Welcome back to Blogville friend!
(Trigger alert if you are grieving.)
Here it is, as promised, my submission to the CBC short story competition that in my heart I know was 28th place out of a possible 27 long-list places. What do you think . . .
On October 22, 2022 my grandson was born. He was just hours old when I held him in my arms and welcomed this new little life into our family. On October 31, 2022 my mother died. She was 97 years old when I held her in my arms, wished her a safe journey to whatever is next, and thanked her for mothering our family.
How does one work through the conflicting emotions of an elated grandmother and a grieving daughter in the span of ten short days? If that is the million dollar question, how much does the answer cost? Family members and friends shifted from offering joyful congratulations to offering their condolences. I was experiencing life’s gains and losses, a dream to a nightmare in what felt like seconds but was actually ten days.
I will never forget my son’s excited “it’s a boy” announcement in the wee hours of the morning of October 22nd. I could feel his grateful relief that his wife was doing well, and that they were now parents to a healthy baby boy. The joy in my son’s voice was palpable. I will also never forget the second phone call startling me awake in the wee hours of the morning a mere five days later, from 640 kilometres away, telling me that our mother had only hours to live. The terror in my brother’s voice was palpable.
I remember worrying that my new little grand baby may never meet his great-grandmother. He may never be held in her arms and snuggled for a photo like his five cousins before him had. He may miss out on visits to her giant yard where so many children before him had played badminton, thrown a ball, laughed as they chased each other in a game of tag, or splashed in a tiny inflatable plastic pool to escape the summer’s heat. It saddened me to think that he may never help pile wood in the woodshed, learning a forgotten skill. I worried that he may never know the fun of racing to be the first of his cousins to find the coloured eggs hidden in that huge old two storey home; searching the extra kitchen and woodshed that offered even more hiding spots for the Easter Bunny’s use.
Generations of cousins had laughed together in that house, built by his great-great-grandfather in the mid 1930s. Would his cousins be the last to have done so? Butterflies raced around my stomach, lacing it with fear, just as my husband interrupted my thoughts to tell me we’d better get packed and go get gas for the truck.
In stunned silence, my husband and I rounded up the clothing that we literally had just unpacked after visiting Southern Ontario to spend Thanksgiving visiting with mom and awaiting the well overdue birth of our grandchild. Emptied from our visit with mom and meeting our grandson, we hauled those same suitcases back out and started repacking them. Without the previous joyful anticipation, this time we packed with a sense of dread and an urgency to get on the road.
Holding my breath, I packed some slightly dressy outfits and my husband’s suit, hopefully unnecessarily, but just in case. My mother would want us to look our best in the unlikely, or likely, event we might need to. A practical woman, and with a nod to the future inevitability, my mother’s final outfit option had been selected since 2018, and hung insidiously in her closet. I remember fantasizing that those hangers would never be emptied.
During the endless drive, I tried distracting myself by repeatedly looking at recent photos of my newborn grandson, focusing on similarities to what his father, my son, had looked like as a baby. I thought about those first glances at my own babies and let myself snuggle back to those days. My thoughts suddenly drifted to what my mother must have felt when she had her first look at the nine month old baby I was when placed with my parents for adoption. I warmly recalled my mother’s stories of joy at meeting me and gathering me into her arms to welcome me into my new home and family. When she recounted the stories of our adoptions, our mom always identified my brother and I as the best gifts she had ever received. However, in my narrative, she and my father actually gave my brother and I the greatest gift; a loving family. Fully aware that I had often told her that before, I was suddenly so overcome with emotion that my sense of urgency to get to my mother increased a hundred fold; so I could tell her again how much I loved her, and so I could thank her for her and dad’s gift of love. I needed her to know, and felt desperate to get there to tell her.
I read, reread, and responded to text messages from the new parents, enamoured with the joyful elation of parenthood while at the same time I was despairing at my task of composing text messages informing family members and close friends of mom’s sudden hospitalization. In spite of all these distractions, I could feel my heart race as every kilometre of the highway flung it’s black ribbon of asphalt in front of us, apparently in slow motion. I don’t know how, but each minute still managed to tick by, sixty seconds at a time. Dread churned my stomach despite my husband’s insistence that my mom was still alive, so confident that I would somehow innately know if she had passed. Despite my husband’s reassurances, I felt such terror every time I heard the distinctive alert tone of my brother’s incoming text messages. Would this be it? Would this be the dreaded message?
Returning to the beautiful pictures from the few hours we had spent with our grandson I wondered, was it really barely a week ago? Only hours had passed between his birth and the moment I first held him. I remembered how I had put a tiny clean blanket between my sweater and my newborn grandson to protect him when I held him for the first time; this tiny being who, until that day , did not exist in my world. When we finally arrived and I ran into the hospital to see my mother, I was reminded of that tiny clean blanket as the nurses stopped to help me into a gown, mask, and gloves before I could enter her room. Instead of me keeping my grandson safe while I held him, this personal protective equipment was needed to keep me safe while I held my mother. Five short days had passed between holding a new person coming into my world, and holding an elderly person who may soon be leaving it. Overwhelmed does not begin to describe the emotions accompanying that realization.
We were given the gift of hope when my mother suddenly rallied, to my great relief. I brought in the hearing aids and teeth for her that had been left behind in the rushed ambulance ride. There was talk of discharge with simply the need to increase her current home support. Instead of the confused and unwell person awaiting me upon my arrival, there was a mostly cognizant person making plans to go home. We were able to play some simple card games and she was able to eat some of the food I spooned into her mouth. When she wasn’t sleeping, she and I loved looking at the updated photos of her newest great-grandson. In fact, his parents envied the amount of sleep my mother was getting compared to them. We joked about that.
You know how sometimes when you are changing or playing with a baby they will sometimes stop suddenly and stare intently over your shoulder? An ‘old wives tale’ about that says they see a spirit at that moment, or some say they see a guardian angel. Whatever it is, one sure feels the cold fingers of fear running up your spine as you work up the courage to look behind you. Well, on two occasions, just hours apart, my mother sat bolt upright and began speaking Polish to someone only she could see. You can imagine that suddenly sitting bolt upright was no small feat for a 97 year old hospitalized woman but she did it, twice! I have no idea what, or who, my mother saw in her mind’s eye but she did say, “I know. I will.” clearly and with purpose. Cold fingers of fear were nothing compared to the punch in the gut feeling that gave me.
I loved reading aloud to my children when they were young, and now love reading to my grandchildren. I so enjoy the looks on their faces and their physical anticipation when I change my voice or my volume as dictated by what is going on in the book. As anyone who has spent great chunks of time in a hospital knows, time moves slowly. I mean it actually ticks sixty seconds per minute but it does not feel that way. Since mom slept a lot while I and my PPE were restricted to her tiny room, I wondered how to pass the time. So the next time the nurses threw me out to go take a break and eat, I went to mom’s and picked out a couple of books she liked. Back in her hospital room I began to read aloud to her, holding her hand while she slept. A nurse came in to mom’s room to complete one of the million tasks that needed doing and she smiled stating, “That’s wonderful, keep reading, they say the hearing is the last to go.” I looked at her, smiled back, and thought, ‘I wonder if that still applies to someone who is stone deaf to begin with?”
On October 31 my cell phone began filling with pictures of my grandchildren’s costumes; their painted faces grinning with anticipation of the candy they were off to collect. Even my newborn grandson was dressed for his first Halloween. When she was awake, mom loved looking at the pictures. In return, I sent a picture of myself in full PPE and told my grandchildren it was my costume. As the day progressed, seeing her decline, I would tell mom that if she was going to ‘go’ she should wait for All Saint’s Day the next day, or wait until All Soul’s Day that was coming up in two days; ironically the day they initially planned for her discharge. I also said, more than once, “For God’s sake mom, please don’t die on Halloween.” I even warned her that if she gave up and died that day I would arrange for a Jack ‘O Lantern to be carved in the O of October on her headstone! She actually smiled in her sleep when I said that!
Most children love to be all tucked in with their favourite toy, or ‘stuffy’ as they call them now, to fall asleep. My grandchildren are no exception. When they have sleepovers we perform their usual bedtime routines so they can relax and sleep comfortably. Mom had been so restless earlier that I brought in one of the two little pillows that she always slept with at home. Rather than the sterile smell of hospital linens she seemed to revel in the smell of home and cuddled that wee pillow up to her nose as she was curled up in sleep. That is how I see her in my mind’s eye when I left her, sound asleep and cuddling her little pillow from home, on October 31, 2022, and before I got that dreaded final call.
So, with a nod to our family’s sense of humour, if you ever visit the cemetery where mom’s body rests, look closely in the O of October. We hope it makes you smile.
As ever, your comments are most welcome here or via my email address email@example.com