05/08/2015 05:54 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

My Mother's Long Stay a Thousand Miles Away

As I sit in a Naugahyde chair in her dimly-lit hospital room, I cannot take my eyes off my mother. In the bed, she moans softly, her head unmoving on the pillow. Van Gogh-like, she is bandaged from one ear to the other, a gauze headdress encircling her face. With eyes closed, she looks like a beatified nun.

My mother is a small woman; she does not break the five-foot mark and has not weighed as much as 100 pounds in years. A sprite, scrappy, young 70, my mother is a freckle-faced, auburn-turned-silver-haired grandmother who has spent way too much time in the sun. For the past 30 years, in fact, she has lived on a sailboat in expatriated bliss on the Grenadine Island of Bequia. Though she donned 45 sunblock, floppy hats, and long-sleeved shirts, there is only so much hiding from the sun one can do while living at the equator.

I think about where my mother and I are not at this moment, yet wish that we were: at my home in Michigan, where she has come for a few weeks to visit my family. Home is my sanctuary, a place where I sometimes spend time simply gazing out the window. As I sit at my mother's hospital bed, I catch the sight of sun-dabbled trees through her window and my thoughts drift to a similar scene in the play of my mind: My mother and I are sitting on my backyard balcony, watching willow branches wrestling the wind in playful defiance. Leaves shimmer and shake, catching the light, turning green foliage yellow in the light of the midday sun. Then, in unison, the trees bow in deep reverence to each other, ringing the lake like a prayer circle.

In my daydream, my mother and I are taking in the peaceful scene. Mother and daughter, we are bonded in our own reverie, mutual and unspoken, sharing the sacredness of our familial connection. Being with my mother, coming to know my mother, helps me better know myself. Yet, these moments of quiet togetherness are precious and rare. When I was a young girl, no more than 8 years old, my mother made a promise, still unbroken. We were driving toward our house on a suburban New Jersey street, when we spotted my grandmother sitting daintily on the front steps, hands on her knees, wearing a black dress and pearls in the middle of the afternoon. She had driven over from the garden apartment where she lived alone, my grandfather having died the year before. As we got closer, my grandmother affected a weak smile, and waved. My mother brought the car to a stop and slipped it into park. I felt a clenching in my chest as I heard the words that would echo through all the years of our relationship: "I promise you," she said, "that I will never do this to you. You will never find me sitting on your front steps."

So my mother lives thousands of miles away in the exotic West Indies and visits her three children and four grandchildren twice a year, and we visit her. During her stays, skin cancer surgeries have become regular items on our to-do list (along with fan belts for her boat), and her recoveries have been without incident. She suffers from basal or squamous cell, non-lethal skin cancers that are removed with surgery, and do not need follow-up chemotherapy or radiation treatment. My mother has been fortunate; her scars are minimal and she is always complimented by doctors for her "good job of healing."

For this procedure, like the others before it, my mother and I left the house in the black light of morning for her scheduled out-patient surgery, assured by her doctors that we would be home in time for the evening news. But we never saw the news that night, or the next, and two days later we are still here in the hospital waiting for her to wake up. I feel locked in hospital purgatory, frightened, not knowing when we will get out. For two nights, I have slept upright in the chair next to her bed, listening intently to the cadence of her breath. Finally, I hear her mumble something. "Oh, God," she sighs. Her first words are followed by a long exhalation, as I jump out of the chair like a cop at a stake out.

Days before, I had spent several, long, nerve-wracking hours in the waiting room during the operation, extremely worried about her. Two hours turned into five, and I was unable to get answers from anyone: the nurses were mute and the doctors had apparently left the building. The surgical supervisor, oblivious to my flushed face and strained neck muscles, repeatedly answered that my mother was "in recovery" where I was not permitted to go. She could tell me no more, she insisted. As time ticked by, my imagination took over and panic started spreading through my whole body. Frustrated, I found a small consulting room and shut the door behind me. I sat with my eyes closed for a long while, a private prayer circle, holding my head in my hands.

My mind took me back to the lake. I notice the water, the color of emeralds, choosing to reflect not the sky, but the lush green landscape that surrounds it. A white heron, head-cocked, is perched one-legged on our dock. The crickets sing. Beyond the backdrop of nature's grace, the sound of distant traffic swells up. Piercing strains of a buzz saw cut through the afternoon cacophony as an old, discarded stump finds new life as next winter's firewood. Out further across the lake, a tree is caught in a sudden gust, forcing it to shudder. It surrenders to the wind, is simply, in that instant, no other than the wind, trees understanding better than people the wisdom of letting go.

I burst out of the consulting room then, unable to sit still any longer, surrendering to the impulse to find my mother, and made my way down a long, pale green hallway with arrows directing me toward "Recovery." Through one-way swinging doors, I cautiously crept in, slipping in behind an unsuspecting physician doing his rounds. Making myself as nondescript as possible, I moved from gurney to gurney, searching one bandaged patient after the next. Hooked up to an IV, looking as small as a child, I found her. My mother was the color of putty.

Now, 48 hours into a hellish hospital stay, caused not by her operation, but by an adverse reaction to the general anesthetic she was given, having suffered nights of fitful sleep and bouts of body-wracking nausea, my mother is starting to awaken. The doctors explained that the drugs used to put her to sleep were keeping her locked in a groggy twilight. "What day is this?" she slurs, her mouth dry from breathing through it, still intoxicated by her anesthesia. I am standing over her, feeding her ice shavings. "We've been in the hospital for a couple of days, Mom," I answer. "You had a bad reaction to the anesthesia. Are you okay?" Looking blankly around the darkened room, my mother announces, "I have been having horrible nightmares." She is not alone.

At the sound of her voice, I feel a sense of relief flooding my body where the panic had been. Soon we will be recuperating at home, sitting on my balcony, watching the trees. When she is well enough though, despite my pleas for her to stay, I know my mother will leave again, eschewing my protective shade for the scorching sun of her island paradise. As promised long ago, my mother never lingers long enough for me to tire of her. In this moment, however, we are together. From the next room, I hear the start of the evening news. Outside her hospital window, silhouetted leaves dissolve into the night.


(Photo by Donna Rockwell)

Elen Schwartz, very much healed, on her island paradise, Bequia, St. Vincent, West Indies, Dec. 2014. Unpublished until now, I wrote these words 12 years ago as a way to cope with seeing my mother so frail and vulnerable in the hospital. Mom is a still-sprite 82 years young this year. Happy Mother's Day, Elen, from all your children and grands!

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