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The Night I Didn’t See Coming

My phone buzzed on the bedside table, the sound become part of my dream until Dan nudged me:

"It's not the first time its rung," he said.

I sleepily grabbed the phone and jolted upright when I saw the list of missed calls; one from mum, one from Kimmy but mostly Rob.

Something must have happened to Gramps I thought, yes, Mum would be driving to Narrabri and Rob is sitting beside her in the car making calls…

That is the story my brain told me.

I had a lump in my throat as I returned the call – dialling mum first before remembering she must be driving and then phoning Rob.

His voice was shaking when he answered.

"Jem, your mum has had a stroke, she is in hospital."

"What?!" I exclaimed. It was so forceful I sounded angry but I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

He broke down, he told the story of how she had picked him up from work, she hadn’t said anything in the car while he prattled on about his shift and about 800 metres down the road he looked at her only to see that she was there but not really there.

My mind was racing… She was driving surely it couldn’t be a bad one could it? He continued on about the battle to pull the car over and her own realisation that something was terribly wrong when she couldn’t move the right side of her body. She had grabbed the mirror with her left hand to look at her face and she knew he said. Before the memory of it caused him to make a sound of anguish.

The next part was too much for Rob to explain, it got worse and all too real as they waited for the ambulance to arrive.

I couldn’t process what I'd heard, I had a million questions but I just needed to know where she was, could I see her and will she stay alive?

They were in Liverpool hospital, mum had undergone the surgery to remove two clots on the left side of her brain and she was in an induced coma.

Rob seemed to think we wouldn’t be able to see her for some time.

I got off the phone and began to cry. It was about 3:30am but who could sleep?

I thought about all the things I need to do first thing in the morning. Get the girls packed and ready, ask the neighbours to keep an eye on the dog, get to Wollongong where I can find the spare key for the car and then actually find the car.

Dan tells me not to tell the girls but I can’t lie to them- I’m visibly upset. I gently break the news to them about Nani in the morning. They were obviously shocked and hurt but a short time later asked if we could stop at maccas on the way and get thickshakes… and can they be chocolate they asked?

They will be fine.

I needed to be in Liverpool, I just had to get there.

I tried not to think about the ‘what if’s’ (even though I slipped often) but instead I listed my tasks over and over to drown the thoughts: Find the key, find the car, take it back, pack a bag for mum and Rob, get to Liverpool hospital.

How hard can it be?

800 metres down the road, before the car was stopped - so it’s in a 1 kilometre radius of Wollongong hospital… I calculated the options in my head- couldn’t be too hard I thought.

I was wrong. 1 hour + 20 minutes later, after almost reaching breaking point, I prayed, as I had been doing all morning. I got a feeling about a random side street, pursued it and at last found the car, wondering how on Earth they had gotten it there.

I got it back and loaded up my car. I don’t know what I packed and in hindsight four bags of makeup for my mum was extremely unnecessary, but I couldn’t imagine her not wanting it. My young, fit, healthy mum who likes wearing makeup to the beach will absolutely want to look her best in hospital and she’ll be up and about in no time I told myself.

Finally, at 2pm I arrive at Liverpool hospitals ICU. As soon as I saw Kimmy’s face I broke down. I allowed the emotion to finally hit me and I sobbed uncontrollably. Rob appeared a short time later. After hours of waiting he had finally just seen her and told us it wouldn’t be long before we could go in. We cried again, we were all in total shock. Mum had always seemed invincible to all of us. He told me Sam didn’t know so I gathered my calm voice to make a call to my sister overseas.

I made sure she had someone with her before proceeding and I asked her to sit down. She knew it was serious.

I tried to put her mind at ease by telling her there is nothing more she could do even if she was here and noted how important it was that mum got life saving medicine and treatment as early as she did.

I even believed it myself for a moment and put on a brave face ready to go in and see mum. Rob and I followed the purple line to ICU 2 while Kimmy waited ready to swap over.

We donned the plastic apron and sheepishly poked our heads around the corner. When I saw her, I felt the unmistakable urge to vomit. she looked worse than I feared and the reality of that was almost too much to bear physically.

I held it in.

Mum briefly looked up. Her face was contorted, her eyes were opened extremely wide but they were lopsided and looked surprised.

It seemed like she was trying to make out who I was, which choked me up even more and I could no longer hide it.

Thankfully Rob stepped in, he messed up her hair with a smile and said

“There you are!”

I was grateful he handled the moment.

Mum was incredibly tired, she zonked out again a few moments later and I remembered my agreement with Kimmy to swap. I was having trouble breathing and suddenly became very aware of that hospital smell I have come to associate with panic attacks, so I decided it was a good time to leave. I roughly explained the way in, tore off my apron and tried to warn Kimmy before she walked through the doors.

I sat wallowing in sadness, will she ever come back from this? Have I lost my mum forever?

I couldn’t deal with the thoughts, so I started a new list. What do I need to cancel/ organise, who do I need to tell, where am I going to stay? I needed to get busy, so I did.

Then it was my turn to go back to her bedside again. I know I can do better this time I told myself and I did.

I still couldn’t understand what she was trying to say but it seemed to be something about me not being at work and I’ve never appreciated the accusation more.

She needed more sleep. We sat there and stared at her intently until visiting hours ended. Horrifying thoughts were going through all our minds. We didn’t share them at dinner.

We amused ourselves with Kimmy ordering crispy eggplant then proceeding to pick off all the crispy bits but we dared to share a few thoughts at the Quest apartments later on...

Will she have brain damage? Will she be able to walk or talk? Will she be able to pick up the girls from school, take them to the park and have sleepovers?

Similar thoughts flooded through my mind at breakfast. They had a nutella affogato on the menu - mum would love that I thought. Then I wondered if we’d be able to go out for coffee and chat and laugh again like we used to. Why did I ever take those simple things for granted? The thought really stung and I couldn’t finish my breakfast.

We were back at the hospital at 9:59 ready for 10am visiting hours. We were the first ones there, eager to learn of any improvements.

Her eyes watch us as we walked in, it didn’t take long for a small, crooked smile to appear. She knew who we were and it was almost as though she had been waiting to see our faces.

After a while she grabbed my arm with her left hand trying to force out a few words. It was clear she was worried about her job.

“You will take it” I said adamantly.

“We just need some extra time but you will be ok, you got help early and you are already 100 times better than yesterday.”

It was Robs turn to fall apart now and his head collapsed on hers.

I kept smiling, the progress was good I told myself.

I silently studied her face, she was still missing her chin somehow.

The next day we saw improvements again, movement in the right hand, half her mouth talking and smiling.

The day after, the lips on her right hand side even seemed to move a little bit and her words were becoming a bit clearer -even if they were a little slow and shaky at times.

Sometimes she would stop and shake her head as if to say ‘no I’ve lost it, that’s all I can get out’.

Every day she seemed to make improvements and sleep, there was lots of sleeping.

About a week later she seemed to understand for the first time what had happened. She took from our chatter that she had a stroke and when she had that realisation, she began to cry.

“That sounds serious” she asked?

We kept reassuring her about her progress.

My mum is the last person I would have ever expected to be in this situation but it can happen to anyone - as I was reminded on the stroke ward on a daily basis. It was filled with people who didn’t match the description of what I associated with stroke patients.

I should have learnt the lesson in 2020 but 2021 sealed the deal -tomorrow is not guaranteed and today is precious.

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