My mom threw up at the climbing gym, just after I lowered her from the top of a route. She came out of the women’s restroom a couple minutes later, swearing she felt better, saying it must have been something she ate. Then she powered through a couple more routes, and an ice cream sundae at the diner afterward. This was two days after Christmas.
At the pharmacy a few hours later, she looked bad, shivering with a fever. We picked up the medicine for my grandmother and argued as I backed mom’s white sedan out of the parking lot. I insisted that she go home and rest, and that I could drop off the medicine and check on my grandma. She insisted back, as she has my entire life. This is how it goes—no real reasoning, no debate, just back and forth until someone gives in. I won, dropping her off at the house and texting my brother “make sure mom goes to bed.”
She went inside and sat on the couch next to the Christmas tree with a blanket over her head, feeling like hell but not wanting to miss out on a minute of time with her grandkids. My brother and I would later shake our heads and laugh at Mom and her relentless stubbornness. It might have been the first argument I’ve ever won with her.
I drive to Grandma’s apartment in the assisted living home to find her confused with a 103.5 temperature, and of course Mom flew to the rescue, off the couch next to the Christmas tree, and down the street to Grandma. We began the slow epic of moving an 86-year-old woman across icy sidewalks, into the car, and to the emergency room, three of us trying to gently set her into the passenger seat as she tried to get her feet to work, her brain cooking with fever. Just shuffle your right foot six inches, grandma. Six inches. Okay, how about three. In five minutes, we moved three feet.
At the ER entrance, we couldn’t get her out of the car. Grandma, grab my hands, I say, I’ll just pull you into the wheelchair. I pull gently, and she doesn’t move. I feel like I’m going to pull her arms off. Okay Grandma, put your arms around my neck and I’ll give you a big bear hug. I try to pull and she says I can’t I can’t I can’t. Mom runs inside the door and grabs two paramedics, who pull Grandma out in about 30 seconds, and we wheel her inside, out of the icy night air.
Nobody is happy in the emergency room. We just want everything to be better for the person we brought there, so all of us can spend Friday night doing what people do on Friday nights.
I wheel Grandma down the halls, putting her in room 11. Mom and I sit next to each other in two chairs next to the wall as nurses pop a blood pressure cuff on Grandma and plug her into the IV. Mom sits next to me, mass texting six brothers and sisters in four states. And I think, This Christmas Is Sad.
She says, Call your dad and have him come pick you up. I say Bullshit, mom, what are you going to do? You’re the sick one. You need to go home.
She says, When I’m 86, you can come sit by my hospital bed—I got this one.
I text my dad and go outside to wait. I lean against the wall next the sliding doors at the ER entrance and an ambulance pulls up as I wipe away tears with the sleeve of my puffy jacket.
“Do you think your brothers and sisters know how hard this is?” I ask mom in the van a couple days later on the drive home from Grandma’s apartment.
“I don’t think so,” Mom says. “I just think about what they said about what they did for Christmas—things like ‘we had a relaxing day’—and I think, ‘I want to have a relaxing day. I worked all day!'”
I say, Mom, I think you’re like me. I don’t know if you’ve ever had a relaxing day in your life.
“No, you’re like me,” Mom says emphatically. “I’m the mother.”
We both laugh and I let her have that one. I gently press the brake pedal so we don’t slide on the ice at the four-way stop, and she points out a tree with multicolored big-bulb holiday lights, the only thing decorated in someone’s spacious front yard at the corner of the intersection. This is where we turn left to go to Mom and Dad’s house, and I know Mom has made this left turn hundreds of times this year. Everybody else in the family, including me, gets to drop in whenever our schedules allow. We get to put Grandma away in a box, a building full of sweet old ladies, just like thousands of other places like it in the country, where all those sweet old ladies pass time in small apartments full of photos of us.
Someone else takes care of Grandma, and we leave to go live our lives. But not Mom. She calls in the morning, at lunch, then leaves work late and stops by to see Grandma, every day. Then she drives past this tree with the big bulbs on it, gets home at 8:30, and goes to bed about a half-hour later every night.
I wonder how much longer Mom can handle it, working 55 hours a week as a nurse practitioner helping patients, then taking care of Grandma when she can and worrying about Grandma when she has a spare minute, then sleeping a little bit and not eating enough and then running off to a spin class. I think about this thing people call “self-care” and how bad I am at it, and I think Mom might be worse, and maybe that’s where I learned it. And maybe she’s why I tell people “‘Stubborn’ is what lazy people call determined people.”
I don’t imagine Mom ever sat down and decided she was going to be a devoted person, but when things get tough, I think she’s the type of person you want in your life. One of my aunts said it’s because she’s been a nurse her whole life, but I don’t think that’s it.
We don’t say I Love You a lot in my family. To me, those three words always sound like someone else’s. Maybe that’s because I’m a writer, and when you’re a writer, they teach you to avoid cliches. We do it better than we say it. We show up for it because it’s our job as human beings. Like my mom, I may not be the most touchy-feely person in the world, but I do my best to show up when you need a ride to the airport, or a couch moved, or somebody to talk to. Just like my mom.