A tale of a new mom, a selfless grandmother and her reluctant Christian husband
My husband answered the house phone. It was mid-day on November 19, 1996. He kept saying “oh no, oh my God” and then the ultimate sinker, “let me hand over the phone to Colleen.” The caller was my father. That morning, my mother sustained a stroke while shopping at a nearby mall. She was searching for a track suit for her mother-in-law (my grandmother) before she slumped in the store’s chair. A fast-thinking retail manager called mall security and one of the employees knew CPR. That skill was the reason my mother was now an ICU patient at the regional hospital close to a major university. She was on life support. The doctors encouraged the family to get there as quickly as possible.
I had just seen my vibrant, beautiful mother less than a month ago. She was my caregiver after I delivered my first newborns – boy/girl twins. The pair had come one month early, but were healthy and quite a handful for a new parent. My mom dug right in – got me and my babies on a schedule, walked our family dog, shopped for daily necessities and accompanied our little tribe to the first pediatrician appointment. I remember watching her drive away that windy October afternoon. I know she was exhausted after helping me and my husband for two weeks, but her love and support was immeasurable. I sobbed as my father’s Ford Ranchero blurred into the horizon.
After that phone call, I don’t know if it was shock, postpartum or the sheer urgency to say goodbye, but my husband and I scooped up the twins and crammed voluminous baby gear into our family van within minutes. We raced on the interstate for 90 miles to get to my mother. We were blessed with no Southern California traffic and hustled our way to the hospital wing where my mother lay among other suffering patients.
An ICU wing isn’t the best place to bring premature twins, but here I was. My husband and I took turns with our baby bundles. There wasn’t a Mother’s Room or other private area to breastfeed, so I would visit the larger stall in the restroom and alternate feeding my son and daughter. it was an otherworldly experience.
As visiting hours ended for the day, we learned that my mother sustained a cerebral vascular accident or CVA. There was a clot in her brain that bulged and was leaking. It was likely a congenital defect as she was thin and had never smoked. Her one vice was slathering too much mayonnaise on her favorite sandwich. If she regained consciousness, the neurosurgeon would decide if he could perform brain surgery. We were told to go home for the day. Keep a positive attitude. Encourage daily visitors to speak to my unconscious mother. And pray.
I remember going to my parents’ home that night. I placed my traveling babies in their layettes in the living room. They were sound asleep – that stillness that scares new moms. Are they still alive? I placed my hand on each of their cherubic bellies and could feel the rise and fall of their breath. My husband went to the store for more diapers and other supplies. I was alone in the house. I don’t think I had been solo in weeks. Instinctively, I went to my mother’s jewelry box and clasped her beloved wedding pearls. I placed them on my heart and walked from room to room. Everything in that house – the unmade bed from that morning, a picture frame, her stationery – reminded me of my mother. I was not ready for her to leave me. She was only 55-years-old.
Two weeks would go by. Each day was filled with a high if we heard a good sign followed by a devastating low when her condition made a U-turn. Our family couldn’t get off this roller coaster. My father, who is not Catholic, would insist that one of his four daughters go to the hospital chapel and pray during visiting hours. He felt that since he wasn’t religious, God wouldn’t listen to him. As the oldest daughter, I could see how each day was draining my father. He was so reliant on my mother. He didn’t even know where the linens were kept in the house. Cooking wasn’t even attempted. Takeout boxes were skyscraping above the kitchen trashcan. It was the Leaning Tower of Pizza.
My mom’s parish and younger sisters’ Catholic high school community was praying round-the-clock and delivering meals. Surprisingly, I started letting friends watch my newborn twins. My fatigue was so bad that I allowed a well-meaning friend buy a different brand of disposable diapers. My new mom mojo had disappeared. One ICU nurse told me in the hospital cafeteria, “You know, your mother is never going to recover. She’s never going to walk again.” That lack of empathy fueled me.
When I told my father the nurse’s glib statement, he announced, “I will carry your mom on my back for the rest of my life.” As the writer in the family, I always correlated that statement with Jesus carrying the cross.
My father’s unconditional love and promise that day demonstrated how he was willing to physically carry my mom – no matter what – just as long as she could live. As Jesus carried the cross and embraced His suffering for us, we as Catholics carry our own at times knowing the pain and endurance will lead us to peace and salvation. My father was willing to carry his cross. As a reluctant Christian, his faith was never strong than that day 22 years ago.
My mom’s blood pressure was too risky to operate. She also sustained a heart attack during her struggles in the ICU. The beeping machinery was a constant reminder of the delicate nature of life. The right side of her body was paralyzed. She would kick her left leg up in the air. We joked that she was practicing her ballerina moves. She ripped the breathing tube out from her throat.
After that tightrope walk of two weeks, the neurosurgeon finally decided on a narrow window to operate on her bulging aneurysm. The surgery lasted all morning. We all knew the risks. My sisters and I worried that we may be losing two parents if my mom didn’t make it. They had been married 32 years already – raised four daughters in a one-bathroom house and according to my father, paid millions in Catholic school tuition.
This was a pivotal moment in my life. I had been that girl who would always do the right thing, or so I thought. The young woman who would work multiple jobs, dot every “i” and cross every “t.” Now I was a new mother who would say “yes” to everyone and everything when in reality I needed more “no’s” to help myself. I have made a conscious decision to always choose family first since my mom’s accident. The cliche of “life’s too short” is a very tangible thing to me.
My mom survived her brain surgery. Her recovery was long. The prayer vigils were powerful. Our family’s perseverance paid off. My mother now has a timeline to use while in conversation. It’s either “before or after” the aneurysm. When she tells newcomers about her ordeal, she always reminds herself how old her twin grandchildren are. That’s her baseline. She now has 10 grandchildren. My father may not be carrying her on his back, but he shadows her. He doesn’t want to lose her again. And neither do I.
My twins just celebrated their 22nd birthday. My parents are still married although my dad still doesn’t know where the linens are but has taken up vacuuming recently.