I feel the stranglehold of detachment as I board the plane in Tampa. I’ve spent the past four days at the hospital encouraging my ill mother to take another look at life. It began as a short trip, sandwiched into a busy life like a thin slice of late-summer tomato on an already bulging bun, but quickly it morphed into a surreal experience of beeping machines, vital signs and bodily functions, nightmarish in its timelessness. Our visit was a surprise and when I saw my mother’s face I knew it was none to soon.
She was on oxygen and struggling to breathe from a persistent cough. I entered the room and neared the bed as nurses loosened the constraints on her arms put there to prevent her from removing the breathing tube and array of cords tethering her to the wall. When she sat up and leaned toward my stepfather she choked and sucked in air. Our eyes met and I saw panic, fear, confusion, and loss of hope, like watching a trapped animal stare at a hungry predator. All I could think was, she’s got to get out of here, and soon. The wires, cords and monitors put there to keep her alive were killing her. She sat slumped in bed unable to breathe. I forced myself into the mold of cheerleader, expert and advocate.
We, the loved-ones, rallied. It was a delicate dance of information gathering and decision-making, hope and gratitude. With our eyes permanently glued to the hospital exits we tried not to step on each other’s feet. My time was spent listening deeply to my mother, trying to understand her complaints and explain away the fear in her eyes, my own confidence a fragile facade. I defaulted to “yoga teacher mode” and noticed her slouching posture- ribs crunched down on diaphragm, chest collapsing. I pulled her forward, turned the pillows lengthwise and began propping her up with support from behind, seeing that the ribs lifted away from the waist. I pressed her outer shoulder back and took a deep breath. I knew that breathing was an issue for her in the best of times so we began working together on mindfulness of breath meditation, first learning to relax and watch the breath without judgment then to extend it without force and finally to strengthen it with a simple device provided by the nurse. My husband was techno-support producing gleaming laptop photos of grandkids and fond memories, lightly drawing her out of a chemical fog and into the light of love. My step-father provided stability. Day after day we persisted with pleas for more therapy and donuts of gratitude.
At the end of the third day, I looked at my exhausted husband and said, this feels like a bad dream. It was as if my old life didn’t even exist anymore, like I’d slipped off the edge of a well-worn path, lost my footing, and now tumbled down the mountain struggling for a new foothold in the world of technology, medicine and aging. That’s when I realized this is how it must feel to have a deadly diagnosis, to look mortality squarely in the face and have to move forward in a world that will never be the same. And my heart opened.
Finally, on day four Mom stood behind the walker with a look of purpose on her pale face. With her chest pumped full of air like a Magnificent Frigatebird on a Tampa beach, she walked toward the door with determination, and just like that, we were headed to rehab!
I have a need to feel close and connected to the ones I love. As a young mother I carefully fashioned a strong relationship with my own children, putting aside other goals and desires to focus on that one thing that would last a lifetime, our mutual bond. Whether it was formed by love, genetics, blood, or simply hundreds of gallons of breast milk, it pulsed between us as tangible as the air we breathed and it represented my greatest accomplishment and challenge. Modern life doesn’t live by rules of proximity and need, and often our loved ones live miles away separated from us by oceans, time and more. Technology is the new stand-in for a talk across the fence. When I need a fix, to see my children and know the details of their lives, I reach for my computer to Skype or my IPhone to call or Snapchat. These big and little connections help reweave the loose threads in the fabric of our shared lives and make me feel reconnected and whole. Unfortunately, my mother does not have these modern substitutes for closeness, save Ma Bell, and email.
Our last evening at the rehab center we crouched around Mom’s old laptop. My husband had set up a Facebook account for her and with saintly patience was now teaching her how to Friend all of her loved ones. Isn’t that the damned thing , she must have thought, I need a computer to become friends with my grandchildren. Go figure. Who among us couldn’t laugh at the irony?
On the plane, I feel the pull of tears in my tired eyes. I watch a young dad walk the isle with his drowsy toddler, the child’s arms wrap around his father’s neck as the man cradles the baby to his chest. Patiently he walks up and down the isle lulling the child to sleep. I envy their shared comfort and wonder if technology can stretch an umbilical cord around the world?