T.S. Eliot began one of his formidable poem The Wasteland with the lines “April is the cruelest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing /Memory and desire, stirring/ Dull roots with spring rain” (1-4).
On the last day of March in 2013 I was accepted into a Masters Program at the University of Chicago. This was after applying and being accepted into five other universities. It was the second night of Passover and my now husband and I had planned a Seder at our house with his parents, who were visiting, and 20 of our friends. That afternoon after doing cartwheels in the hallways of my job, dancing, and hugging everyone in sight, I called my mom. I felt invincible! My mom was excited, she cheered, whooped, and praised the (her) Lord. On a complete high I went to host the Seder at my house, feeling like we had a path forward. David, ever my cheerleader, would stop me in the kitchen with plates of root vegetables in my hands and say “I’m so proud of you”. I had not prepared to tell our community that we were leaving them that day, but it felt timely. We were happy; it was a moment of celebration.
Ten days later I got a call from a dear friend. Her father had a stroke and passed away. The wind knocked out of my sails and the truth, stranger than fiction, was unraveling. During the moments after she called I asked what to do, who to call, and if she needed help. It felt hallow. How can you spend a week on a cloud and then be flushed into a gutter of despair just a quickly? I called another friend from home and we began planning, calling other friends to corral support, wondering what we could do to help. To clarify, know that when I say that this friend is my family, I mean that. We grew up together, lived together in college and after.
I went to sleep a bit frayed. Brashly aware of my limitations as a human, devastated for my friend. I was still thinking about my friends’ father while at the grocery store a day later. I had my earbuds in, listening to Fiona Apple , when my phone rang. At that point, hands against a sweet potato here, an onion there, my mind was focused on what dinner would be that evening. I answered the phone not fully realizing it was my oldest brother. Although not a rare occurrence, it was peculiar that my brother would call me on a week night. I should have known from the last time he called (we will get to that another time). Our conversation started out civil, we exchanged pleasantries, I asked why he had called and he said “I’ve got some bad news”.
Hands gingerly touching an assortment of apples, and I quickly turned to look at the entrance of the supermarket. I asked him what it was about and he said “It’s about mom”.
“Is she alright?”
“She had a stroke last night”.
No. No. No, the words a chant, a prayer. I scream “No” into the phone, while my functional brain began returning items from my food basket. Placing potatoes into their proper section, removing the celery from the cart, stacking the basket into the pile at the exit. Those deliberate actions a way of slowing down time before I rushed out of market.
There I was, standing in the middle of the parking lot, double over, glasses in my hands and breathing like someone kicked me in the diaphragm. I register that my brother is still on the phone saying words, so I slow down. He says calm down, she’s OK and it does not compute. It doesn’t register. I start planning how I’m going to call out of work, how I have to get on the train, how I’m going to make it? I ask what happened, and it dawns on me. The night prior as I was speaking to my mother she told me she felt tired. She said that the side of her body felt weak, and she just needed to lie down. She was at work when this occurred, and it registers that she has a stroke, and lived. I tell my bother that I’m coming, and we hang up. I call David. I get home, pack, and prepare to go see my mother.
The story goes that my mother had a stroke late the evening before. The next day my mother, strong, stubborn, and very independent got into her car and drove herself to the hospital. When she got to the hospital, the doctors realized she had a mild stroke, and admitted her immediately. My mother asked while being admitted if she could drive herself back home and have someone drop her off later. The gall of this lady astounds me always!
When I arrived into town, my brother laughed at my response. He said he was surprised that I reacted the way I did, but who can blame him. He didn’t know about my friend’s father, he wasn’t connecting the two incidents. We also emote quite differently.
When was the first moment that you realized your parents were made of flesh and bones? I suppose I had known for many years how human my mother is, but seeing her laying in that hospital bed was a revelation. It was a stark contrast to the person who berated me for being so flippant, so young, so American. She was weak, she was old, and I had to be the strong one. I told her about my friends’ father, and I made her promise not to “kick the bucket” for a little while. I was hurt. How could she do something so out of her control to shake me to my core? And as we sat together I thought about Chicago, about what would happen as I moved a thousand miles away to start a new journey. I thought about how fragile the threads of life are, and how much she means to me. And I wondered in that moment if I ever really knew my mother, and if she would ever let me know her.
“What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow/ Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,/ You cannot say, or guess, for you know only/ A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,/ And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,” (Eliot, 19-23).
Two days I stayed with my mother. We shared some laughs, a few scolding remarks about her health. Two days, and on the third day another (literal) bomb went off. This time it was in a crowd filled with bystanders, watching athletes complete 26.2 miles. But that’s another story.
“Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata./ Shantih shantih shantih” (Eliot, 432-433).