Years ago I decided to stop running from things that scare me and to turn around and confront them instead. Recently I faced down something I had been avoiding for too long.
Four years ago my mother-in-law flew up from southern California to attend my son’s high school graduation. Mother was going through a rough time. She had recently broken her wrist from a fall. Before that she had surgery for the peripheral arterial disease in her leg. Mother was 86 years old.
With her broken wrist in a sling (Mother decided to have surgery on her wrist after my son’s graduation) and with the pain it caused her to walk, I was astounded that Mother wanted to attend the graduation. I told her no one would fault her for choosing not to come, but she was adamant. I worried about looking out for her during all the activity and frenzy of a graduation. Looking back, I can only wonder if a premonition drove her to attend this family celebration.
On a hot day in early June, Mother withstood the heat and the pain of walking around a big auditorium, up and down stairs, to watch my son graduate from high school. My husband and I wished that Mother hadn’t worn black pants and a black blazer on such a hot day, but this day was important to her and she always dressed properly. She was quieter than usual, and she closed her eyes and breathed deeply when the pain got especially bad.
After the ceremony, we went across the street to a restaurant where we had invited friends to lunch. Because we were a large group, the restaurant seated us upstairs in the loft. It made me cringe to watch Mother navigate more stairs. During lunch, Mother elevated her sore leg on an extra chair and tried her best to eat, but the pain in her leg was getting worse by the minute. The arteries in her leg were closing up, depriving her muscles of oxygen.
After lunch, we drove Mother to a veteran’s hospital (my husband’s father was an army veteran) and then to an urgent care facility where we were told they could not treat her condition. Our third stop was at a hospital where Mother was admitted and referred to a fourth hospital for immediate surgery. The surgery on Mother’s leg had not done enough to keep the circulation in her leg going; arteries had continued to collapse.
This was the harrowing beginning of the last three months of Mother’s life. In these three months, doctors operated on her leg two more times trying to save it, only to amputate it in the end. Mother moved into a rehabilitation facility. Her pain was so severe that she needed morphine, but she worked diligently and smiled through her daily exercises. She did so well that doctors had a cast made for her prosthesis, and she chose an assisted living facility to move into after rehab. After fighting through all her pain, surviving three surgeries, suffering through her amputation, and working through her rehabilitation, it was pneumonia that finally caused Mother’s body to shut down. Doctors never got around to fixing her broken wrist; her bones healed themselves into a crooked knot.
Four years after my son’s high school graduation and a month after my son graduated from college, we found ourselves at the same restaurant where Mother attended her last family celebration. We said nothing to each other as we left our car with the valet and walked into the restaurant. Although we didn’t request to be seated in the loft, the hostess led us there, and I felt my body stiffen. I let out an audible gasp when I saw that the restaurant had added Mother’s favorite merlot to the wine list. We had discovered this wine together at a restaurant in Arizona, and she called me once to tell me she had found the wine at a local store.
We toasted to Mother’s memory and shared stories about her during our meal. We laughed to keep our tears in check. Whenever my eyes wandered to the dark and empty section where we sat four years earlier, I fought back images of Mother wincing in pain. The hostess finally seated a group there, giving me something else to occupy my mind when my eyes traveled to that area.
Will I ever be able to return to this restaurant without thinking of Mother? No. But instead of thinking about the pain Mother endured to see her grandson graduate, I’ll recall how well she loved her family and how tough she was. I’ll always wonder if an angel whispered in her ear, “Don’t miss this graduation. I’ll help you through it.”
The restaurant that I couldn’t return to for four years, that I had to look away from whenever we drove by, has finally stopped being the trigger for painful memories. The past is not the place to live, and fear is not something to endure. It’s best to face down fears and move on with courage and a smile. Like Mother did.
©Living off Island, Writing Wahine, 2016.