Abbi and I walked down Broadway in silence, our breath trailing somewhere behind. Save for the rogue plow and off-duty cab, the snow-covered, ice-choked city was still asleep.
Late Friday afternoon, and as the streets locked up with frozen rain and snow and the airlines threw in the towel, I watched online as eight Amtrak trains between New York and Philadelphia sold out in almost immediate succession. I sighed, lifted the receiver to my ear, and dialed my mother’s phone.
“How’s our patient?” I asked her nurse.
“Well, she’s still in post-op, but the doctor said it went really well,” Elizabeth reported. “Are you in Philadelphia yet?”
And so I broke the news.
The truth is, I was somewhat relieved. Because, the truth is, I was a little angry when my mother first asked me to come home for her surgery. ‘I’m thirty-five,’ I thought. ‘I’m not your husband,’ I thought. ‘And I just got engaged; this time is supposed to be all about Abbi and me.’
See, the whole thing jammed a bunch of buttons. Guys with single moms may know what I’m talking about. The rest of you may be able to empathize. It’s not rational, or reasonable, it just is what it is. I have a 61-year-old single mother. Sometimes she needs me. And sometimes that pisses me off.
Initially, I considered not going home. I thought, ‘I needed to make a statement, to set some boundaries.’ Cooler heads, though, prevailed.
“Listen,” my friend said, “I understand that you may have some issues or whatever, and those are probably valid. But medical emergencies trump everything, yunno?”
Another chimed in, “God forbid something go wrong.”
And so, somewhere around eight o’clock, as most of New York hunkered down in the face of a sucker punch of a Nor’easter, I slipped my laptop into my messenger bag, lifted the collar on my sport coat, and headed uptown. Outside, Times Square was downright hostile. The sidewalks were mobbed with wide-eyed, bewildered tourists slogging like cattle through the wintry mix. Hail, sleet, rain, snow and ice exploded through the air like fiery shrapnel. I squinted through the icy assault, and dashed for the subway.
* * *
It’s remarkable just how much liquid the human stomach can hold. The volume is especially dramatic when in reverse. That is, when thrown up. Which is precisely what my mother did within two minutes of Abbi and my arrival at Pennsylvania Hospital Saturday morning.
“Sorry, kids,” she said between bouts of nausea.
“It’s just bile,” she explained, slipping into nurse mode. “It happens.”
It’s unnerving to see one’s parents vulnerable. It’s worse when they’re ashen, immobile, and hooked to an IV.
The hospital wasn’t anything like “Grey’s Anatomy.” It was cold, horribly generic, and institutional. Between the furniture, the staff, and the linoleum, it was almost wholly out of time.
Abbi and I spent the afternoon making vaguely nonsensical small talk when my mother was awake, then whispering and reading magazines when she was asleep. Around four o’clock, as her color began to return, and her sentences began to make sense, we wheeled her to the car, and drove her home.
Pulling into Leopard Lakes, the pond was thawed and full of waves. Lantern Lane was unplowed and strewn with fallen branches. Turning down the driveway, we were greeted by a sheet of silvery ice. I slid the trick to a stop, stepped out, and walked carefully across the ice towards the house. I opened the garage door, then looked towards the car to see Abbi picking herself up off the frozen ground.
Through a groggy, Dilauden haze my mother slurred, “She slipped.”
Abbi (who arose unscathed) and I helped my mother inside, then spent the night steeping tea, making beds, fluffing pillows, and fetching prescriptions. We fell asleep on the living room floor watching “Flicka” on demand.
* * *
I woke this morning to the sound of birds in the back woods, and water bubbling through the creek. I pulled on my jeans, sweater and boots, and walked downstairs. My mother was wide-awake and — under the influence of Vicodin — prattling on like a coked up chipmunk. I took a few tugs on my coffee, responded sarcastically a while, then said, “Yunno, even Chris — who’s know me a few years less than you — knows I’m not very talkative in the morning.”
Outside, the sun had broken over the trees. I stalked around the yard snapping photos. The lawn was coated in a thick, impenetrable glaze. The driveway was an ice rink three inches thick.
I have never been one to shovel snow (or ice). As the younger brother, and now as a city dweller, a guy rarely has to sweat these things. But my mother being post-op, and her First Wives Club friends set to arrive within hours, I resolved to address the situation.
It took me all day. The ice was stubborn. All morning, I’d periodically break from conversation, pull on my boots, and return to the task. It took four applications of rock salt to even begin break up my small driveway glacier. The black asphalt began to break through the ice as the sun tracked westward, and our return train’s departure edged closer. I hacked and chipped with the shovel, then shattered and spread the chunks to facilitate their demise. As I splayed a final heap across the slowly warming blacktop, I turned my head towards the sky and thought, ‘Wow. That is some blue sky. I wonder if it’s really that blue? Or if it’s my sunglasses?’
My mom was still in her robe when Abbi and I left. The color had come back to her cheeks. She held my face in her hands and said, “Thank you for coming home. I know it wasn’t easy.”
I smiled and said, “No problem.”
* * *
Just now I paused a moment as I stepped from the 72 Street subway station into the crisp evening air, and pulled off my sunglasses. Broadway was clear of snow and ice. The sidewalk was coursing with pedestrians. And above me, a fair dose of bright blue still shone through the gloaming.