I keep the plastic stick hidden in a round basket on top of our bathroom sink, safely nestled between our hairbrushes. It's been months since it first displayed that fat blue plus sign, a shock after nearly a year of only seeing minuses. I tell myself and my husband that it would just feel weird to throw it out. But at 31 weeks pregnant, I've figured out that there's more to why I can't seem to let it go.
This Sunday will be my first Mother's Day (if you count mothers of fetuses, which I certainly do). It will also be my first Mother's Day without my mom.
I told her our news when I was just six weeks along, days before my first doctor's appointment would show me and my husband the blinking heartbeat coming from that tiny little bean of a thing. Insecurities flooded my head: Maybe the test was a fluke. Should I take another one to be sure? What if I've lost the baby already? I'd had some spotting — wasn't that a bad sign? It all felt so fragile, so fleeting.
I waited until my dad stepped out of the room in search of a nurse, and then I grabbed her hand.
"Mom, I'm pregnant."
She continued to look straight at me, as she'd been doing for the last few minutes, and let out a sigh.
"Mom, did you hear what I said? I'm pregnant."
I'd been making trips down to Florida from New York every month or so since she had been diagnosed. Each trip illuminated a new horror of her brain cancer's progression.
We joked about some of the earlier symptoms together, like how her mind seemed to split into two halves, making her hands obsessively wipe up crumbs on a tablecloth or pick at a piece of fabric as she tried her hardest, without success, to stop. She was always quick to laugh, and so making light of these sudden and strange tics felt natural. It gave us a way to temporarily escape the blanket of fear that darkened the house.
But other symptoms were deeply upsetting, for her and for my family, like when she would temporarily forget who my dad was and why he was there. "This man won't stop bothering me," she'd say quietly and covertly on the phone to me. "I think I need to go home now."
Or when, on a trip to Italy — a place she'd always wanted to visit — she woke up in the middle of the night, walked out of the hotel in search of a bathroom while everyone was sleeping, and stripped off her urine-soaked clothes in the empty streets of Venice.
Day by day, little by little, we lost her. My daily phone calls with her went from hour-long gab sessions to short check-ins to single-word responses via my dad's cell phone after she forgot how to use her own.
For a while it was like her brain was running on preprogrammed prompts. "Hi, Mom," I'd say, to which I'd get a warm "Hi, honey" in return. But all familiarity would melt away as soon as I'd ask her another question, giving way to nothing but the occasional syllable as she struggled to find her words.
Soon, even her automated responses faded away.
Her nursing home reminded me of the one I volunteered at in high school to sing Christmas carols or play board games. Frosty air pumped out of the vents and mixed with the smell of disinfectant and stale urine. Grey-haired men and women in wheelchairs lined the hall surrounding the nurses' station, all eerily quiet except for the occasional snore or shout. A short middle-aged resident with purple hair in elaborate braids walked back and forth yelling at the staff about the poor lunch choices.
My mom never left her room. Talking, walking — those abilities disappeared quickly. As did her recognition of me.
I was prepared for that, but I still hoped that my news would incite something within her. Or that at least I'd get a sign — a smile, a nod — that on some level, she understood that she was going to be a grandma. Maybe that's what her heavy sigh was, but it sounded pained, not pleased. I questioned whether I should have said anything in the first place.
I had become convinced the woman I knew as my mom was no longer in the shell that occupied that nursing home room. Her blue eyes were large and protruding, hardly blinking. Her mouth mostly gaped open. Her limbs curled tightly at awkward angles. Beyond the physical changes, she was missing what I can only describe as her internal spark — that light in her eyes that always popped out at some point during my visits with her, no matter how bad of a time her brain was giving her that day. But what if I was wrong? What if that sigh meant that at least part of her was there, realizing that she wouldn't be around for the next chapter in my life?
That was my last visit with her. She died three weeks later at age 62, almost exactly a year after she was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme.
My mom, Brenda, lost her own mother, Jean, when she was just 24 — six years before I was born. My mom and her four siblings idolized her, so to my younger brother and me, Grandma Jean became a kind of saint: A jolly and supremely kind Italian woman with a huge smile and open arms who would have doted on us nonstop, had we ever met her.
I've come to realize that this is how my baby might think about my mom, too. Because while she wasn't perfect, she was pretty darn close to it as far as parents go. My brother and I adored her. She was our healer, our confidante, our comic relief and our number-one fan. We always felt the love she had for us, no matter what. I still feel it now.
And so I've held on to that stick because I've learned in the last year how unfair life can be. I also hold onto it because I've learned how incredible it is that our baby, who started as a dividing clump of cells, now turns and kicks inside of me. The stick reminds me that there are no guarantees — that I might have 50 years to spend with this baby, or maybe far less — and that I should be grateful for every one of those moments.
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