Monday September 24th, 2012, finishing up dinner. This moment is now etched in my memory forever.
My cell phone made its "missed call" alert noise.
We have terrible cell signal at the house, so unless I happen to have my phone sitting on my younger son's bedroom window sill, it won't pick up a call. But it does have a fantastic sense of irony and will ALWAYS let me know that someone did call, and that I missed it because it couldn't be bothered to ring.
I got up from the table to look at my phone and see what I'd missed but as soon as I saw the number, I froze. Which is an interesting physiologic situation when you're not having to run for your life from something that is trying to kill you. I know how fight vs flight works, it's just when your situation has no actual or even imagined physical danger/stressors/demands, it's interesting that your body still reacts the same way to fear.
The phone number was my sister's.
All families have their idiosyncrasies. But I'd have to say that the biggest one in mine is our collective dislike of calling each other. Don't get me wrong, I love my family more than anything and I very much enjoy being with them whenever we are together. While I can only speak for myself with any certainty, I believe my siblings feel the same way.
But we never call.
I don't really know how to explain it, either. We just don't and never really have, even though our parents were divorced and all of us live in different places.
There have always been two exceptions to this inexplicable familial phone-shunning: Christmas Day (if we aren't together), and our mom.
We all called mom. And she called us. She was the hub. Our central relay station where we could both provide information and get it. So maybe we all just figured that because we'd talked to mom, we didn't need to call anyone else because we already knew x,y, z? Who knows.
But my sister's phone number was sitting there on my cell phone. So I knew something was wrong. Within about a second I'd already determined that it wasn't Christmas - because you know, it was September - and couldn't think of any other non-worrisome reason she might be calling. I didn't even listen to the voice mail.
With panic rising in my chest I mumbled something to my guys to the effect of "something's going on, I have to call my sister... " and took to the one spot in the house with passable cell signal.
She answered and I asked her what was up.
"When was the last time you heard from mom?"
My suspicion confirmed, both my brain and heart were completely frantic - that was not the opening to a conversation where everything is ok.
My mom was 75 years old and lived alone in a small condo. My parents divorced when I was a teenager and I have two siblings from that marriage. My mom never had another relationship. Well, unless you count the dog - you'll understand this better as I tell more of the story. While my sister and I both moved away when we went to college, my brother remained in the same city as mom right up until 2011.
You would not have guessed my mom was in her 70's if you'd met her. I certainly never thought about her as being that old and I know that she didn't see herself as the age she was. Which I think was probably the key. She was also very bright, extremely well read, and still just as sharp as she always had been. She was active - after being diagnosed with severe osteoporosis in her 50's, she was diligent about exercising and walking ALL the time, even after she no longer needed the meds. She traveled, she had a group of friends who were all opera fanatics like she was and with whom she would go out and see operas, plays or movies. She participated in a book club and she loved bird-watching and gardening.
I could talk to her for hours. About everything. She was a history buff, music lover, and a great cook.
To me, she was the same, she never aged, at least not as far as her personality went. Physically, yes, though not drastically. Her eyes were giving her the most trouble. She had cataracts and was also diagnosed with a type of glaucoma so the immediate concern was for her sight. She was good about seeing her doctor regularly so I never really worried about anything else. Especially while my brother and his family were still in the area.
When they moved two years ago, other worries started to creep-in when I allowed them. Every now and then I'd remember that she was, in fact, in her 70's, and there was no longer any family near her - I had awful visions of something happening while mom was alone at home and I would purposely shut-down those kinds of thoughts quickly.
"When was the last time you heard from mom?"
With those words echoing in my head I realized that it had been a couple of weeks. Last I'd spoken to her she was about to go visit my brother and his family, but I had not heard from her since she'd returned.
Of course my immediate thought was she's missing, no one can reach her, they're sending the police to her place to check on her... the images in my head were unpleasant to say the least.
"She's in the ER at the hospital... " And then she laid it all out. For several weeks my mom had apparently been having some pain and other difficulties that weren't resolving on their own - and were getting worse as the days went by. That morning it was so bad that her doctor saw her urgently and subsequently sent my mom to the ER for a CT scan of her abdomen, concerned about the possibility of a bowel obstruction.
At 75, there are a few things that can cause bowel obstructions. But I know what the most common cause is.
"She has a tumor the size of a baseball in her colon - there may be other organs involved, but they don't know yet...."
And there it was.
The rest of the conversation played-out with me asking a lot of questions (earlier in my adult life I was a nurse), my sister answering them, my not liking the answers and arguing with her. Not the best way to deal with this news nor for trying to cope with what we were facing, but, also not entirely surprising given our personalities and the history of our sisterhood. Love each other as we do, we also have a tendency to clash.
In my defense all I can say is that I just wanted to make sure mom was being taken care of the best way possible and that she was at least going to be comfortable. I was a 4 hour drive and one border crossing away, and my younger son's severe autism makes unanticipated travel almost impossible. So I knew I wasn't going to be able to get up there right away.
My sister told me she was going to be on a plane the next morning so I didn't need to worry about going at the moment (mind you, not having to go ASAP did not mean that I did not want to go ASAP). She gave me the number to the hospital so that I could call mom - at that point she'd been told they didn't have a bed so they were just going to keep her in the ER all night. Hence a certain amount of my displeasure.
Then we hung-up.
As I sat on my son's bed sobbing, the phone rang.
It was mom. At least it was a call from her home number. Confused, I answered - and it was mom. I decided that it wasn't necessarily going to help her to hear me crying so I did my best to sound as normal as possible.
"How are you?" She asked me, after I said hello, as though this were just any other conversation we'd ever had.
This struck me as both awesome and ridiculous all at once and all I could do was laugh. I told her I was ok, but was more concerned about her. Also, what was up with her being at home and not at the hospital?
She told me that they'd let her go since they didn't have a bed but also decided she'd be ok until she came back for surgery on Friday. So one of her good friends who had been with her most of the day, had come to pick her up and take her home.
She sounded like she was trying hard not to be upset/scared. Which almost put me over the edge because I just wanted to go there and hug her. I held it together and once we'd been over the details of what led up to this and what was happening from here, including her mentioning that she wasn't really interested in chemo, we moved on to talk about the boys and the things they were up to.
I wanted her to smile. So I told her a story about Josh (see the blog next door!) stripping down to go jump on the trampoline. Which made her laugh. I had her talk to my oldest, I knew he was upset and wanted him to hear her voice.
Toward the end of the call, she was sounding like her usual self. As we were getting ready to hang up, she said, "well, at least now I know what's going to get me".
That was very much a mom thing to say. Which made me smile briefly through the tears that had started again.
And didn't really stop for 3 days.