I was there for you for the first time, really, when I was 19.
We’d had years of discord, you and me, emotional, physical, pain that dominated and shaped my young life, and yours, too, I imagine. I’m sure you don’t know, but as an angst-filled teen, I’d had years of an inner conversation that had me arguing with myself whether I’d even go to your funeral if you died.
But then, I didn’t have to wait to find out. And you didn’t have to die to settle it.
When you emerged from brain surgery, you were almost unrecognizable, your face swollen nearly round, eyes little slits under fat lids, with glistening patches from green to purple to black from your hairline to your neck. You fell in and out of consciousness. But each time you swam up, you tried to talk. I had to lean in to hear.
“Reaction,” you said. “Juice.”
I’d known forever you were diabetic. That day I started to understand how little I knew about it, how different your diabetes was from the next guy’s, how quickly your well-managed condition could become fatal. As I looked down at you, heard your weak voice, scratchy from intubation, I suddenly knew that if I didn’t do something, that funeral question would no longer be academic.
No, I thought, I won’t go to your funeral. Because we aren’t having one.
I strode over to the closest nurse, tugging at her sleeve, and told her you needed help. “She’s stable,” the nurse told me.
“No,” I said, “she’s having a reaction.” She looked at me blankly.
“She needs juice,” I clarified.
“Just a moment,” she said and moved off.
Half an hour passed. I couldn’t see the nurse I’d spoken to. I got up and went to another. She put me off as well. After 20 minutes, I got loud in what I assumed was a recovery area.
“Some help, here!” I half shouted. For a moment nothing happened. “We need juice!” I now yelled.
An older woman made her way toward me. Again, it’s hindsight that makes me think of her as the charge nurse. At the time, she was just another person not listening to me. But she stepped up and raised her hands to me, palms out, in a quieting gesture.
Looking back, I’m sure they had a number of concerns, starting with whether you could even swallow. Avoiding aspiration, assuring you wouldn’t vomit, all pretty important once you know to watch for them. But even now, I’m not sure they mattered, unless someone was about to show up with a glucose drip.
You were very, very close to coma.
I brushed past the charge nurse and headed straight for the cafeteria. I purchased two cups of orange juice, the kind that came in little plastic containers with foil shrink-sealed around the top and headed back upstairs.
Saying nothing to anyone, I moved toward your bed and tried to remove the foil, pulling with my fingers and teeth. The head nurse came over.
“You’re not allowed to do that,” she said, in what I imagine was her sternest voice.
I stood up, stepped into her space. We were almost nose to nose. I shook.
“Stop me if you have to,” I said and turned back to you, a narrow slit now open in the juice.
Somehow, somewhere beyond consciousness, you managed to swallow the small bits I poured into your mouth. Half an hour later, the juice was gone, and you were sleeping comfortably.
No one spoke to me after that. And I honestly don’t remember the remainder of your stay. What I remember vividly is my switch from being your sworn enemy to being your advocate.
Just like that.
I’m not remembering fully what got you in the hospital for another round of dice throwing. Was it pneumonia again? I think so, or maybe they spotted that after you were there. Your lungs were nearly white with fluid on the X-rays, and your DNR orders were clear enough.
But the medical team did not lose hope as they tried less invasive measures, putting you on a BiPap machine, and saying you either would or wouldn’t breathe on your own. We’d have to see.
They lowered the machine’s pressure, in an effort to force you to take a breath. You didn’t.
“Breathe,” I said into your ear. Your eyes were closed, your body still. “Breathe!” I ordered. “Lynn!” I shouted. Your eyes fluttered. “BREATHE!” You took a breath. Tears flowed down my cheeks.
“Do it again!” I told you through my teeth, a command. “Breathe!” You did. We did that for another two hours or so. Me scolding you to take a breath when I thought it was taking too long, you seeming to comply.
I have to think it was your body responding by itself. Does an order to breathe really work? But it didn’t matter. What was important is that I was there. Maybe doing nothing at all, but there. I wouldn’t let you go through it alone.
These aren’t the only scares we’ve had over the last few decades, but they do strike me as some of the worst. Each time, I’ve felt virtually powerless.
I’m a doer in my grief, as you know. The more you see me doing, the more messed up I really am, frantically trying to paint a veneer of control over the uncontrollable.
The only thing I ever had control over was – is – myself. I could show up. I did.
Mom, I’ve been braced (if not a bit truly prepared) for your death for a long, long time. I have never once imagined it happening without me.
Until now. And it’s breaking my heart.
You’re fine for the moment. We FaceTimed today, chatting about the mundane realities of living under quarantine, joking, laughing sincerely. And in my gut, I feel a churning anxiousness that just won’t back off.
It’s in my dreams. It’s underpinning the silly things I’m doing day to day to keep my mind off it. It snaps back to the forefront of my mind several times a day, more at night.
I’m not there. I can’t be there. You won’t have me there, should you catch the virus that’s keeping the world at home. Because you want to be there for me, too.
I don’t know what to do with these feelings. They’re plenty valid, if a bit egged on by present paranoia, and not to be dismissed. I can’t talk to you about it. Every time I get even near to the thought, I start to cry. I’m crying now.
But I want you to know how badly I want to. How I would do anything to be able to assure you that in good times and desperate ones, I will be there, again and always.
I love you, Mom, I miss you, and I hope with all I have that I’ll have another opportunity, at least one, to look into your eyes, speak into your ear, hold your hand and just be there.
Christi Romero-Roseth lives in Denver. Her mother, Lynn Roseth, lives in Littleton.