The email, which is from a distant cousin, arrived in my inbox around 11:00 a.m. last Friday. Two hours later I am in a rental car headed for New Jersey along with everyone else leaving Manhattan for Memorial Day weekend.
I’ve been expecting an email like this for years. My mother, while in good health, turns 87 in two months.
The commute to New Jersey is a familiar one, a well-worn path that I navigate on autopilot, leaving my mind free to loop through the endless scenarios that await me at the hospital.
Beyond my mother’s prognosis, what awaits me is a family system so riddled with toxicity that I’ve been on my own, without them, for years. And as the New York skyline narrows in my rearview mirror, I am painfully aware that this crisis will hurl me right back into a group of people who I view with the same level of trepidation as you might a mob of unruly teens.
I turn off the highway and enter the town where the hospital is and realize that I’m finding my way more through guessing than by knowing. It’s been a long time since I was at this hospital, although I was born here, and a parent once died here, and years ago I had a miscarriage here.
I don’t get much time with those memories before I’m turning into a parking lot labeled Visitor’s Parking, then giving my ID to the nice lady at the front desk who tries to reassure me by telling me that my mother is in a beautiful room.
I’m both comforted and confused by the reference to the ‘beautiful room’ because I can’t imagine how any hospital ICU could be beautiful. What I learn when I see my mother is that she isn’t in the ICU at all. She’s in a post-surgical room, and her nurse is preparing her to be discharged to a rehabilitation facility.
“How is this possible?” I ask the nurse. “She’s just had hip surgery. Was it an outpatient procedure?”
“Your mother’s been here for 3 days,” the nurse says, looking uncomfortable as she realizes that my siblings let my 86-year old mother sit in a hospital for 3 days, not knowing if she’d live, and they chose to not call me.
The good news is that my mother is in surprisingly good shape. And the next day, when I visit her in her rehabilitation center, she looks even better. Our visit is less awkward than yesterday’s. We are both trying to focus on our love for each other in this moment – not on the pain that we’ve caused each other.
My mother and I have a complicated relationship. Dysfunction in families tends to trickle down from the top, and the fact that she’s old and infirm doesn’t mean I’m prepared to romanticize her role in this mess. That said, all of my siblings are old enough for AARP cards (here I feel catty and have the need to underscore that I am not), and at a certain point, adults need to fix their rot – or not.
Here is where I want to give you a magical takeaway. I want to connect dots for you and give you hope for a happy ending to this story.
But that would be bullshit, and by now you know that I don’t bullshit, even when the bullshit would feel better to me.
I’m sharing this with you because I know that for me, the real stretch comes from tolerating the pain that my family members stoke up in me.
My stretch comes from fighting the impulse to behave in ways I have historically engaged in.
What I want to do is fight them. Each and every one of them.
I want to publicly shame them by telling you every gory detail of how we wound up here.
I want to crowdsource empathy.
Instead, I’m trying to breathe through my hurt.
Not distract from it.
Not try to fix it.
Instead, tolerate it.
Maybe learn something in the process.
Because that’s what I’d want you to do.
And so, I’m trying.