Both Sides Now
by Sharon Tjaden-Glass
“I think she’s passing out,” I say.
My stepfather is on his feet in a moment, talking to my mom, asking her questions. I move from my chair to the edge of the bed and take her hand in mine without thinking.
Are you okay, Mom?
Do you know where you are?
Warren tries to talk to her.
Who’s holding your hand? Who came to visit us?
…Sharon. And Doug…
My stepfather leaves the room to get the nurse and my mom stares at a fixed point on the wall, somewhere faraway. I pull her hand into my lap and rub her hand, her palm, her wrist, her arm, over and over again.
I want to say, It’s okay. We’re getting help.
But my mouth is dry, the words catch in my throat, as large as stones. I could not cough them out if I tried. My eyes don’t sting with impending tears, nor do they water. My heart does not panic.
My hands keep moving, comforting her as she drifts between consciousness and unconsciousness. I have been there myself, on that cold, shaky cusp between states of awareness. Sinking into a cloud of thick unconsciousness, swallowed whole for a dark moment. The ringing in my ears, the cold sweat, the sounds drifting back into my ears as I push back through the clouds, breathing in the clear atmosphere once again. I know what it is like to be able to hear and understand–and be unable to speak, the task of moving your mouth and articulating words too much too handle. Hoping beyond hope that someone will just stay with me and talk me through it, until I rise to the surface again.
It’s the cancer in her leg, fueled by a reoccurring hormone-disrupting carcinoid tumor, that is causing these blackouts. Her heart is fine. Her brain is fine. Her endocrine system is not. These drops in blood pressure have brought her here, where she is now–in a rehab facility, nursing a broken arm and an injured neck.
I move my hand over her bruised wrist, where they drew blood several days ago. I cringe. That’s a spot where it would burn and sting. I rub the dark spot tenderly, careful not to push too hard.
I should be crying, I think.
But I’m not.
Because I’ve stepped into something familiar. A path that I’ve walked, both consciously and unconsciously, for the last ten years.
I think of the nights I held Felicity while her chest rattled with mucus from RSV, rubbing her back so tenderly, talking into her ear.
I think of the way I would carefully transfer Henry, so smoothly, so orchestrated to minimize the sensation from my arms to his crib.
I think of how I held each of my children after injuries and surgeries, the even and loving tone that I would hear come from my mouth, so assured. I surprised even myself.
I think of all the ways that motherhood has required me to use my whole body, my touch, my hands, my shoulders, my whole physical self to be present and to move along with the rhythms and pace of my heart.
I think of these memories. And I know exactly what to do.
I know how to hold my mother’s hand, how to talk to her softly and assuredly, without making demands or imposing undue stress on her, to let her know that I am there for her and there is nothing that she needs to do for me, that all she needs to do is breathe and hold on, and how grounded I need to be to keep her from panicking or floating away completely.
And she allows me.
Whenever I ask my mom if she needs help while I’m visiting, she said, “Help is my middle name right now.”
I help her adjust the cervical collar, which holds her healing neck as still as possible. I help her grasp the dried banana chips that I’ve brought from the store. I hand the puzzle book to her to ask for her help on a clue. I direct the kids about where to stand so Grandma can see them better.
Warren is there every day, for most of her waking hours. He sits patiently next to her and helps her remember the days and what has happened. He keeps track of what occupational therapist has said, what the physical therapist has said, what the nurse has said, the medications that haven’t arrived yet, the outcomes of particular doses of this and that. He helps her lean forward in the inclined bed by gripping her unbroken arm and bracing himself. He does all the actions that she cannot do.
I don’t pray much these days. If I’m being honest, my prayers are sometimes confined to the liturgy, Help, save, comfort, and defend us, Gracious Lord.
But there as I’m watching Warren take care of my mother, I pray for him.
I downright thank God for him.
The tears don’t come as I leave the rehab facility. They don’t come on the long drive home, with my husband and kids in the car. They don’t arrive while we’re making dinner or getting the kids ready for bed.
They arrive as I lay in bed, reviewing the day in the way that all introverts do: by carefully combing through the day’s memories. The considering and classifying and making sense of. Aligning memories alongside each other, drawing the far past to the what-just-happened. The contemplation.
It all gives rise to sobbing. The ugly, whole body sobbing that just wrecks you and turns you into a red, wet, messy disaster.
What do I think about?
I wonder how many times my mother has comforted me by holding me. As an infant. As a preschooler. As a young girl.
How tall was this mountain of memories that I would never remember? And I cry more because I know, I know, how many moments of my life have been spent in this period of suspension. When nothing else got done, except for the simple act of holding.
The simple act of caring.
Now, I feel the full Truth of that moment–It was worth it.
It was worth my time, my sacrifice, my pain, my life. I knew it was worth it then, but now I know it was worth it even more than I did in those moments.
And how much of a gift it is to offer this moment to my mother now.
And how I deeply wish I would have been able to offer the same to my father as he lay dying.
But now I know.
This is a gift.
To be there for her.
To bring her grandkids to her so she can see them.
To sit with her in the silence and simply be.
To hold her hand in moments when her body conquers her mind, and reassure her that, No, you are not going anywhere.
We will wait for that moment together.
But it’s not today.
Oh, but now old friends they’re acting strange
And they shake their heads and they tell me that I’ve changed
Well something’s lost, but something’s gained
In living every day
I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at allJoni Mitchell