It’s dark outside and the lights are turned low but they still have a fluorescent burn. Tonight is the first night I have spent alone in the hospital with my mom, and my first night staying in a hospital for any reason. I get up to pull the dividing curtain around us to make it feel a little more intimate and I pull the heavy wooden chair up to her bedside so I can sit with my feet touching her. Her look of distress ebbs knowing that she has me there.
For all the months she has been sick I have felt like the mother figure, a role I am not sure I’m ready to take on. I sit here in disbelief as I watch the Typhoid Salmonella (a severe case of food poisoning paired with Typhoid Fever) take control of her body, sending waves of pain that ripple through her limbs. Usually when I’m home we are planning fun food excursions, but food is the last thing that seems appealing within these unfriendly walls. Three months ago I sat by her side in a different hospital room while she recovered from brain tumor surgery. This whole scene is surreal to me, but it is real and I know the role I have to play.
I haven’t eaten all day because the thought of food is nauseating. My body is trying to function under such a high level of stress and adrenaline that what I need is an afterthought. Nevertheless, I made an effort to nourish myself with something familiar. I picked up food from Uncle Nick’s, our favorite Greek restaurant in our Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, which is a second home to us. I gently untie the plastic bag and rustle through its contents to retrieve the taramasolata (salmon roe dip) and pita from the bottom. My mom always ordered the taramasolata, which I used to think was gross until I developed a palate for fish, and now I find it irresistible. We always share it and clean the plate, or take-out container, with the warm, charred pita; I love the really soft and chewy pieces.
Although my mom has hardly eaten anything for an entire week, only small bites here and there to balance out all the medication being pumped into her body, I made this hopeful effort to bring her some comfort through food she could recognize. Doubtful that she would want anything, I tried anyway. It worked.
As I open the plastic container with the taramasolata, not what most people would crave after being so sick in their stomach for days, she asks me for some. With a huge grin I oblige and tear the pita into small pieces for her so that she can chew them without hurting her jaw and head too much where she had her brain surgery. I feed her with a fork and she slowly massages the contents in her mouth with her tongue trying not to strain her jaw.
My stomach has been in knots since I got the call that she was back in the hospital. But somehow the taramasolata brings me comfort too. In this sterile, emotionless hospital room we have food from our neighborhood. We gossip into the night and I feel that for a moment I may get my mom back sooner than I thought. Maybe this role reversal would not be permanent.
When I take her to the bathroom, she leans all of her body weight on me, surrendering while I guide her and the IV caddy across the room. Flashes of how things used to be, how they should be, run through my mind as I hold her up on the toilet, her blue hospital gown draped over her hunched back. I remember falling asleep on her shoulder, her taking me to and picking me up from school, baking cookies together, planning dinners together. I am the mother now.
I think about the most timeless piece of advice my mom ever gave me when I was in elementary school. We were participating in a bake sale and the competitive spark in me wanted to out-sell everyone. I turned to my mom and with a snarky grimace said, “I bet I’ll sell more cupcakes than you.” She smiled a sarcastic, un-fazed smile, used to my antics, and replied, “It’s only cupcakes, Rachel.” She has repeated this to me often, “It’s only cupcakes.” I want to be a little kid again, hand-in-hand, on our way home from school, me looking up at her. Now she looks up at me with heavy, vulnerable eyes.
I want this to be only cupcakes, but it’s not.
I begin to clean up our little meal as a nurse comes in to give my mom her medication, disrupting our sacred moment with a hit of reality. As I turn down the lights and kiss my mom gently on her greasy, un-showered forehead, I pray she can sleep before another nurse disturbs her. I crawl quietly into the empty bed a few feet away from hers, trying to settle into the stiff sheets and crunchy pillows.
I am lost. Am I really sleeping in a hospital bed next to my mom? Does she really have bloody stitches along the left side of her skull? How long will it be until she heals and can speak in a voice not like that of an eight year old? When will we be able to enjoy a full meal together at a table? The answers get drowned out by the beeps from the machines.
Now it is more than cupcakes. For once my worries are not unfounded and irrational but very, very real. I am alone with my mom in the hospital and I feel responsible for her even though there is an entire team of nurses and doctors to care for her just outside the doors. Earlier when we ate the taramasolata I felt like things might be okay, but still I’m not sure.