Written by Becca Swindale
“I wrote this for a class I had. It’s almost been a year since my mom’s brain aneurysm. Thankfully, she’s okay. But this story is about how terrifying it can be for the family as well.
“Do you like these flowers?” I ask, pointing to the flowers on my Pinterest account. My mom mumbles something. I don’t understand. What is she trying to say? Or maybe I am not being clear enough?
“Here.” I point to it again. “Pretty?”
She lies in bed, glancing up at me with her uncomprehending blue eyes, normally full of light. She manages to mutter something, but I still don’t understand.
“I …” she starts, but she can’t say anything else. With a sigh and wave of the hand, she gives up trying to respond. I understand. I don’t push my questions anymore. I can only guess the frustration of being unable to communicate.
The sliding door to my mom’s room opens and a nurse walks in.
“Oh, hi there! Good to see you again,” she whispers while dimming the lights. “Your mom has had a busy day, so she might be a little extra tired.”
I nod my head and manage to say, “Okay. Thanks.”
My eyes are burning; I’m on the brink of tears. I look back to my mom, who has already turned over to face the one window in the room, away from me. I tiptoe to the other side of the bed: she’s asleep. I inhale deeply and slowly breathe out. I want to talk to her. I want her input on my wedding day flowers. It’s trivial, I know. Yet, I wonder at the same time whether she’ll even be there for my wedding. So it really that trivial?
That’s how long she has been in the ICU. One moment she’s perfectly fine and healthy. The next moment a blood vessel is swelling and bursts in her brain, for no apparent reason. They call it a brain aneurysm. One in fifty people develop them, and some are even born with one. Four in ten people with a ruptured brain aneurysm will die as a result. In other words, 40% of ruptured brain aneurysms are fatal. Additionally, 66% [of those who survive] will suffer from permanent damage. All it takes is a little blood leaking in the brain. In my mom’s case, she was just watching my brother sing for someone’s funeral.
Why now though? Why in the middle of my engagement? I feel so incredibly selfish, but it’s true. Day in and day out, I drive to see my mom, keep the house in order, take my youngest brother to activities, comfort my dad, and say thanks to others’ condolences. So can’t I be a little selfish? Everyone is asking if my fiancé and I are going to elope, and without my mom, it seems like a good plan. I am not the stereotypical bride, glowing from this new chapter in life. I’m barely keeping myself together. My mom could die. My mom might never be there for me when I get married or have a kid – she might not be a grandma, which is one of her biggest desires.
My mom has what I (and many others) call the Cadillac of ICU rooms. Instead of being crowded into a room separated by curtains, she stays in a spacious room with brown laminate flooring, creamy colored walls, and her own personal bathroom and window. I’m thankful she is here, where the doctors are specifically known for their expertise on brain surgeries. If my mom hadn’t come to Eden Medical Center in Castro Valley, she probably would have died.
I look at my mom’s once soft, blonde curls, now matted into a big knot. They had to shave a section on the right side of her head, near the forehead area, to allow blood to be pumped out of her brain. If she knew, she would hate it. She does not hate much. She’s one of the most loving people I know. But one thing I know she hates is being called “mother.” “It’s too formal,” she says. “Just call me mom!” This feisty, tough, loving mom of mine. One of my very best friends. We know everything without saying anything to each other. Could I survive life without her? How can I lose her so soon? Will my family even be able to function without her presence? Every day left my family, our friends, and so many loved ones wondering if she would make it.
If my dad and I aren’t at the hospital at the same time, we always ask each other what become the normal, late night questions: How is she? How was her memory today? Did she yell at you or the nurse? Did she laugh at Ellen? Was she able to speak? Did she smile? What did the doctor say about her progress? Is she progressing or getting worse? What do you think? Did she recognize who you were? Was she happy to see you?
I’ll probably be asked these questions tonight. Usually, there are two people allowed in the ICU patient’s room – and unless guests are around, it’s usually me and dad – but right now, it’s just me and my mom. I slip my hand into her cold, pale hand. The hum of machines and beeping of every heartbeat reminds me she is still alive; still breathing. If she could talk, we would be chatting without ceasing. I want to tell her so much.
I want to tell her how hard it is to be “mom,” taking care of the family, keeping the house somewhat orderly, and cooking dinners (even if it’s just throwing one of the homemade meals made by others into the oven). I want to tell her how much I appreciate her and love her. I want to go with her to get pedicures. I want her to have all her hair again, styled, without tubes attached to her brain, pumping blood out. I want to cry and cry and cry. I want to share our worlds. I want to know what she is thinking and dreaming about, but I can’t.
I rub my thumb up and down her hand. My eyes are simmering, ready to boil over. The unfairness of everything makes me furious. My mom gives and gives and gives – so why should she be taken away? Ripped from my family forever? I’m angry – so, so angry. I want to be happy again, but I wonder if I’ll ever know the feeling fully again. Will I always have a part of me that has died? Will I be irrecoverably unhappy, even when I think I’m happy?
“Hey,” my fiancé says, opening the sliding door into my mom’s dark room. His calming demeanor and caring personality soothes me. He squeezes my shoulder, then slides his hand down to my side and pulls me close so my head rests on him.
I sob. I have no control. I sob so hard that I’m shaking with a mixture of rage and grief and exhaustion. I let go of my mom’s hand as he pulls me into a hug so I can muffle my loud sobs into his jacket. I take fragmented breaths in and press my hot face against his jacket, already damp from my tears to calm myself. He rests his head on mine, then kisses my wet cheek. I try to take in his scent to distract myself from my reality.
I am thankful to have him and so many supporters, but I didn’t realize how long and agonizing every day and every step would be. But I focus on the time I have had with my mom and still do, even if she dies. I hate saying it. I hate even thinking about “if she dies.” I try to ignore her mortality because it’s easier to think that she will live forever. But I know this is foolish and I need to deal with it. I need to grieve and I need that to be okay. I don’t need people to keep telling me, “your mom is going to make it. She’s going to be okay.” They don’t know that. “God will heal your mom!” No, I don’t know that, and neither do they. I believe in God, but I also know that what I want to happen, doesn’t always happen. I can’t put life into a box, especially my mom’s, and I know I certainly can’t put something as big as God into a box.
I would not be who I am without her. I wouldn’t even be marrying the guy I’m engaged to if it wasn’t for her, telling me, “Becca! He’s so cute and sweet! Why don’t you like him?” I wouldn’t be planning a wedding. And I wouldn’t want her opinion on wedding bouquets.
The heart monitor screen shines brightly. I can’t decide if the beeping is annoying or comforting. Outside, the world is going to sleep, and I know I should get going. I turn to my fiancé. “Whenever you’re ready,” he says. I slip my hand into hers again, squeeze it, and lean in to kiss her forehead, near the bloody mess from surgery. I whisper into her ear, “I love you,” and desperately hope she hears me. I hope she understands. I hope she knows how much I truly love her. And I hope for miracles.”
Brain aneurysms can impact anyone, at any time. If you want to make a contribution to raising awareness and funds for research, please visit our donation page.