You always imagine the call will be a certain way: in the middle of the night, of course, and definite. The news is the one you’ve been anticipating—it’s always been just a matter of when, given how old they are, and now it’s just a matter, to put it bluntly, of which one. You don’t expect a different kind of call, one that leaves you feeling something you can’t name just yet.
One hour into a 12-hour drive for a book reading at my graduate school, my sister called me with some good news: our mother would be leaving the hospital tomorrow morning. She’d been there for several days due to a subdural hematoma, meaning she had suddenly developed a big blob of blood on her brain. Bloody brains are not only an icky image but they are also not healthy, as you can imagine. My mother’s blob gave her a headache that she managed to endure for three days before finally calling my sister and asking to be taken to the hospital. When my mother asks to be taken to the hospital, you can bet the headache probably feels like a hundred Lucille-wielding Negans walloping her cranium at once.
Because I was driving when my sister called, I pulled over at the next gas station to fill up the tank and return the call. Yes, the news this morning was good; the doctor OK’d our mother to go home. There was more, though. “So, when do you think you can come out to visit?” my sister asked. “I know you said May was good, but do you think you can come sooner?”
“March is also good. I could definitely do—”
“Could it be even sooner?”
I was flummoxed. What was closer than March? Like, now?
“I don’t really think she can care for herself right now,” she explained. “And our father is hopeless. He can barely care for himself. I’ve already taken a lot of time off work and I can’t keep doing that. I could sure use some help—as soon as you can.”
When my sister asks for help, you can bet she probably hasn’t slept more than about a half hour in the past week. I knew she’d been waiting on my parents during this ordeal, and I felt as guilty for not being there to help as relieved because I knew she was in her element. My sister is good at taking care of people. When I was a kid, I would have said she was good at bossing people around, since that’s pretty much how I, the youngest child, saw her. Who knew I’d be grateful for that quality as we got older.
“Well,” I hesitated. “I’m actually on my way to upstate New York right now to do a reading. I couldn’t get a decent flight so I’m driving. I won’t get back until late Wednesday night.”
She assured me that was no problem; I could certainly come after the reading. That wouldn’t be for a couple of days, though, and I had a feeling she had been hoping I could come right away. The truth is I’d been having mixed feelings about this reading all along. I was happy to have been asked to do it, and I was looking forward to getting back with some of the professors I’d worked with back in school, but lately it’s been hard to take myself seriously as a writer given the thoroughly unimpressive sales of my books. A month ago I found out that my first novel is now officially out of print without much hope of a second edition. If you bought the first edition, I’m afraid I really was joking when I told you it might be worth money someday.
With all this in mind, I sat there at the gas station staring at the dashboard wondering what I was supposed to do—and how I was supposed to feel about all this. Over the past few days my sister had called several times to give me updates, and while the news had never been truly dire, it was often disconcerting. Our mother was confused, disoriented, imagining things. She didn’t know where she was. She thought the hospital was a casino. She is in her 80s but has never been less than razor-sharp mentally. Now she was looking at the machines she was hooked up to, pointing at them and saying “see, look at the slot machines.”
It wasn’t the call I was expecting; none of those calls were. Even if you’re someone who likes to be prepared for the worst, as I am, a quality called pessimism by some but absolutely necessary for others—even then, you think it’s going to be a certain way. You think, here’s how it will end, and then you grieve, and then you try to move on. You don’t think, here’s how it begins. Here’s how things start to change, to break down. You don’t know what to think, really, so without another thought you turn the car around, and even though you’re going back the way you came, nothing is the same any more.