Hospital waiting rooms are the opposite of comforting.
The chairs are pushed far too closely together. It’s not that I’m so big and that I need the physical space to sprawl out; it’s that my worries and my concerns are bumping up against those of my family and those of the strangers that surround me as we all sit in a room with old magazines and coffee that is cooling too quickly while our minds race to the corners we often don’t allow them to venture.
The television is on and the morning news, no matter how peppy it’s being reported, strikes me as ominous. Will these stories one day loom large in my life because they were reported on a day when something went wrong in my life? Will Charlie Rose forever be a part of my psyche?
My mother is getting a hip replacement surgery this morning. It’s a common surgery – this is something I learned as I sat in a pre-surgery training session last week that she needed a partner for and more and more people kept walking through the door to hear instructions like “You will need an elevated toilet seat,” and “Don’t drive on painkillers.”
Will my mother eventually have extra painkillers I can snag that might send me into at least one night of uninterrupted sleep? This is a question that was not addressed during the training, and I did not venture forth and ask it myself. I figure the woman with the metal rod in her hip – the one we passed around so we could feel its weight, the one we learned would cause her to now beep as she goes through security in an airport – should be able to have all the painkillers that she is prescribed.
Me? I’ll just stick to Tylenol PM, though I’m pretty sure I’ve built up a pretty good tolerance to the drug. Maybe I should try valerian root and go the herbal way. These are the kinds of thoughts I think as I sit in this waiting room as my only real parent is down a hallway, an anesthesiologist at her side as she is put under for surgery.
My stepfather sits beside me, and I know that he is nervous but he is working. His phone is part of him now, an absolute appendage, and he passes the time by checking on his projects and arranging for new ones. I do not begrudge him this; in fact, it’s almost comforting that he can work in this moment because it sort of makes everything seem normal and like today is any other day.
My sister and my stepsisters and my brother will be checking in all day. They are concerned too. It’s scary when someone you love has to be cut into and have something that will be a part of her body forever inserted into it. Knowing that this surgery is incredibly common does not allow the nerves to subside.
“What are you most nervous about?” I asked my mother as we sat in the diner, eating Greek salads after the training session we went to last Tuesday. I thought it would be the pain she would experience in recovery. That was what I was most afraid of since it’s hard to see someone you love – someone who has always passed herself off as strong and capable – struggle to do something like walk or shower.
“I’m most nervous about the surgery itself,” she told me, taking a slow sip of herbal tea.
It wasn’t until she said it that I began to fear the surgery part too. And now, as I sit in this room, a room I have been in since 5:30 this morning, I can feel the gripping terror take hold of the parts of me that I usually control or pretend that I can ignore.
I don’t venture into the honest fear that life presents all that easily. I deny to myself that I shouldfeel fear and I back that denial up with a string of thoughts ruled by logic. When I talk to people I love who are afraid of the things I pretend don’t matter, they strike me as overly emotional and I undoubtedly strike them as cold and detached. It’s a defense mechanism, that cold logic of mine, and I know it’s a front even as it’s happening, but it doesn’t stop the side looks I get from people who think I’ve turned callous, even though I explain that I will behave this way before the event transpires, to prepare both them and myself.
I act like my warnings should excuse my behavior. They don’t – and perhaps they shouldn’t. But I don’t fully know any other way to be when we are talking about my mother feeling pain.
It’s only her that I am like this with. When someone I once cared for had to get surgery to remove something cancerous, I was a tangled ball of worry and I allowed my fears to come out to my closest friend over the phone.
“When I was angry at him, I once wished that he’d feel pain,” I told her in a tumbled and guilty rush of complicated and messy emotion. “Do you think I could be responsible for this happening? I didn’t really want him to be in pain. I didn’t.”
“You did not cause this,” she told me calmly, as she had to since part of the Best Friend Code is to tell me when I should not wear those jeans, when I should not sleep with that guy, and when I should not blame myself for a physical ailment that of course I did not cause. But still, I was emotionally wide open about my nerves and about his welfare and I spent evenings wishing upon skies filled with stars that he would not receive bad news or experience a painful recovery.
With my mother, I made those same wishes, but my eyes were dry as I did it. They had to be. I could not allow myself to feel the fear. Sitting here typing, I realize that I’m keeping myself busy so I still won’t fully feel it.
I have never once been accused of lacking self-awareness.
Perhaps tomorrow that attribute will cause me to feel some pride.
Today I feel nothing.
I’ve become – or I’ve tried to become – immune to the panic that sets in when I think that something could happen to my mother. For several years after my father died, I lived every moment with that terror. I often would find myself in a bottomless pit of dread. It was normal behavior, I suppose; no fourteen year old loses what she believed was a healthy father and then ventures forth into the world without a deep fear that something terrible could suddenly befall the only family I had left. But living that way, with that constant high level of fatalism, was not something I could handle and it was not something that was good for me, so somehow I learned to turn that part of myself off. I don’t remember how I did it, and if I could, there’s a chance I’d flip the switch again so that I could feel things like other people. There are times I wish I could react in the ways that won’t lead to my sister gazing at me with an expression of hurt on her face that comes because she knows that part of her sister is dead inside.
The truth, of course, is that I’m not dead inside. I feel everything. I feel worry and I feel haunted and I feel anxiety and I feel like I lack control over the things I can never fully control. I feel grateful too – for my family who tries to understand my behavior, for the friends who see straight through my façade to what is real, to the people I work for, who told me not to worry about taking a day off before and after the holiday break for the pre-surgery preparation and for the surgery itself. It’s funny; feeling the gratitude is so much easier for me than it is to feel the fear. I wonder if it’s that way for everybody else, and I’d ask them – but I am simply too afraid.
I know that my mother is afraid too. She is afraid of the surgery, of the recovery process, of getting older in general. She is easily one of the most physically beautiful people I know, and I can see that aging must be even more difficult when one is so pretty. She is still beautiful, but when you’re in constant discomfort, I suppose that it’s hard to remember and recognize that – and that maybe it doesn’t quite matter anymore.
She called me yesterday morning after texting at 11:45 to see if I was awake. I haven’t slept all that much lately, so I texted her back, “Of course I’m awake.” And she called then to say that she wanted me to know that a squirrel came up to the glass door of the house and just stayed there for a while looking at her.
“How is Daddy?” I asked – because I knew that she wanted me to. See, my father used to call her “Squirrel,” though I don’t know why and I have no idea how that nickname originated. (And as someone who used to call someone “Sweetface,” I kind of have no right to inquire about loving monikers given to others.) She has mentioned before that squirrels have stopped by, and she always sees my father in them. It doesn’t matter that they were divorced and that it was contentious; she is wise enough to believe that, had he lived, eventually they would have reached a stage of kindness and comfort. I don’t know that she’s right about her beliefs, but I certainly would like to think that she is. And in a moment where she needed to feel a moment of comfort, I’m glad that she got that comfort from a squirrel wandering up to her back door.
We all take comfort where we can get it. This is a thought I had as I put my silver locket with my father’s picture inside on this morning at 4:00. I am in sweatpants and Uggs and I am wearing a locket because I want the picture of the man inside to bring some sort of supernatural strength and ease to a situation I cannot control. I also charged my phone and my iPad and loaded the book It onto my Kindle app, thinking that I should read something that encompasses far more terror than what it is I am going through.
Bring on the story of the psychotically deranged clown for purposes of my comfort.
Walking through the rehab center my mother will go to a few days after the surgery put me on edge, even as I saw the constant supervision she would have and the comfortable-looking beds and the bakery across from the exercise room, the one I know my mother will only order tea from, ignoring the cupcakes completely. I focused instead on the fact that her room comes with a DVD player and I made a mental list of the movies I could bring her and that we were told that she needed socks that wouldn’t slip on the linoleum floors and I went onto my phone and ordered her several pairs from Amazon in that very moment. Non-skid socks? That variable I could control – and so I took action. And doing so felt good, right.
Her pain that is coming? That I cannot control. But I can control how I react to it and I have been having deep and probing talks with myself during which I warn myself to be positive and to be encouraging and, most of all, to be patient with the person I love the most in the entire world as she struggles to feel like a version of herself again. I do things my yoga teacher would approve of, like breathe in thoughts of positivity as I exhale the negative. I feel like my breath is something I know I have control over.
I think sometimes parents believe that their children can act like their friends would in a physical crisis. A friend can be fully supportive and hug the person in pain, and I suppose that a child could too, but the thing is, the child in the situation feels a panic that the friend does not. It’s not that the friend isn’t worried, but there’s a certain kind of worry that takes hold when you’re a child, no matter how old you are, when your parent is not well. It’s hard then – to comfort another person when you’re so internally damaged by the moment yourself. It’s not about being selfish. It’s simply about a momentary instability that you try to shake yourself out of so that you can be a better person, so that you can be an adult. So that you can be good and be present for the person in need. So that you can pretend that the person in need is not you.
But every time a doctor walks into the waiting room and he is not here to see you, you sit back on those chairs that should be more comfortable than they are and you feel the concern rising. And your stepfather talks loudly, and because you’re not allowing yourself to react to that which is real, you let yourself get annoyed by the decibels his voice can reach in a room where you’re pretty sure everything should be quiet. And the traffic and the weather reports come on every seven minutes like some kind of loop that might feel comforting in its consistency on a normal day, but today it just serves as a reminder of how long you have been sitting and waiting.
And even as you craft this piece of writing that is chock full of truth and honesty, you know you haven’t even scratched the surface of how you really feel in this moment, and you know that you won’t – that you can’t – and you try to forgive yourself for being weak as you try to get it up to pretend for your mother, who you will soon see coming off of anesthesia, that you’re the strongest person that she knows.