By: Stacey Ellis
Tears flowed so hard it was impossible to stop. Most people reserve these crocodile tears for a death in the family or a tragedy. Babies cry when we adults can’t figure out what they need or want. But it wasn’t my daughter crying on this day– it was me. I was standing at the airport gate with my husband and baby and they were about to take off for Los Angeles without me.
We all arrived in New Jersey the week before as a family. It was going to be a big week for all of us. I was launching big structure changes at my company. I started this job just six months ago and was working in a chaos I couldn’t deal with – so I made changes and now it was time to get the rest of the company on board. Meanwhile, my husband had some big meetings in New York City as well. So our daughter was going to spend five days with grandma and grandpa – my parents – and my sister who would play nanny in New Jersey. I knew it would be incredibly hard to leave her for five days, even if we were only going to be an hour away. But I also knew with our work schedules, she would not have had any quality time with us this week and her grandparents and my sister would spoil her and dote on her. Yet I still teared up when we left to catch the train into the city.
At the beginning of the week my mom called – she’s teething really badly. I found this interesting because she wasn’t teething the day before. I told my mom to freeze some wet wash cloths and let her chomp down on them. My parents did that and she was fine. On Tuesday my mom said she has a cold. She suggested that they take her to a doctor or look for baby Afrin. I put my foot down – NO medications, period. I asked – does she have a fever? My mom replied, “No.” I said – then feed her, make her drink a lot of liquids and get a lot of sleep. As a “new” parent – I’ve already been through a few colds – and two doctor runs, I already know the doctor doesn’t want to see her if she doesn’t have a fever over 101.3. And I also know my mom is a hypochondriac.
My sister said our daughter was playing, having fun, and having a great time. But she wasn’t sleeping well and every time someone put her down in her crib, she woke up instantly and wailed. I felt guilty. I know she doesn’t sleep well in a strange place when we ARE around – now it was the combination of the strange place and strange people and she wasn’t sleeping at all, unless she was on top of my sister. I couldn’t be there to soothe her and tell her, “It’s okay, mommy’s here.”
By day three, my mom made a comment, “Your sister is a great mom.” My sister actually isn’t a mom. She decided not to have children due to health issues. My mom was referring to my sister caring for my daughter. Weirdly enough, I took no offense to it and was thrilled that my daughter was so attached to my sister and I was glad my sister had “all the care duties” under control. While I didn’t take offense, I did feel left out. I was now exhausted from three ridiculously long work days – 7 am til midnight – and I couldn’t wait to see her…two more days. Thursday was uneventful. Then came Friday.
“Your dad had a stroke.” Yes, my father was being rushed to the hospital because he had tightness around his chest and his arm and leg went numb. They believed he had a stroke and maybe a heart attack. I had one more meeting in New York but I had to get on the train. I pushed up the meeting two hours, did it in 20 rather than 90 minutes, and ran for the train. The whole way I was crying off and on.
My parents and I are very close. My parents have been married more than 45 years. They are codependent in every sense of the word. And neither is entirely independent. I just kept thinking what would happen to my mom if my dad was gone. He was the rock. My aunt and uncle picked us up from the train station – fortunately my uncle is a doctor. He said my dad seemed stable and he may have had a TIA stroke – it’s like a warning stroke with no lasting effects. And he has water in his lungs and around his heart – congestive heart failure. They took us to my parents’ house to see my daughter and then my sister and I would go to the hospital. I couldn’t wait to see her but felt incredibly torn and needed to see my dad.
My husband and I arrived at my parents’ house and our daughter looked at us like, “You look familiar.” Within a second, and me saying, “It’s mommy,” she burst into huge smiles and grabbed at me for big hugs and kisses. I had already forgotten how incredible those hugs felt. I sniffed her just to remember her smell. She looked bigger, older, different. Then she showed us her new trick. She crawled across the carpet. Yes, my sister taught her how to crawl through a week of demonstrations. I missed her first crawling. Again, I felt horrible but I was so amazed at her scooting all over the living room. And with that – within 10 minutes of seeing my precious daughter – we had to leave for the hospital to get there before visiting hours ended. I had 10 minutes with her. That’s it. My husband would stay with her at the house – it’s never a good idea to bring a healthy baby to a hospital.
When we arrived at the hospital my father looked okay. He was flush, had a fever of 102, and still felt some constriction in his chest. He kept joking that next time I come in, don’t forget to bring my black suit. It wasn’t funny. He was adamant, “Don’t change your travel plans.” We had all planned to fly back to Los Angeles the next morning. Too bad, I told him. I already changed my plans. I hadn’t yet, but knew I would. He was his usual stubborn self, telling me to go home. But I knew better. My mom is not independent. She needed someone to take the trash out, to get dinner, to drive her back and forth to the hospital. And well, I live 3000 miles away and have not been the one “there” when other health emergencies happened –my sister was the one to drive in, as she lives about two hours away. I knew it was MORE than my turn and of course, I wanted to be there. But that meant not seeing my baby for another three to four days. I was distraught.
All night as my husband repacked bags, I hugged her and held her tight. I cried relentlessly. A week’s worth of guilt, missing her, and exhaustion came flowing out. I didn’t want them to leave. We checked about changing all of the tickets, but that truly made no sense since someone had to be at the house with her and I’d be at the hospital all day anyway. She needed to go home, be back in her crib, in her familiar surroundings so she could sleep. There wasn’t a choice to be made – I knew what had to happen. Still it felt like I was choosing between my father and my daughter, even though I knew I’d see her in just a few days and for the rest of her life.
So there I was standing at the gate. Thank goodness I was able to get a gate pass and had more time with her. But as I stood there and people gathered to board the plane, the tears flowed harder and harder. I thought, “What a spectacle I must be making.” Every time my husband said, “She’ll be fine. I’ll be fine. You’ll be fine. Take care of your dad,” I cried harder. She clung to me too, though her face was opposite mine so while I’m sure she sensed mommy was upset because I was holding her so tight, I don’t think she saw the tears flowing down my face. When I finally had to hand her over to him and watch them disappear down the walkway, I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have her, a diaper bag to cling to, a stroller to fold down. I had nothing but me and my tears. I crossed my arms and left as quickly as I could.
I drove back to the hospital. The fever broke and my father was sitting up in bed. The doctors determined he did not have a stroke. He had congestive heart failure – water around the heart – something my mom has lived with for 15 years. I was familiar with it. He had to have a few more tests to rule out a few other things like a valve leak because his blood pressure was so low, but they were pretty sure that was it. That, combined with the defibrillator he had in his chest, caused the other symptoms of a stroke. The only way to control it is by some medicine -if he can tolerate it -and diet.
I spent the next two days having serious talks with my parents about the house, maybe moving to a retirement community, about taking care of themselves so they can be around for our daughter’s birthdays, bat mitzvah, etc. I realized how close I came to not saying to my father what I wanted to make sure he knew – I love him. He’s been the best dad ever and the best grandpa “with the white hair” ever and that I need him to be here for us and my daughter. I said nearly the same to my mom. As much as I missed my daughter horribly, it was a “nice” three days.
Finally I was going to head home…the plane was delayed a bit and I got home well after my daughter’s bed time. But when she woke up at 4 AM and needed a little back rub and some water, I jumped out of bed. It was my turn and I was happy to take it.