I was making mashed potatoes when he called.
Being born and raised in Tennessee, this is something I’ve never messed up, but by the end of it all, I was left with a gummy, sticky mass of potato starch not fit to eat.
She fainted, he said. She was painting and fell off the ladder, I guess. She ended up in bed and can’t account for lost time. She’s called an ambulance, and I’m trying to get there as soon as I can. I’m forty minutes away but I’ve called a friend to go be with her. I could hear the blunted edge of panic in my dad’s voice. I whipped the potatoes with all my anxiety after pressing “end” on the phone. I served dinner, such as it was, to my family and then paced the kitchen, alternately worrying and praying. Sometimes that feels like one thing, not two. I worry by praying. I pray by worrying.
A few hours later my phone buzzed with the words “brain bleed” and I felt the floor shift under my feet. Thirteen years ago my mother’s father collapsed with an aneurysm and died the same day. I walked in circles in the dark. Everyone was in bed, but I’d given up all pretense of sleep. Should I throw some clothes in a bag and leave for Tennessee now? What do I do with the kids? I’ll need to leave the van for them and borrow a car.
I tried to formulate plans with my phone in hand a thousand tears marking time.
I was not ready for that phone call. I will never be ready for that call.
My aunt called in the wee hours of the morning and said, “It’s not a bleed. It’s a brain tumor. I don’t like it, but I like it better than a bleed. Look, we don’t know anything right now. You just keep talking to Jesus about this. We’re just gonna keep talking to Jesus about this.” I dissolved into hysterical tears after we hung up. It was nearly 2 a.m. I sat in the dark on my pink couch and tried to take deep breaths. It didn’t really help. I talked to Jesus. He knew how I felt about this.
My mom is something of a rock to me. Strong. Solid. My person.
I can’t be strong for her because I need her. She’s always been strong for me. And I knew that in those moments she had to be panicking much like I was. And that thought was sucking the air out of my lungs. I didn’t want her to be afraid. If I could swallow her panic, I would.
I debated jumping in the car. I could be there by 5 a.m. But Dad had said to wait.
I laid down in bed again next to my husband who wrapped his arms around me. But I woke every few minutes with the ominous feeling that something was very wrong. Each time, I cataloged my thoughts until I landed on the reason for the unnamed panic fluttering in my chest: Mom has a brain tumor. I need to go home. I need to be in the same room, breathing the same air, holding her hand. I need to be there.
When morning light came, I made coffee, showered, and woke my family so we could pack. The suitcases, the breakfast I scraped together but didn’t eat, the mess I left in the kitchen…all watered with tears. We were an hour into the trip when my aunt called again to tell me the tumor was most likely “the good kind.” And with that news, my tears finally felt safe enough to dry up, which I so needed to happen so my poor mother wouldn’t be forced to be the comforter in crisis.
I stood in the hospital room and cried into my aunt’s shoulder with the relief that comes from sharing a burden. Minutes later my mom was wheeled in after her EEG, and for that moment, I was exactly where I needed to be. We spent the afternoon talking and laughing, working out details and guessing at the future. I laid in the hospital bed next to her, and I knew that whatever happened next, being present was what I needed to be as her daughter. Present. It was all I could offer. But it was what we both needed.
My panic mode is tears, but my sister’s is chattiness. She crammed into the hospital room with me and our parents, and we broke hospital code, but you know, I’d do it again. The nursing staff was in every hour or so to take vitals or administer medication, so we slept almost not at all. When the nurse came in at 6 am and called out, “Good morning!” in a voice full of coffee and sugary donuts or maybe a power bar (for what else could account for such a chipper greeting at that hour?), my sister sat up and said, “Worst. Hotel. Ever.”
A few hours later, we listened to the neurosurgeon’s synopsis of what was going on with mom’s brain, and he laid it all out in his incredibly direct manner, which I appreciated more than not. As soon as he was gone, some visitors popped in, so I made a quick exit and managed to gash my foot on the hospital door before heading to a bathroom where I proceeded to vomit over and over again.
You guys, this is hard stuff. I trust Jesus implicitly, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t hard. The woman who birthed me, taught me everything important, and whose job description should involve repeatedly talking me off a ledge is scheduled for brain surgery in a month. The more the surgeon talks, the more he mentions words like “malignant” and “damage” and “we won’t know until afterward.” I don’t like that.
This is where trusting that God is faithful meets its grittiest exercise. I know without a doubt that He will be good and faithful to us. I also know that He doesn’t promise physical safety. I often tell my son when he is scared that Jesus keeps our hearts safe. I want God to promise to keep our bodies safe, and I want Him to guarantee a long, happy life for everyone I love. But He doesn’t. He doesn’t, and sometimes it’s easy to see why and sometimes it’s impossibly hard. But as a friend quoted my own words to me tonight on the phone, this is when He covers our eyes and teaches us to recognize His voice. It’s hard, gritty, sanctifying work He’s doing in Mom and in each of us who love her (and, as it turns out, that’s a LOT of people), and in the end He is still writing a good story.
The day before all of this happened, I was reading Psalm 139. I’ve read it dozens of times before, but verse 5 stood out to me for reasons I couldn’t explain. Now I know.
“You have encircled me. You have placed Your hand upon me.”
Yes, He is still writing a good story. And, if you finish reading Psalm 139, you know the story is already written. I can’t predict what the ending will be, but I agree with Mom that God will be good regardless.
We covet your prayers over the next several weeks.