What a Brush With Death Taught Me About Control

It’s Sunday morning. Win tells me there’s a text from my Dad to “call as soon as possible” and there’s ice in my veins before I’ve even opened my eyes. I call home.

Last night, I soon learn, my mom was hit by an oncoming SUV. Ostensibly, the driver was looking for parking, but in reality, he was distracted enough that he didn’t see her leaving the store, wheeling the bright blue suitcase she’d just bought for an upcoming trip. He didn’t slam on the brakes to try to stop, because he wasn’t even looking. He just hit her, square on, breaking both legs and her right arm.

My mother is alive. This is the sentence I keep reminding myself is crucial to the story. It needs to come first. She’s okay. But she’s not okay. One careless, distracted moment from a stranger and her life is completely upended. Plans for a family vacation become goals to transfer to a shower chair in a few weeks. She won’t be home for months. The chorus of ”what can we do?” is resounding and reassuring and overwhelming. There is nothing to do yet. What we can do is be there.

My brother is flying in from D.C. and Win and I make plans to travel from California the same weekend. We already know the visit will be too short, but still: no joints affected, no spinal cord injury, no concussion. I count these blessings all the way to New York.

The rehab center is newly renovated and brightly lit, but hospital beds make everyone seem small and fragile, because that’s what humans are. We smile and hug (gently) and hold hands (tightly). We talk about the weather, the food, the flowers. Coworkers, and friends from temple and even the dog come to see her. We talk about everything except how grateful we are that we’re all here to have this conversation. Everything except how maddening it is that the man who put her here gets to go to the movies with his family and pick up his favorite snacks from the grocery store and otherwise carry on with his life without meeting with the surgeon to discuss when the external fixators can be removed. Anger is not conducive to healing. We try to distract from the pain and be present for each other instead.

The aids help her into the wheelchair and we maneuver her over to the bathroom sink so I can wash her hair. As she closes her eyes, head tipped back, I hope she is imagining herself at the salon, and not here, amid bedpans and guard rails and call buttons. I take my time.

Bodies require so much care. Mothers know this; daughters forget.

Her hair is so fine, just like mine. My mother has often told me that I loved getting my hair washed when I was a baby. My eyes would roll back in my head in utter bliss. I try to think how many times I’ve washed my hair this week without a single conscious thought of the pleasure of warm soapy water and gentle hands. Thinking instead about to-do lists at work, unfinished emails, groceries. I don’t think of the joy of caring for my body. Bodies require so much care. Mothers know this; daughters forget.

The physical therapist comes and works with her with weighted balls and resistance bands to keep up her strength and tone. I am amazed at how much she can do, and grateful for the therapist who is helping her keep as much mobility as possible. She jokes that she’s gotta keep her left arm buff; it’s pulling for the whole team! He laughs and agrees. “It’s the best left arm we’ve got around here!” and he’s right.

My mom is recovering in a senior living facility despite it being too soon to properly “blend in with the locals.” It’s hard not to feel like we’ve fallen into a slipstream of time wherein 30 years have suddenly elapsed, and we keep reminding ourselves it’s temporary. There will be more gardens planted, lunches with old friends at new restaurants, and long days at work. The comfort of the mundane will return. For many here, this is not the case.

Americans (and yes, people in general) go to great lengths to try to dominate the uncontrollable. We beat and starve our bodies into submission, we overstimulate and under-nourish our minds to exhaustion, and we pour millions of dollars into creams and schemes that promise to defy age and erase time. What we don’t do is let ourselves enjoy the sheer pleasure of having a body that allows us to experience the world. One that offers us all the wonders of being alive even as we dismay over its refusal to meet our invented ideals of perfection.

There’s nothing revelatory in saying that brushes with death remind us of the futility of these pursuits, but we need reminders because we’re human and we forget. We get distracted. I get distracted.

There’s nothing revelatory in saying that brushes with death remind us of the futility of these pursuits, but we need reminders because we’re human and we forget.

After physical therapy, she’s tired, and Dad is coming later to have dinner with her. He’ll bring the iPad and they’ll curl up together in her hospital bed and watch The Crown. This is their date night. Win and I head into the city for a muted date night of our own. As we leave, we pass a booth with a woman and her son. His blue headphones match his iPad case and together, they occupy his nine-year-old attention. His mother watches him as they eat. I want to scream. I want to shake him awake and say, “Someday she’ll be gone and you will want more than anything in the world to talk to her! She’s right there!” But I stay quiet.

When we get home, it’s snowing. Win grabs some bags from the back of the car while I scoop up a double handful of snow from the front yard. As he turns, I throw, and the snowball hits him square in the chest. Groceries forgotten, we chase each other like children until we are breathless and and shrieking with laughter. He’s never made a snow angel before. “How do you do it?” he asks.

“Just fall back,” I tell him.

“It doesn’t hurt?”

“No, it’s fine!” I assure him, but it’s only eight inches of snow and neither of us are sure. We are adults now and feel naked without the impervious optimism of children. But we manage. I document Win’s first snow angel before matching it with one of my own, whose number is of no consequence. I lay back and look up at the stars, feeling the packed snow on the small of my back, and think, this is how I want to be alive.

The snow holds a map of that moment, and I hope that in the morning, Dad will look out the window and see footprints and angels. I hope they make him smile before the snow covers them up again. The next day, we board a plan to California and prepare to pretend like everything is normal. I mentally rehearse succinct answers to, “How’s your Mom?”

These bodies we have, our first gifts, older even than our names, are the only things we truly own. The only things that we will keep for our entire lives. They deserve so much better than the derision and dismissal we rain down on them. They deserve kindness, gratitude, wonder and care. I know that this clarity of presence will dissolve soon, and I will once again become caught up in the mundane busyness of a life measured in schedules and shifts, commutes and compromises, overflowing inboxes and abandoned cups of tea. But right now, just for a moment, I want to bask unabashedly in this miraculous aliveness for however long it lasts.

GIF by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.

Molly Conway

Molly Conway is a playwright and writer living in Oakland, California. She has yet to finish a cup of tea while it is still hot.

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