I had just driven 45 minutes north for our second weekly homeschooling playdate with a new bunch of moms and kids when I got the call. My son had spent the last 45 minutes excitedly talking about who he was going to see and what he was going to do. I was looking forward to adult conversation. We unloaded the arsenal of Nerf guns and made our way towards virtual strangers verging on future friends.
Five minutes after we’d arrived, my phone rang. I recognized the area code and “719” hospital prefix. I had seen it seven years earlier when my father was in the hospital recovering from a massive stroke.
I heard my mother’s voice and as she spoke, I anticipated devastating news about my father. In the moments that followed I would hear words fall out of my mother’s mouth that would bring me to my knees in the middle of a park peppered with laughing, screaming children and gossiping moms.
“It’s your sister. She’s had either a stroke or a heart attack. They’re working on her now.” I heard commotion in the background and multiple emotionless “Code blue” announcements over the hospital intercom.
“Wait. What?! Is she conscious?” I couldn’t make sense of it. My sister is 44. She has a six-year-old boy. She’s happily married. She’s seemingly healthy. Oh my god. Her son.
I tried to take it all in; to ask sound, sensible questions.
My mother was eerily calm and I knew that was her emotional armor – an attempt at self preservation at a time when life as usual temporarily suspends itself.
“I need you to come home.”
In the midst of this brief obscene phone call, I processed a week’s worth of thoughts. We had just arrived at the park. My son would lose his shit if we left only moments after parking the car. He’s seven and family emergencies are surely just inconveniences. Then all the rational yet ridiculous “have tos” pushed their way in. I have to get home. I have to pack. I have to water the plants. I have to get my dog. I have to give the neighbors a key. I have to cancel our recently planned trip.
My son was playing off in the distance. I was about to share intimate family news with a group of women I had only met one other time. I didn’t have time to worry about awkward or appropriate. I wasn’t going to politely excuse myself. I wanted to vomit. I needed to talk to someone other than myself.
This new mom tribe provided me with an outlet for all the jumbled thoughts running through my head. They hugged me and comforted me while I tried to balance being a mom, a daughter, a sister, and an aunt.
I allowed my son to play while I stayed in contact with my mother, knowing that I could do nothing seven hours away. Never have I felt so helpless. I couldn’t move fast enough and yet speed wouldn’t change a thing.
“She’s on a ventilator. They’ve installed a stent and an Impella device to help her heart function. She is not conscious and they are cooling her body to keep brain activity calm. Her pupils are fixed. We have to wait and see.”
With bags packed, and the house in order, my son, dog and I headed out. My husband was away for business. When we finally pulled in at 1:15 a.m. I could think only of whisking myself away to the hospital to see my sister. My mom informed me earlier, however, that we would all go and visit early in the morning so I put my son to bed and tried to close my eyes. I stared at the ceiling imagining the worst yet hoping, begging, praying for the best.
Only one day earlier, I had seen my vibrant sister’s face via FaceTime for a few brief moments while our son’s ran around like rabid animals with our phones sharing Pokémon and Minecraft stories.
We spoke briefly about my writing and about our upcoming visit. There were no deep thoughts or big “I love yous.” I simply had the beautiful gift of seeing my sister sitting on her couch smiling and sharing.
In the morning, a few hours after our arrival, my mother, father and I went to the hospital. Hollow and drained, we all floated to the intensive care room where my once smiling sister was now laid out – swollen, fragile, broken. Tubes and a blue gown modestly covered her unresponsive, child-like body. I squeezed her cold tiny size five feet with green painted toenails.
I kept thinking, She’s a MOTHER! Her six-year-old son still needs mama hugs and mama kisses. One day he’ll seek her sage advice for a future he isn’t comfortable navigating on his own.
Images of my precious nephew living a motherless future flooded my mind and ripped me up inside. Up to this point, he had been told, “Mommy is very sick and in the hospital,” but the reality of the situation was safely out of reach, for all of us.
I had time to think about a lot – our innocent childhood and shared bubble baths, our volatile teen years, a sister bonding trip to NY, our weddings and baby showers, our children whom we call “brousins” (brother-cousins), and conversations about our aging parents for whom we would care together as a team in the future.
I thought about motherhood and the indescribable, all-encompassing body, soul, and spirit love that is motherhood and it pained me to think that this magnificent love might not be enough to keep my sister alive for her son.
I stayed at the hospital all day and headed back home for a few hours of sleep with my son and nephew. As we all lay in bed together, I listened to the brousins trade stories about “farts and toots.” My nephew laughed about how his mom’s toots “blow him to the other side of the bed at night.”
The boys giggled uncontrollably and I turned my head and hid my tears. The juxtaposition of light-hearted silliness with the heaviness of altered lives and futures felt inappropriate.
I knew in that moment that my six-year-old nephew would never have another night like that with his mommy. No nighttime stories, no cuddles. No more sister phone calls chatting about our boys and their futures. No more jokes about who got the better nose or, “Guess who’s older?” during our shared birth month of May. No more shopping sprees or phone calls en route to work. Simply no more.
Only a couple of hours later, I received a call urging me to return to the hospital. I learned what we all had feared – my sister’s brain had been robbed of much needed oxygen for far too long and all the medicine and man-made devices couldn’t repair her damaged heart.
It was time to let her go.
My sister could not will her body to remain on this earthly plane for her son. She would never have given up and yet the choice wasn’t hers to make. Life was unfairly taken away from her.
I watched her take her last breath. I watched her body turn from colorful peach to lifeless grey. I kissed her freckled face and stroked her curly auburn hair for the last time. I touched her petite feet and hands in a way that a mother caresses her child’s.
My baby sister is on a different journey now and I am left to live a lonelier future without her. I move through waves of grief but I take comfort knowing that she experienced the most intense and beautiful love possible as a mother during the last six years of her life.