I can’t sleep.
The wind is restless tonight, and so am I. Our curtains keep billowing open, just enough for the streetlights to drag their slender orange talons across my pillow. It isn’t the wind that’s keeping me awake, or the buzzing glow of the streetlights.
No, it’s time travel that is keeping me up this cool, clear night.
I’m not here right now, you see. I’m 10 years away, in the summer of 2004. It’s a giddy time; it’s the summer before I graduate college, and I’m sharing a dorm room with my friend Sonia. Across campus, my friend Bob lives in community with the religious brothers and priests, and we work together in an office on campus. Sonia and I spend evenings marathoning episodes of Law and Order: SVU while living off fruit snacks and Top Ramen. Bob and I engage in a prank war that includes me stealing his underwear and replacing his boxers with several pairs of $1 women’s panties I found at Wal-Mart. We get drunk, we eat greasy truck stop food at 1:00 in the morning, and we laugh.
The summer is typical for the Midwest: bright and balmy, but punctuated with violent, unpredictable thunderstorms that would shake the windows in our rooms. The day might start out clear and calm, then cloud over and pour buckets, then give way to sun again. Summers are like that, you know: tempestuous, but full of possibilities. I think that I, on the cusp of turning 21 and heading into my final year of college, felt like the living, breathing embodiment of Summer.
And then my mom died.
It wasn’t unexpected. In fact, she had been dying for years. She developed Lou Gehrig’s disease as I entered high school in 1998. It started out as a few unexpected falls, then spells of numbness and forgetfulness. In 2001, she sent me off to prom and watched my high school graduation from her wheelchair. She cried when I left for college because she couldn’t make the three-hour trip to move me into the dorms. I was the first in our family to go to college, and it was her dream come true for me.
She wouldn’t live to see me graduate.
During the winter of 2002, we had to move her into an assisted care facility. The following year we met with a social worker at the facility, who helped us draft my mother’s end of life paperwork, including her wishes to decline life support when the time comes.
The time came in July 2004.
Tonight, I’m awake because I’m back in my dorm room on a Saturday morning. I’m still sleeping when the phone rings. It’s early, but I roll out of bed and answer it, since I’m on the bottom bunk and Sonia’s on the top.
“Hello?” My voice is still thick with sleep.
“Hey baby, it’s Daddy.”
“Hey Papa. What’s up?”
“Your mom has stopped eating.”
“OK. I’ll come home.”
And that’s it. I hung up the phone.
“Is everything all right?” Sonia is awake now, looking down at me from her bed.
I remember this so clearly. I remember walking over to our bunk. I remember resting my head against Sonia’s mattress and saying, “My mom has stopped eating.” Then I remember crying while Sonia stroked the top of my head.
I’m sleepless tonight because I’m back in her room at the nursing home, for the first time since Memorial Day weekend. So much has changed in such a short time. My mom is awake when we arrive, and her eyes are wide and wild. They’re the only part of her body that she can control now, and they’re looking at me, saying something. Saying…saying what? I can’t bear it. I try to talk to her, and I try to pretend that I’m calm, that this is just another day for me.
But I can’t keep up the charade. I excuse myself to the bathroom, where I spend the rest of the visit. I cry until I vomit, then cry some more. I alternate between body-shaking sobs, and stomach-clenching retches. A kind nurse taps gently on the door, offering me some saltines and water. A little while later, my dad knocks on the door; visitation is over. We have to leave.
I am tossing and turning tonight because I remember feeling guilty when I walked over to kiss my mom good-bye that night ten years ago. My eyes were red and my face was puffy. She must have known where I had been and what I had been doing. Maybe she could even hear me through the bathroom wall. I remember that I didn’t want her to think it was her fault I was sad.
Because it wasn’t.
My mother’s hospice nurse, a short balding man with a soft voice and thin-rimmed glasses, is a reassuring presence during this time, silently reading National Geographic and using small blue sponges to pat water to my mother’s lips. My dad listens as the quiet man explains what happens when the human body shuts down, and my father seems oddly soothed by the clinical nature of the explanation. “Her urine will turn the color of tea towards the end,” he tells me, pointing at the drainage bag that hangs over the edge of the hospital bed. I nod mutely, also oddly soothed by this information. My father, siblings, and I spend our days and nights at her side, leaving only to go home and shower. The routine takes a toll on us, and one day a gentle nurse says, “You go on home and rest. We will call you if anything changes.” Reluctantly, my dad agrees, and we leave. I collapse into my bed around 6:00 a.m., still wearing my jeans and t-shirt.
And now, tonight, I am awake because I’m back in my old bedroom with the black and white checkerboard walls, lying in my bed with the pastel plaid comforter, wearing my Sesame Street t-shirt, and waking up to my dad howling in the doorway.
“Oh Lord, I knew it! I knew we shouldn’t have left!”
He is clutching his head, pacing in the hall and looking paler than usual.
“She’s gone! She’s gone!” he moans.
It was July 28th, 2004.
Ten months later, it’s a hot day in late spring, and I’m sitting in the stifling field house at school, sweating profusely under my cap and gown. I’m graduating college today. It’s Sunday, May 8th, 2005.
I cry harsh, bitter tears as speaker after speaker talks about moms: students thank theirs, while the president, deans, and provost congratulate the mothers in the audience for their children’s achievements. People are smiling, camera flashes are going off, and the guy in front of me has light-up Mickey Mouse ears attached to his mortarboard.
But I’m crying because it’s Mother’s Day, and mine isn’t here to celebrate with me.
I’ve made it through this post without having a real purpose for writing it. I mean, I wrote it because I can’t sleep, and I can’t sleep because my mind wandered back to those sweltering July days from years ago, and those memories ripped open a wound that will never fully heal. I wrote this because I started crying, because I had to tell the story of losing my mother, because I had to put to words the gaping hollowness inside my chest.
It’s been ten years, yes, perhaps…but for me, it will always be as if it were yesterday.