeries that would leave her back completely fused.
“There should be a sign that says ‘surgery’,” Mom said as we pulled into the lot. There wasn’t.
“That’s ok,” she said, “I know where to go.” She didn’t.
I watched as Mom, crippled with pain, but pointedly refusing my offer to go get a wheelchair, made her way to the darkest building in the entire Medical City complex.
“Mom, I don’t think that’s where we’re supposed to go,” I called out from the middle of the parking lot.
“Well, of course it is,” she said with the same tone she’d used to reprimand me since I was two. I sighed and followed after her, catching up just in time to open the door for her.
To a very dimly lit lobby with not a living soul in sight.
“Huh,” Mom said. “This isn’t the building I thought it was.”
I said nothing.
Just then, as if on cue, a staff member appeared from one of the elevators.
“Are y’all lost?” she asked.
“Yes,” Mom said, “I’m here to have my back fused and my son doesn’t know where we’re going.”
“Would you like a wheelchair?” the hospital fairy asked.
“I would love one,” Mom replied.
I’m definitely going to kill my mother.
The staff member got us to admitting. From there, we went to a holding stall in pre-op where Mom changed into a gown and I sat in a chair, staring straight ahead and saying nothing.
For almost all of my life, Mom and I had been extremely close, but things began to change ten years ago when her husband (my stepfather) died. He had called me to his death bed and made me promise to take care of Mom for the rest of her life. Now, one could argue about the appropriateness of extracting such a promise, but it’s generally bad form to argue and negotiate with the dying. So, I just said, “Of course I will, Tommy.”
And I really did try. I bought Mom self-help books, showed her how to download music, got her a subscription to The New Yorker and The New York Times, and gave her scarves. So many scarves. I signed her up for remote yoga with my teacher because, well she’d done wonders for me, so of course she’d do wonders for Mom. For reasons I still don’t quite understand, I even bought Mom a can opener. I guess maybe I thought that if she could open up a can of Del Monte green beans, she’d eat better.
And maybe that would make her better.
With every gesture, Mom would always say: “Oh I love this. I can’t wait to use/wear/try it.” But, after a week or two, she’d just take whatever I’d bought and add it to the piles of memories scattered throughout her house. The ones that were growing taller and taller as Mom became smaller and smaller.
About a year ago, I stopped trying to make Mom better. Instead, I pledged that I would “honor whatever choices she made.” That’s a little something those of us who have gone on self-help/spiritual awakening journeys say to people. We always stress that we’re not being judgmental and we practice saying it in the most non-judgmental way possible.
But, of course, it still sounds judgmental. Because it so very often is.
Certainly, that was the case with Mom’s spinal fusion. I wasn’t convinced she should have such a major procedure at her age. But I didn’t tell her that. I’m a child of the south. I know you’re not supposed to tell your family how you really feel. Instead, you just sit in the pre-op area of Medical City Plano and pretend like everything is mighty fine.
Which is what I did that early morning in September, 2018. I smiled at all the staff who came through, checking Mom’s vitals and asking her questions about her medical history and medications. A few times, I’d interrupt Mom when she gave incorrect answers. “Now Mom, that’s not quite right,” I’d say. Nicely. Patiently.
Well, sort of nicely. Kind of patiently.
Around 7 a.m., the doctors started coming in. The first one explained how she’d move Mom’s guts around so her spine could be exposed from the front in. The second one, her spinal surgeon, came next, explaining what work he’d do today and what he’d do two days later when Mom had her second surgery. Then the anesthesiologist came in and told us what precautions he’d be taken given the length of time Mom would be under (six to eight hours for the first surgery; ten to twelve for the second one). Mom thanked the doctors. I thanked the doctors. In between, we didn’t say much.
I was already thinking about next steps. About the group text I’d set up so family and friends could stay in the loop on Mom’s surgeries and recovery. About the check Mom asked me to write her yardman. About where I’d park the car once they moved Mom from the OR to ICU. About where to buy coffee at this hour (it was too early to buy gin).
Mom was doing her part of make sure I didn’t forget anything. “Do you have my bra and lipstick? I don’t want to lose those.” “Did you lock the car?” “Don’t forget to pay Daniel for the yard.”
Each time, I answered with a flat, “Yes, Mother.”
Two men came in the room. I remember one of them was named Bubba because, really, how can you forget anyone named Bubba?
“Do you have everything you need?” Bubba asked the pre-op tech who had been entering all of Mom’s information into the computer.
“Yes,” she said.
“OK,” Bubba said, “Let’s go.”
And with that they wheeled Mom out of the holding stall. It happened so fast, by the time my mind caught up with what was happening, Mom was gone. Everyone was gone.
“Wait a minute,” I said, half-jogging down the hall. “I didn’t get to say ‘good-bye’ to my mother.”
Bubba and the man not named Bubba stopped the gurney just as I caught up with them.
Now, I don’t know if it was the glare from the fluorescent lights or the fuzziness caused by the tears that were welling in my eyes, but when I looked down, Mom looked so tiny, so frail, so vulnerable.
“I love you, my sweet boy,” she said, reaching up to pat my hand.
“I love you, too, Mom. Everything’s going to be ok,”
And, for the first time in ten years, I actually knew everything would be OK. Not because of some promise I’d made to a dying man. But because Mom was my mom. And I was her son.