This story is by Sally O’Grady and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
We arrived home from the trip late that night, exhausted from taxis, airports, flights, and no rest. Our boys could not settle down on the plane, and their excitement was the shot of espresso that kept my fatigued body awake. As we dropped our luggage in the living room, the blinking phone caught my eye. Rather than leave it until the morning, a knot in my gut told me to check the messages now. When I pressed the voicemail button, it began.
“You have 15 new messages.”
There they were. With increasing urgency, message after message from my sister and cousins told me that my mother was in the hospital. Dying. The Multiple Sclerosis, that plagued her for years, caught up with her already weakened body. The doctors said she would not likely make it through the night. “Hurry!” my family urged. And, as it happens in the movies, time slowed and everything around me became distorted. The boys played happily with no intention of going to bed but I heard none of their laughter, only echoes of voices from the past and the sound of my own heart pounding. The loving home I stood in faded away and I was alone, in a dark place I had tried so hard to forget.
I stood paralyzed not by fear or sadness or worry but by my own ambivalence. My husband’s hand on my shoulder snapped reality back into focus; my face had betrayed my internal struggle. Laughter returned, lifting the darkness that had surrounded me. My pounding heart fell silent.
After explanations, hugs, and quick kisses goodbye, I was back in the car.
The drive to my hometown is not a particularly long one; it’s a scenic route weaving its way through the countryside, and one I had enjoyed fully until this night. On this night, the sky ahead filled with clouds billowing upwards into dark mountains, illuminated sharply by flashes of lightning.
Into the eye of the storm, I go.
I drove in silence; music was a distraction I couldn’t bear. Instead, I listened to the sound of my tires on the highway, and the claps of thunder punctuating the thoughts of my racing mind. After all this time, she is leaving. After years of hoping for a connection, for the slightest inkling of any type of caring. It never came. I had spent my life, all I could remember of it, and every moment with her, thinking that one day the shift would come. She would tell me that I was loved, and my heart would be healed. Just like that.
The weight of her judgment and indifference sat heavily on my chest as I drove. I tried to summon the feelings that any ‘good daughter’ would experience at the time of her mother’s passing but all I felt was emptiness. The miles went by, and the storm became angrier as I neared the hospital.
Is this the universe telling me I shouldn’t see her? Is she telling me to stay away? Maybe I should turn around and go back home.
No. You need to be there; you need to see this through. Stand in this moment and do what needs to be done. If the years of growing up in my family taught me anything, it was to be brave.
A hospital in the dark of night is an eerie place. As I walked down the hallway, the sound of my footsteps echoed back to me, and the fluorescent lights cast menacing shadows; ghosts following my every step. Making my way to see her, I steeled myself for whatever was to come. I turned the corner into her room and was met with a nurse hovering over her bedside and my sister, pacing. My sister Clair was, as always, twisted with emotion that she masterfully channeled into a cutting glance that she shot my way.
“Nice of you to join the party.” Classic Clair, cruel and to the point.
I ignored her and walked over to this woman in the bed, the woman I called ‘Mom’ who now looked simply like a stranger peacefully sleeping. No pain. No anxiety. No fear.
Do I want pain for her? Why would I? That’s horrible…
Another clap of thunder from outside startled me from my thoughts. I stepped back and looked at the nurse.
“She’s at ease,” the nurse told me, offering hollow reassurance. If you only knew. I smiled my thanks. That’s what I’m supposed to do, right? Smile?
Clair smiled too and thanked her then turned back to me, her smile immediately melting. She looked me up and down. “Vacation? Must be nice. I’m going to get a coffee; I’ve been here for hours.”
“Sure,” I responded but she was already gone. I turned back to my mother and searched her face. Are you in there? Do you even know I’m here?
I pulled out the chair tucked beside her bed, sat down, and sighed. Her body was so small and so fragile. The disease had ravaged her to the point that even eating was difficult, and that coupled with the atrophy, left a shell of the woman I remembered from my childhood. She lay there defenseless, defeated by a life it seemed she didn’t want. The rain drummed on the windows, a constant pattering that felt like the skies were crying all the tears that I should have at this moment but didn’t.
What do I want from you now? Anything? I don’t think so.
I leaned in close and took her hand in mine. I hadn’t held my mother’s hand for as long as I could remember. I’m sure I must have held her hand at some point. When I was little maybe? I hold the boys’ hands all the time. Crossing the street, when we’re out for walks, waiting in line at the movies. I want them to know I love them, that I care. That I am always right here.
So, I held my mother’s hand and let the weight of my thoughts gently close my eyes.
As if in a dream I saw myself. Small, maybe four or five years old, my hair swept from my face and held off to the side in a little purple clip. The house was still and despite it being a bright midsummer day, my curtains were drawn leaving the colors of my bedroom muted and grey. I sat alone on the floor as I played with my dolls. Giggles bubbled up from inside as I imagined my little, best friends on a great adventure in a far-off land. That’s when I heard my mother’s footsteps coming up the stairs. I immediately put the dolls back in their appointed spots on the shelf, jumped onto my bed, and picked up my favorite picture book, just in time for her to walk into my room.
“What have I told you about making noise?” Her words were sharp, bound together by disappointment and resentment. I felt her gaze look through me as if I weren’t even there. She waited, staring, one hand on the doorknob and the other on her hip. Her lips were pursed tightly shut, as if she opened them a scream would be released that would deafen us both.
“Be a good girl and stay quiet. I’m sorry, Mummy.” Without another word, she turned and closed the door.
You are a good girl. It’s ok to play and laugh and have fun. Don’t be sad; one day you’ll grow up and you’ll have more love than you can imagine.
I opened my eyes and looked at the woman in front of me; I could finally see the woman I called Mom.
“It’s alright, you can go now. I’m fine, I’ll be fine. I forgive you for everything and I hope you can forgive me for whatever I’ve done to hurt you.” I whispered it to her, not wanting to disturb her peace, not wanting anyone to hear, maybe not even me. As usual, I received nothing in return. Only silence. I don’t know if I expected anything different but her peace gave me all I needed.
By daybreak, the storm had passed and she was gone. Peacefully. Quietly. She just stopped being without a sound escaping her lips. Whether she carried any regret is a secret she took with her. But it was not only my mother who left the earth that day. She took with her the frightened, insecure little girl who lived inside of me all these years. I said goodbye to her and my mother in the same quiet breath.
My mother was free, and so was I.
Clair and I signed the appropriate papers, made the required phone calls, and said little to one another. No words of shared condolence, no recollections of fond memories. There were none.
I got back into my car and drove toward the sunrise. The storm was over. A bright, new day was upon me.