It is February and, on what would have been my mother’s 65th birthday, I finally finished renovating a bathroom I started working on way back in September. It only took a Saturday, and finishing meant nothing for the other two thousand projects I’m behind on, but it felt important to close out something for myself, to remove at least one bookmark from this tale of long and lingering sadnesses.
Earlier that day I had gotten a bill from mother’s “palliative care” contractor and, after some staring and cursing, had slowly come to understand that we must have somehow gone over my mother’s deductible when I asked to talk to the lady again, after I had become confused on the difference between hospice care and palliative care. I had gotten confused because the hospital people, and there were legions of them, kept using different words for the same thing. If they had just said, hospice is a place and palliation is a plan for keeping my mother as high as possible, then I probably would have caught on sooner. We all knew, by the way, that there really was no “long term” plan to be made but, at the hospital, I guess they try to palliate the healthy with paperwork. It’s a terrible plan.
But, regardless, the point is that when I got this hospital contractor’s bill on the morning of my now-dead mother’s birthday, I was feeling pretty done with the day, and the only way to make it better was to get some tile grouted, because I really just wanted to take bath, read Beyoncé think pieces, and go to sleep feeling like I belong in this world.
When we first started this project we knew it would be challenging. It was our fourth big renovation, but we figured this was a good project, coming off of a long summer of mourning our dear friend Prashant, biding all the important slowdowns that come at such moments. Home projects always move at a slow but steady pace for us, because we have day jobs and don’t want to live in a construction zone, and because our renovation budgets mainly consist of credit card points and surprise overstock.com coupons. For this project we had figured about twenty hours, spread over four or so weekends.
It ended up taking six months: In November #AmherstUprising hit. It was one in a series of black student protests around the country, but this one was very much ours. Deeply institutional and deeply personal, it meant many many late nights working with students and other faculty, straight through the end of December when I, like so many of the women involved, crawled out of the semester– proud, dazed, coming into #Formation, but really, legitimately, bone-tired.
I very clearly remember lazing on the couch on the first Saturday after classes were over. We were trying to gameplan the laziest slash most efficient slash cheapest way to hit Home Depot for tiling supplies while also taking the boys to buy a Christmas tree (“I have heard that some families,” our pre-schooler had declared the night before, “have Christmas trees at their houses.”) It was around one o’clock in the afternoon, our peak lazy almost ready to tip into action.
What comes after that is a little bit of a blur: I remember a friend of my mother calling from Las Vegas. We knew she had been unwell, but now she was in the ICU. I call my mother’s doctor, who tells me she has terminal lung cancer, is on a respirator, and doesn’t have long to live.
I remember how during that call the phone kept buzzing. Already on my computer, I searched for flights that would get my family to LAS quickly, choking down the prices and focusing on the times. I vaguely remember handing my husband the phone. “I think someone is trying to reach you.”
At some point he must’ve gotten off the phone, because then he was telling me that his father had been hit by a car in L.A. I can barely understand the words.
I remember us staring at each other, and I remember starting a new search on my computer. Two of us would head to California, and two to Nevada. A horrible math: My husband’s father, on life support, was already gone, so the older child would go to Vegas, to say goodbye and hopefully bring some peace to his grandmother. The peace that he would indeed deliver would bring little for him, and might not for years to come. But for now he was still okay, lazing and happy, having been suddenly tasked with occupying his brother with Saturday cartoons while we swirled furiously and silently in the other room.
To this day I still don’t know what we told our children or how we said it, but the calm feeling of intense focus still lingers in my body, a residual strain. It was probably just like what we said when our friend died back in May, also suddenly and also at semester’s end: We are leaving home, we don’t know for how long, and we are leaving now.
An hour has passed, I remember saying to my husband. Less than twenty four hours later, half us would be at a hospital in L.A., and I would be at our local airport, learning that my flight had been canceled and that there was only one more Sunday flight, overbooked, connecting to Vegas that day. “Please get us on to that flight” I remember whispering to the ticketing agent.
I hadn’t meant to whisper. It would have been easier if she had hassled me, but her calm professionalism, a gentle barrier, had become difficult for me to navigate. I play along, my mouth talking and complimenting her perfect ombre twist-out, my body cooperative. But I am worried about the feeling in my eyes; one feels like it is boring through the attendant and the other is retching and spinning, trying to focus on a blurry horizon, looking at all the wrong things. Please don’t make me start crying, I remember thinking. Not here. Not now. Not before we have even managed to get onto a goddamn plane. Please. “Hurry to the gate to get on the standby list. That is the best I can do. Good luck!”
The flight has almost boarded and I am staring at my phone, wishing I could text my husband but not wanting to bring him into this latest logistical complexity as he wrangles a jet-lagged toddler and tries to understand what it means to have an already gone but not dead father. On empty, my son and I have decided to stay over at an airport hotel rather than haul back home before our rebooked flight early the next morning. As soon as the phone rang on Saturday we had already become broke, I figured, so no reason to add hours more driving to the equation.
The last few people have boarded the plane. It is clear that we will not make it off the standby list, and I feel so especially bad for my son because he is twelve and teary at a holiday airport, and at this point I am probably the only one who doesn’t see me struggling to not struggle. Out of the corner of my eye I notice that the woman who checked us in has suddenly appeared at the gate. She says something to one of the boarding attendants, and then waves us over. I remember hugging her like I have known her my whole life. She pats my head and the other attendant is gently saying, okay get on the plane get on the plane.