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When I was four, my mom almost died. It was sudden. One evening she was kissing me goodnight as I tucked the warm sheets against my cold body, and later I found myself being pulled out of my bed in the dark of night and told to wake Brian, my twin brother, because Mom was severely sick. She had to go to the hospital immediately. Brian and I were asked to go stay with our neighbors until further notice.
That was when the nightmare started. Everything I’d ever known about life began to shatter. Before my mom became sick, I’d always had this idea that life is forever. I had this irrational belief that everyone in my family would somehow be the one exception to death. Doesn’t every little kid have this idea that their parents are super heroes? But when death stares you in between the eyes, it forces you to rethink every belief you’ve ever had.
I didn’t understand what was wrong with my mom. All I knew is that Dad was really scared; I hadn’t seen him scared before.
My mom’s whole family flew in town from St. Louis the next day. Thinking back, that should have scared me. Why would the whole family fly into town if it weren’t something serious? Why would they all have taken off work if they didn’t believe that my mom needed their presence? But somehow, I found it comforting. Even though our neighbors were my good friends, I just wanted to be back at home. I didn’t like sleeping in a house that wasn’t home. I wanted something to feel normal.
Before my mom had become unable to speak because of her sickness, she told my dad that he shouldn’t bring Brian and I to see her. It wasn’t because she didn’t want us there; she just thought that it would scare us, and she didn’t want that.
The days became longer and longer. We waited and prayed and just waited for some sort of news that she would be okay, but nothing came.
On Sunday, my grandma dressed us up in our best Sunday clothes, and we went to Church. They said the Mass in honor of my mother, and the whole church prayed a Hail Mary for her. The priest seemed confident that she would be all right. He told me that no matter what happened God was watching over her, and whatever happens is just God’s will. I smiled, thinking this was a good thing. God would never take my mommy away, right?
A few days later, my sleep was interrupted by the sound of yelling. I climbed out of bed in my pink princess pajamas and tip-toed quietly across the room as if walking on a thin slate of ice. My fingers wrapped around the door handle and pulled the squeaky door ajar.
“You need to let them see her!” my aunt Mary yelled at my grandma.
“That isn’t what she wants!”
“This is no longer a matter of what she wants; it is a matter of what is fair! It isn’t fair to keep them away from their Mom! What if she doesn’t make it?”
I slowly closed my door and walked back into my room. Tears started to cloud my vision, but I jumped into bed and closed my eyes before any could fall to the ground. My hands grasped the edges of the pillow and press them against my ears to try to minimize the magnitude of the yelling. This is just a nightmare, I whispered to myself, somehow finding that comforting. All nightmares end in waking up; all nightmares end in deliverance.
The adults finally decided to over ride my mom’s request for Brian and I to stay at home and away from the hospital. We needed to see her. My aunt was right; it wasn’t fair to keep the two of us kids at home with absolutely no answers. It wasn’t fair to expect us to just carry on.
We soon were told that Mom had Guillain-Barre Syndrome. The cause of it is unknown, and it affects only one out of every hundred thousand people. It made her unable to do anything for herself. She couldn’t move, talk, or breathe without the help of medical technology. The first thing that I noticed when I walked into the room was that she was hooked up to all kinds of machines. None of them made any sense to me, but my dad explained that they were keeping her alive. I remember putting my hand on the machine and whispering a thank you.
It was a weird thing looking into my mother’s tear-filled eyes that couldn’t explain the cause of the tears. It was a weird thing looking into the face of your loved one and wanting her to hold you and promise you that everything is going to be okay, but instead receiving only silence. It was a weird thing realizing that Mommy might never come home.
At dinner the next night, I decided to talk to my grandparents about it. It appeared that no one felt like talking because the table was silent, something that was unheard of in my family.
“Grandma,” I said softly and casually, “is Mom going to be okay?”
All my aunts and uncles stopped eating and looked at each other as if there were some kind of debate about what kind of an answer to give me. I didn’t get why they couldn’t just tell me. My grandma replied in a weak, choked voice.
“We don’t know,” she said. I didn’t like the truth, but I needed to hear it.
After dinner, I went outside and lay down on the driveway, staring up at the big, dark sky. My grandma came out a few seconds later and told me to come inside, but I didn’t. Instead, I stared up at the sky and started singing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” as I let a few tears roll down my skin.
I stayed there for about thirty minutes, and soon I felt better. I wish that life would still work like that; I wish anything could become better just by singing a thirty-two-word song about a shiny star.
It seemed like both my parents lived at the hospital. My brother and I passed time with bike rides with my Uncle John. He would tell us stories about the ninja turtles who would hide in the sewers and come out at night. The stories made Brian and me feel better. We would pretend that we were secret spy agents looking for these sneaky turtles. It made everything feel a little more like fiction. I needed a good fiction story to take my mind off of reality.
As the days passed we prayed and prayed. I visited my mom on most days and slowly she got better.
In less than a month she could breathe and talk on her own. She still couldn’t move her legs and had a hard time using her arms, but I was so thankful that she was back home.
My mom came home on Christmas Day. It was the best Christmas present anyone could ever give me. When she got home, she hugged me and cried. She apologized for initially telling us not to visit and told us how the whole time the only thing she wished for was to see our young, smiling faces. According to her, we were her strength and motivation to fight through the pain. She needed us.
The truth is that when your mom almost dies, it doesn’t teach you a whole lot about death. You won’t know how it feels to have a mother-daughter breakfast and end up going alone. You won’t know what it feels like to not be able to play recreational soccer because your dad is at work during the practices and can’t take you. But it does teach you a lot about life. You learn this— at any time you could be falling asleep and tucking the blankets tight up against your chest and then be pulled out of bed to find your entire life changed. All of a sudden you might find that one day you will be staring at someone you love as she lies in the hospital bed, unable to talk or move. Tomorrow everything you’ve ever known about life could be completely different.
A few months after her recovery, our family started to function like ever other family. We scramble out the door in the morning when running late. We watched a family movie every Friday night to celebrate the end of a long week. Guillain-Barre syndrome isn’t something that comes back later in life, so it is likely that I will never have to be worried about my mom getting sick with Guillain-Barre again. Of course, our family wasn’t the same afterwards. Death had suddenly become reality. We’d felt a lot of pain and worked past a lot of things, but we realized that as a family, there wasn’t anything that we couldn’t overcome. I found myself delivered from my nightmare.