The call came Monday after a frantic juggle-everything morning in which I’d been out of the house since 7 am. I’d taken the kids to school, gone to a doctor’s appointment, and stopped back at school for my seven-year-old’s static electricity science project presentation (think: wool sweater, a balloon, adorable lisping demonstrations). Back home, I was settling in to prep for the next day’s Crazy Love  interview on the Diane Rehm Show, which was proving tricky because every three minutes I thought DIANE REHM SHOW and got so excited I had to hop around the kitchen.
Then I got the news.
My 74-year-old mother – a robustly healthy woman who plays 3-4 hours of tennis a day and can still fit into her 52-year-old wedding dress – had suffered two seizures and been rushed via ambulance to an emergency room bed in a Florida hospital 12 miles from her house – and 1,066 miles from mine. CAT scans showed a grape-sized tumor metastisizing on the right side of her skull. I looked up metastasizing on Google and the loose translation was “spreading faster than lice at summer camp.” Immediate brain surgery was required to keep her alive. Suddenly my head and my heart felt like they had been physically removed from my body without benefit of anesthesia.
Now five days later my head feels like a slice of baloney squished between two pieces of stale Wonder Bread. My heart is MIA – perhaps it’s that jagged lump wedged behind my kidneys. I have become suddenly, intimately familiar with the Sandwich Generation. I gotta tell you, slamming into a concrete wall at 60 miles an hour would feel better than this.
Mom is okay, for now. Her neurologist, to whom I’d gladly cede my slot in Mom’s will, removed the entire nefarious growth from her skull. Pathology tests have yet to reveal exactly what it thought it was doing there. She has a dozen gleaming metal staples in her head, but otherwise she belongs in a glam AARP commercial. She looks like a 50+ model, slim and tanned and living the grand retiree life, if you could just crop out her tatty hospital gown and remote control bed. Speaking of that skimpy hospital gown, I gotta say, Mom that tennis stuff has really paid off because your 74-year-old butt is way sexier than mine.
Our family picture will never be the same, however. I’ve spent a good portion of the past few days covering my ears as other moms’ launched into stories of caring for ill or declining parents in rapid response to my tale of woe. Assisted living! Power of attorney! Unbelievably selfish, childish behavior by grown sibling. Gratitude for the flu because it means you don’t have to go to the nursing home! And I thought caring for three children under age five was hard.
The worst? The oncology nurse’s assessment of my new life helping Mom through brain cancer. She didn’t try to depress me. She just asked questions. “How many kids do you have?” She moaned deeply when I said three, ages 7, 10 and 12. “And you work?” Another groan. “You live here?” When I told her I lived five states away, her face fell as if she were a psychic afraid to disclose the future in the tea leaves.
Scratch that – the worst was actually the umpteenth phone call from my kids. Most of my cell phone interruptions had resulted in mediating disputes about whose turn it was to use the computer, giving instructions on how to cook fish sticks, or helping with Spanish homework while Mom’s blood circulation machine beeped in the background. This time, my 12-year-old son whispered into the phone, afraid his little sisters would hear, “Mom, I miss you. You hafta come home soon. We really need you here.” He sounded like he might break into a jillion tiny pieces if I didn’t come soon. My heart contracted in its new hiding place somewhere beneath my intestines, as if begging: let me out of this body, I can’t take care of three kids, a husband, and a sick mamacita all at once!
But listening to my son breathing heavily as he waited my answer, I realized how wonderful, a gift really, it is to have people we love need us desperately. My courage came back like breast milk letting down. I thought: yes, I bet I can do all this. I don’t know how, but I’m going to learn to love being squished.