Five years ago tonight I received a phone call.
I was working at a small Italian restaurant in Chicago at the time and the call came in on the restaurant phone smack in the middle of the busy kitchen during a Saturday night shift. I answered, straining to hear over the clanging of pots and pans and shouts in Spanglish. It was my neighbor from back home.
Accident. Your mom. Toledo. Hospital.
Those are the only words I really remember hearing. The next several hours of my life are a blur. I remember hanging up the phone, shaking all over. I remember leaving the restaurant; leaving tables mid shift. I remember a coworker driving me to my apartment, throwing some things in a bag and grabbing my dog, then heading back to the restaurant. From there, I remember my neighbor’s husband picking me up and driving me the 45 minutes or so to my hometown. I remember lots of neighbors in the driveway of my childhood home, trying to figure out what was going on. And handing my dog off to my sister’s friend so we could get in the car and drive the 275 miles to Toledo, where my mom was lying in a hospital.
The hospital called a few times with updates, but we still knew very little. Her SUV had flipped on the highway - apparently it was a single car accident. They had no idea what caused it, only that her injuries were severe. That four and a half hour drive seemed to last an eternity. Would she be dead? Would she be in a wheelchair? Would they not let me see her, like they did with my dad?
We got to the hospital sometime in the early hours of the morning of September 6. Someone - I don’t remember what his title was - led us into a tiny room. He talked about her accident, rambling on, until my sister finally interrupted and asked if my mom was alive.
“No,” he said.
He went on to say that she had not survived her injuries, despite their best efforts. Despite surgery. Despite over 20 units of blood. There was just too much damage.
The next few hours were again a blur. We were able to see her, her battered body in a bed behind a curtain next to a nurse’s station. Phone call after phone call from the hallway of the hotel, repeating the words I couldn’t believe over and over again: “Mom is dead. Mom had an accident, and she didn’t survive.” I thought that maybe it would sink in after calling dozens of family members and friends, but I still just couldn’t grasp it. Some days I still can’t.
Planning a funeral. That was new. I was too young when Dad died to really be involved. This time around was different. Picking rental caskets. Choosing colors and funeral hours. Signing a document stating that I understood that cremation was not reversible. That one made me laugh, only because I knew that wherever Mom was, she would find that funny. Standing in a row with my siblings next to her casket, smiling and consoling those who came to console us. I wore a bright orange dress. I think that would have made her happy. She also would have laughed that only the “real” friends understood the Twinkie we placed on her casket. She always joked that on the day of her funeral, only seven people and a Twinkie would bother to show up. There were certainly more than seven visitors, but the Twinkie made it too.
Five years have passed since that day. I’ve graduated college, married the love of my life, and moved to a new state. Life has moved forward, but in many ways it hasn’t. It feels as though Mom has been gone forever, yet I can’t believe five years has already passed since that day.
Waves. That is the only way I can possibly imagine explaining the loss of a parent. Some days are fine. Sometimes I barely even think of her, which pains me to say. Other days I’m overwhelmed by her memory. I don’t recall shedding a tear for her on my wedding day, yet I spent a good thirty minutes on the kitchen floor sobbing the day a clumsy reach left a set of bowls she had bought me shattered on my countertop. I want to scream anytime someone pokes fun at me for being strict about seat belts or makes snide remarks about car accidents. But then I remember. I remember that not everyone has been through what I’ve been through. And that it comes in waves. And even though I may be overwhelmed in this moment by the wave of grieve crashing over me, the tide will recede and I will be able to breathe again. And I will be ok.