I waddle across the sterile room and lower my eight-month pregnant self onto the edge of my dad’s hospital bed. Four days earlier, my mom found him on their bedroom floor, paralyzed and speechless from a massive stroke. He has made no progress since.
I lift his hand and tuck it between mine. “Stephen and I are going to drive back to Ohio tonight, Dad.” He nods in agreement.
“It’s probably best if I have this baby there rather than here in Chicago, yes?” It’s a weak attempt at a joke, anything to bring air into a room that was otherwise holding its breath as we waited for the next doctor’s opinion. Dad smiles with half his face while the other half folds and droops.
“It certainly isn’t going to go the way we planned,” I say to him. “But I’ll bring your grandbaby to Chicago as soon as I can. You get better so you can hold this baby.” It is a ridiculous thing to say. You get better. As though it were up to him.
As Stephen and I make the five-hour drive back from Chicago that night, I try to imagine how the next month will play out. Our first baby is due in three weeks, and the vision I have spent years creating is crumbling. I imagined my mom and dad sitting in the waiting room, nervously anticipating the news. I imagined Stephen dressed in hospital coveralls, just like in the movies, bursting into that waiting room to announce the arrival of a healthy baby. I imagined them cradling their new grandbaby and then sticking around for the next week to help wash clothes, cook meals, and hold a baby when I needed to sleep.
It is clear to me now that none of this will happen.
I don’t know where Dad will be in a month. In the hospital? In rehab? Maybe home? But I am certain he will not be in my hospital recovery room holding his grandbaby.
And as for my mom, I don’t worry much about where she will be when I have this baby. Surely she will be there with me. Moms don’t miss that kind of thing.
As my due date approaches, my mom says we will play it by ear. She will do her best to get to Ohio, but it will be hard to leave Dad as long as he is in a full-time rehabilitation facility; it will be impossible if he is released to come home.
The week passes.
My due date passes.
Six more days pass.
The next morning, my mom calls as we are getting ready for church; she says she will not be coming to Ohio. Dad has been cleared to come home in a few days.
“I have so much to do to get the house ready for him,” Mom explains. Her voice breaks like she is struggling to get out each word. “Some men from church are coming over tomorrow to move the furniture. I need to find someone to install more railings, and the physical therapist needs to teach me how to help Dad bathe and climb stairs. Oh, Joy, I cannot imagine how he is going to climb these stairs.” I hear the panic in her voice.
I say I understand. I say it is the best decision, and I will be ok.
It isn’t exactly a lie. I do understand. It is probably the best decision. And I will be ok. But I still hate the whole mess. Our first baby is about to be born, and we will have no family at the hospital. No family.
I finish getting ready and quietly cry as we drive to church. This damn stroke messed it all up. How did this happen? Doesn’t everyone have family come to the hospital when a baby is born?
Twenty-four hours later, my water breaks. As Stephen tosses bags into the car, I call my mom hoping she might change her mind and come. She doesn’t say either way, but on the drive to the hospital when I call again, she is packing her bag.
I imagine her, alone in her room with two Vera Bradly weekender bags open on her bed. No doubt she is talking out loud, volleying between her packing checklist and prayer. Nothing about this is easy; anxiety and unknowns are stacked against her. Dad has always been the driver, not because Mom couldn’t or wouldn’t, but because when the family goes somewhere, Dad drives. Driving five hours in a car by yourself when your husband is in rehab and your daughter is in labor is bound to rattle anyone. But she is coming anyway.
Mom arrives at the hospital just after 4:00 that afternoon. Charlotte is born at 4:35.
She made it. Our family was there.
Mom sits in the delivery room as I nurse Charlotte for the first time, and she calls Dad so I can tell him about his granddaughter. She follows behind me as the nurse rolls me to the recovery room, and she takes my picture as I bite into a glorious Jimmy John’s Turkey Tom sub.
In true mom fashion, she comes bearing gifts. She pulls a dozen baby girl ensembles from a bag and even comes with gifts for me: books, lip gloss, a killer orange leather purse, and a hairdryer she claims will change my life. She listens to the fresh details of the day as she holds Charlotte, and she meets our friends as they invade the hospital room with all things pink.
Mom leaves the next day, arriving back to their home of 28 years, which has now been transformed to be handicap accessible. Dad is released from rehab two days later and comes home to relearn his life. Mom is now a full-time caregiver for her husband, a man who talked her ear off for the past forty years but can now only utter strange sounds. Her life is a constant whirlwind of physical therapy, speech therapy, doctor appointments, and administering prescription medicine at just the right hour of day and night.
I think about my mom often during those early weeks of motherhood. Our day-to-day motions bear such a tiny resemblance to the lives we knew a month ago. We both care for someone at all hours of the day and night, stepping up when everything in us wants to sleep or cry or quit. Our love is pushed to its limits as someone else’s needs soar above our own. We both question God, “Am I really the best one for this job? I don’t think I can do it much longer.” Meals show up at both our doorsteps each day around 5:00. Cards flood both our mailboxes, and we both know people all over the country are praying for us as we adjust to a new normal.
But I can’t shake the guilt that even when I want to kick, scream, and whine about my new normal, I am also flooded with joy. I asked for this child, prayed for this child, and for every moment I am exhausted, there are two other moments I am smiling. I think about the future with excitement. What is in store for this child and our life together?
But not Mom. When she wants to kick, scream, and whine about her new normal, she is flooded with fear. She never asked for this stroke to paralyze dad’s body and steal his speech. She is exhausted and scared, and although she never says it, she must be mad. What about her future? What is in store for dad and their life together?
I waddle across Charlotte’s bedroom floor and lower my three-weeks postpartum self into the La-Z Boy recliner. A suitcase lies open on the floor, overflowing with enough outfits for a month-long getaway even though we’ll only be gone for a weekend. I pull Charlotte close and position the Boppy as she begins to nurse.
“Well, girl. You up for your first road trip?” I whisper. “This isn’t how we planned it, but I promised your Pop Pop I’d bring you to Chicago so he can hold you.”
The next morning, we make the five-hour drive; Dad is waiting in his wheelchair. We carefully place his swaddled up granddaughter in the crook of his left elbow and snap pictures as he smiles with only half his face. The day is beautiful and heartbreaking, and by 8:00 that night, we’re sitting silently in the living room, too tired to speak.
“Well, I need to get Dad ready for bed,” Mom says as she unlocks his wheelchair and lifts his feet onto the footplates. She turns him toward the hallway. “That was a big day for you, wasn’t it hun? I bet you’re exhausted.”
I catch myself before echoing her exact words to Charlotte. Instead, I lift Charlotte from the blanket on the floor and walk behind Dad’s wheelchair as we all head toward the stairs.
“You go first,” Mom says to me. “It still takes us a while to do this.”
“Do you need help?” I ask.
“Nah. We’re getting the hang of it.”
I walk up the fifteen steps to the second floor. I know it is fifteen steps because I’ve counted them, dozens of times. When you’re a kid, strange things like how many steps are in your house matter, so you count and recount and ask your parents questions like if the last step up to the landing counts as an actual step. My old blue bedroom is now the guest room, still with my Kristen and Molly American Girl dolls displayed on a shelf.
Everything about this home is familiar, but nothing feels the same. I now have a daughter lying on the bed in front of me, and I can hear my mom’s voice coaching Dad with each shaky step. She reminds him which foot to lift first and where to place his hand on the railing. She counts down the stairs as they approach the landing. “Only four more to go. Three…two…one. We did it.” I hear them exhale in unison, a sound of both exhaustion and triumph.
Mom pokes her head into my room as she walks by. “Goodnight, sweet Charlotte. Thanks for coming all this way to visit your Grammy and Pop-Pop. And goodnight, Joy. I hope you can get some sleep tonight.” She lifts her gaze away from her granddaughter to meet my eyes. Grief and joy hang heavy in the air between us, and we both know this isn’t how we thought it would be.
“Thanks, Mom. You too.”
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Joy Becker is a wife and mama living in Cincinnati, Ohio. She recently resigned from a twelve-year career as a literacy coach and first-grade teacher to become a full-time stay-at-home-mom with her three young darlings. She is a lover of new notebooks, October, and goat cheese, and a hater of traffic, scary movies, and overcooked asparagus. Her writing has appeared on Coffee + Crumbs, MOPS Blog, and Mothers Always Write. You can peek even further into her love for Jesus, food, motherhood, and friendship at www.joyabecker.com.