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Essay: The day I lost my mother

One incident changes a mother-daughter relationship forever

Photo courtesy of Chelsea McGartland

Chelsea McGartland is a senior at MU who desperately hopes to graduate next December with degrees in magazine journalism and religious studies. She hopes to continue her semi-nomadic lifestyle by working freelance anywhere between New York, NY and Dallas, TX.

February 7, 2011 | 1:00 a.m. CST

I’m sitting in advanced placement French at 11:32 a.m. on Sept. 15, 2006 starting a quiz on which I would get a C if I were lucky. Mme. DeNure’s classroom phone rings. I’m called to the nurse’s office.

I put my pen back in my bag and head to the nurses’ office, thinking my accident-prone, freshman sister must have hurt herself. I arrive at the office to see not my sister, but my mother, who had just started working as a sub for the school district, laid out on one of those cots with the scratchy paper sheets to keep them “clean."

Mommy looks sweaty, slightly panicked, but glad to see me. I take her hand. The nurses are saying something about chest pain and asking questions. The EMTs arrive and attach EKG leads. I count to six as each little white pad is stuck to her chest, wrists, ankles, and I feel a few tears sting my eyes. Don’t let her see. Don’t make her upset.

Her left arm starts to go numb, so she hands me her new wedding bands upgraded in honor of the 25th anniversary she and my father celebrated two months before. I can’t lose them; she’d be upset. My pockets are too small, backpack too big; they might get lost, might fall out. As the EMTs start to move her onto a gurney, I determine that the safest place is on my own hand. Her fingers must be smaller than mine, which is funny since her hands are so strong. How have I never noticed how small and fragile she is? The rings only fit on my pinky.

Somewhere in the rush I manage to have my sister called out of class. She calls Dad, who’s out of town on business, while I, being the eldest and already 18, handle the paperwork. I smell the hospital, the bleach and the stale hospital food that still doesn’t quite cover the odor of sick.

We wait. We eat the lunches packed by mom that morning, with folded napkins and cookies and sandwiches cut into triangles.

A surgeon says that my mother’s artery has ruptured.

To be more specific what had happened was that when the doctors took my mother to the cardio catheter lab and had started feeding the catheter up through the artery in her thigh, they found a place through which they could not easily pass and assumed it was a blockage. In actuality they had found a genetic anomaly, a branch in my mother’s artery. Thinking that it was just a simple blockage, the doctor tried to push through it and instead pushed right through her artery.

“She’s bleeding out into her chest cavity,” he says. “If we don’t operate right now she will die.”

I feel my baby sister collapse into tears beside to me. I’m numb and calm but terrified. It’s odd that in this moment of panic I feel the duty to remain calm and collected. Just then our family friend and savior walks in and asks all the right questions, writes down all the important names-- things I should have thought of.

Although the patient survived, I lost my mother that day.

Since that day I can no longer hold my mother’s hand without thinking how small it is. That day I stopped being my mother’s child and started being a woman who takes care of her family. We became more distant, and I stopped telling her every detail of my life. I felt as though I couldn’t be as close to her anymore, because I could lose her at any time, and I had to protect myself from that.

The funny thing is, I was aware of my own mortality long before the thought of losing my mother crossed my mind.

The end of that school year and the summer leading up to my departure for my freshman year of college were extremely stressful on our relationship. She didn’t want me to leave and showed it by placing extra restrictions on my time and patience, and now she had a new weapon in her maternal-guilt-trip arsenal. Whenever my siblings and I started to squabble she would clutch at the large scar running down her front and say, “Stop it! You’re making my chest tight!”

At first this scared us into immediate silence, but as time went by the mom who cried heart attack lost her potency. We stopped paying attention to this threat just like the now completely ineffective, “Stop using that language, or I’ll wash your mouth out with soap.” Her conviction that our disagreements caused her chest to hurt even started to inspire eye-rolling.

Once at college, I would get calls and texts from my siblings saying that mom was having an “episode” — meaning she was going through her own version of PTSD, thinking that she was going to have another heart attack—and that I should call her and calm her down. Why I was the one to have to do it, I still don’t know. I don’t know how they thought I could help any better than they when I was the one who was 800 miles away.

My mother tried to make me feel guilty for deciding to go to the University of Missouri after I found out that the rest of my family would be moving to Keller, Texas. I needed the distance.

I wasn’t the only one to pull away from our mother. The stress of adjusting to a new home strained the delicate bonds between my sister and mother. Emily tried to get involved in as many things as possible in order to stay out of the house.

My mother seems to be much more scornful of our lives and the choices we've made, which is why I don’t tell her about everything in as great of detail as I once did. I think her greatest fear is that I may turn out like her. In some respects that is also my greatest fear. I don’t want to be ashamed of not making the most of myself while I have the time and the chance.

I don’t want my mother to feel as if I haven’t done the best I possibly could with everything she’s given me. What she doesn’t realize is that the greatest gifts she’s ever given me were the strength to do what I had to do that day four years ago, and to make decisions for myself and my future, despite disapproval.

My greatest wish is for my mother to realize the truth of what she’s done for me. She never raised me to be a child; she raised me to be a woman, to be capable of making decisions under pressure, to stand up when others sit down. I want my mother to have faith in the women she’s raised.

I lost my mother. Maybe it was time.

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