When my mom was a kid, she didn’t have it easy. Her mom was one of the few who worked, so while her classmates went home to hot lunches and cuddles, mine had something from the fridge and a phone call reminder when it was time to head back to school. She shared a bed with her sister and wore hand-me-down clothes. When, at the age of nine, her ballet teacher told her parents she was good enough to take lessons at a school downtown, they didn’t have money or time, so her career abruptly ended. Then there was her love of math coupled with her aptitude. She wanted to be an accountant, but her dad said women were educators, and so she taught.
She decided things would be different for her own children. And she succeeded.
If there ever were a documentary titled Supermom, mine would be the star. Along with being the room parent, birthday party maker, and homework helper, she made smiley faces in my Cheerios out of raisins and packed notes and stickers in my school lunches. Any activity that interested me, she’d find a class, drive a zillion miles, and cheer me on. Although my sister’s clothes would’ve fit, I never once wore a hand-me-down. And while I shared a room, I slept in my own bed, and never had chores. My mom did everything so I could enjoy a childhood without responsibilities.
Along with all that, the person she is makes my mom special, too. She’s the one who knows the mailman by name and leaves him a bottle of water on hot days. She calls the managers of stores who are used to listening to complaints, and instead shocks them by waxing poetic about their employees. And she may just be the last person on earth who drives to the post office daily to mail friends and family real cards for every occasion.
So last week, when she had a stroke, I ignored it for a few days and pretended it was someone else’s mom, because in the past, it was, and that was always easier. And then, because words are less complicated to think about than people, I mulled the meaning of ‘stroke.’ Flowing paint brushes, graceful Olympic swimmers, and calmly petting a horse came to mind. And suddenly, the gentleness of the word paired with the harshness of reality felt like a Quentin Tarantino movie where classical music played while people were massacred.
But it was impossible to ignore real life for long when all my friends reacted to the news with the same word -- scary. Scary is for amusement park rides and haunted houses, not for things that happen to people -- and especially not to my mom. But there it was. Scary staring at me in all my texts, because when people hear about strokes, they think about what the result could’ve been.
The next day at the Starbucks drive through, I finally broke down. I messaged my mom:
“I love you so much. Please get better and don’t die.”
And then, in a totally insincere chipper voice, I ordered my chai.
Then I went to work and faced my students like nothing happened, because that’s what you do when you’re an educator with an educator mom who had a stroke. Teaching my fourth graders spelling words like happy and pillow, and all about the Constitution were welcome distractions from worrying about Mom and wondering who was going to watch my daughter, Autumn, now that Grandma couldn’t. Even the best nanny or daycare would never compare to someone who blanketed her in love. I wished people had descended from kangaroos, and we could just pop our babies in pouches and bounce around with them tucked safe and close. And if I had a second wish, I’d ask for babies to be shielded from harsh realities, because while my daughter is too young to talk, she’s old enough to understand that something happened.
The day Grandma went to the hospital -- and suddenly disappeared as Autumn’s caregiver --, my daughter was up all night crying. Then, two days later, my mom came home, where we’re also living, and brought with her a contraption.
“That’s a walker,” I told Autumn. “Kind of like your Radio Flyer push wagon.”
It was alarming at first, to see my mom with something old people need, but then funny when my daughter shuffled it away like it was a toy. And the next morning, Mom smiled as she told me about the hospital nurses, Jeremy and John, who were jealous of her bloodwork. She beamed at the word normal appearing in her test results for each of the heart’s five sections. And she giggled at the technician who, when administering a cognitive test, told her:
“You were supposed to finish in 75 seconds, but unfortunately, it took you a minute 12.”
“But that’s only 72 seconds,” my mom corrected, then clarified that her score was, to be exact, one minute, 12 seconds, and 14 hundredths. Cognitively speaking, not too shabby.
And then when she noticed my tears, and read my mind, she said, “You’re much more capable than you think.” But I didn’t want to be capable. I wanted to be with her. Forever. But forever is not an option for anyone, and the other night, during our bedtime routine, I began thinking about everything too much and a few tears slipped. Then I realized I needed to hold it together for my daughter the same way I did for my students, and the same way my mom always has for me. And while I am always grateful to have Autumn, this week, that feeling multiplied exponentially. She forces me out of my brain that’s screaming to focus on the negative, and brings me back into the world to focus on her. But most of all, she’s Grandma’s best medicine.
My mom noticed I continued to be upset. It was then she reminded me:
“Your grandpa used to say don’t look back. Don’t look forward. Think about the power of now, and enjoy the moment.”
Later that day, my brother and sister came over. While we played instruments, Autumn danced. We were all just in the moment, and for now, everything is more than okay.