“Your mother’s had a heart attack.”
I was in WHSmith, standing in the discount stationery section. I’d had a job interview earlier that day and was waiting for a call back from the company. My phone had been in the small pocket of my backpack, and when I fished it out to check, I saw that I had missed a call.
My first thought was that it was from the company I’d interviewed for… and then I saw the text.
“Jillian, please call me back, it’s URGENT.”
It was my uncle’s phone number. He’d been with my mum at various points throughout the week, as she was having a relatively simple operation done. He’d already called the day before to inform me that she was due to have a second operation as there were complications from the first one. I’d been waiting for more news on that. So when that one word flashed up at me, that harsh and uncompromising sequence of letters that leaves you in no doubt that you are not going to be okay with what’s on the other end of the line, I felt a wave of nausea hit me hard.
To add insult to injury, my phone hadn’t enough credit on it to make the call abroad. I stormed into WHSmith, forked out the tenner for a top-up card and, within two minutes, I was on the phone to my uncle.
I can’t think, let alone think positively.
Heart attack. Heart attack. Two words rolling around in my brain on repeat, like the Sky News info bar. Heart attack. Heart attack. She’s going to die. Heart attack. I’m going to lose her. Heart attack.
My uncle told me that they were about to transport her to another, better hospital. She was in a pretty bad state, there was no telling what tomorrow would bring, please, please could I find a way to come and be with her because heart attack, heart attack, she might not make it through the night.
I was rooted to the ground. In the discount stationery section at WHSmith, I sobbed uncontrollably as I called my boyfriend. Mum’s had a heart attack, please come and get me because I can’t move.
And I couldn’t. For several minutes, I could not for the life of me bring one foot to go in front of the other. In the end, I made it across the street to Costa, still sobbing as I ordered a drink and asked where the nearest plug point was because I need my phone; I think my mum’s going to die.
The woman who had stood behind me in the queue at Costa walked up to my table and asked if I was okay and would I like some company. I nodded, explaining what had happened to this stranger. And before I knew it, she was talking at me about how she’d been adopted as a kid and had her birth mother die of cancer not long after they’d connected. She interspersed it with stories about how mature she was for her age, how they used to call her the Agony Aunt at school because she liked to listen and how I should think positively. Really, think positively.
She’d said those words about four times before I stopped hearing her altogether. The body shattering, primal sadness had given way to stillness. A cold nothing. My eyes had fixed on a point in the distance, the calm in my brain only pretending to be that. Everything felt ominous. Everything felt dangerous.
My boyfriend later told me that I’d gone into shock. He plucked me out of Costa and took me home, where we arranged coach tickets for the very next morning. I emailed everyone I had obligations with over the next few days to explain what had happened. And twelve hours later, I was on a coach, headed to my mother’s side.
“But what if that’s not what happens?”
My uncle met me at the coach station. I’d spent the last eight hours fretting, wondering, and thinking. Every time I managed to distract myself, a little voice in my head popped up asking me if I really should be smiling at this time, your mother’s in hospital and she’s not at all well. It was a feeling I continued to struggle with throughout the next week and a half.
“What if, when you get there, she’s stable?” – My boyfriend had asked me this the previous evening. At that moment, I was too far gone to even consider this as an option. But when I got to the hospital room, confronted by the sight of mum in an artificial coma, tubes and blipping machines surrounding her, I let myself briefly revel in the joy that not only had it been a valid option, it was also the right one.
My mother’s tough as nails. She’s always been. And the next week and a half only served to confirm that. For eight days, she was held in an artificial coma, to help her battle the infection she’d caught at the other hospital. For eight days, I commuted between her flat and her hospital room, spending half hour increments talking to her and hoping she’d hear me, wherever she was.
On day nine, I arrived in the hospital to discover that not only had she woken up, she was watching TV as well.
Mum is home now. She’s still recovering, due to go to a seaside rehabilitation resort next week for aftercare. But she’s alive.
Slam the breaks.
One of the many ways I use writing is as a tool for processing the good, the bad and the ugly in my life. And aside from me telling you this story as a form of catharsis, I’m also telling you this because it really was a moment of change for me. A slam-the-breaks, look-in-the-mirror, what-the-hell-have-I-been-doing-in-my-life kind of moment.
I am telling you this because these moments happen. It’s life, grabbing you by the collar of your shirt and forcing you to look at something you may not want to face up to, no matter how small that something is. Facing up to the fact that life in general wasn’t ever a sure thing was a game changer for me. It was a creative and mental kick up the arse, a reminder to take chances and live my life in exactly that way: knowing that it isn’t a sure thing and making the best of it while I can.
These moments happen. Breathe through them. Write about them, about your thoughts, your feelings, every single last one of them no matter how devastatingly sad they get. Let your writing make it clear to you what it is you need to face up to in your life.
And you can face up to it. You are mightier than you think.
Is what I learned from this, too.
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