It’s the eve of my mother’s heart surgery. I’m not referring to the past, as if this was some story. It’s actually tomorrow. I’m playing the countdown game, taking a redeye and arriving home at 4:45 in the morning of the procedure. Within hours I’ll hug her, say our goodbyes, and watch her be taken out to a sterile room nearby.
By the time you read this, the surgery and its results will be in the past. Nothing, no problem solving, no getting lucky, no wishful thinking, not even armor, can change these facts.
Up until about twenty minutes ago, I’d been telling most people that this wasn’t anything serious. When I called out of work for the rest of this week, I described it as a minor procedure. That changed when I found out it was a five-hour operation.
My mother said it so nonchalantly. She’d always been the hypochondriac that worried about standing in the sun for longer than a minute without sunscreen. The one to call and ask if I was eating healthy. The youngest mom out of all of my friend’s parents. She swerved to her next stop in the conversation. Maybe she didn’t give me a moment to respond on purpose. I looked for an opportunity to ask more questions, but then she revealed how aware she was of her own mortality. My mother said she’d given me power of attorney and finished her living will giving me the responsibility of “taking care of it” were she to fall into some unrecoverable state.
“I tried texting you after I did it, but I accidentally texted the wrong person,” she said forcing out a laugh.
“If something happens, I want to be cremated. It’s all written down,” she said.
The nerves firing off across my spine somehow translated into the beginnings of a teardrop on my face. I realized that we’d never once talked about these types of plans before. Not even jokingly the way people sometimes do, treating it like a casual table conversation. Processing her words was both numbing and excruciating. A lesson in standing like stone while erupting lava from within.
It struck me that I didn’t know anything I could say to help my mother feel better.
“Spread my ashes somewhere in D.C.,” she said, and I could picture her eyes wander from across the telephone line. She’d wanted to move back there after living there when I was only a few months old. Circumstances out of my mom’s control, like my dad’s work, brought us back to Colombia. She likes to remind me that she’d still be living in DC if she’d been given the choice. “Nobody asked me,” she always says.
This stung the most, that her pain transcended the physical battle in her chest and went back two decades to a memory she’d be returning to no matter what. That her happiness was out of my control and it would never come close. It felt like a decision on her fate had already been made without any of our consultations and all I could do was hear the verdict.
I held back the receiver so that she wouldn’t hear me breathing erratically, but she knew. “Don’t cry. There’s no reason to. You and your brother have given me everything in this life. It was more than I could have ever asked for,” she said.
The last heart emergency, I’d ignored her. The first time, two years ago, we’d been fighting over an unrelated matter over the phone. I don’t even remember what the fight was about, but I hung up on her. She called me again, but I ignored her hoping to avoid another fight. I later found out that she was calling out alarm because she was fainting due to her heart.
This time, she’d called me all morning on a weekend. Determined to sleep, I slept through every ring until she texted me in all caps that her chest was exploding.
“I don’t have a lot to leave you, but at least I have the house.” The one she bought back when we moved to Florida. Moments lived with the purpose of becoming a memory. My invincible mother laid in pain while considering a contingency plan in case her surgery went badly.
We hung up and I remembered that we were acting out the worst case scenario. That this was just our fears running amok within an inevitable countdown to the morning.
I board the plane and swap my window seat with an older man in the aisle. It’s a red eye, but I won’t blink until I’m in Orlando.
Esteban Cajigas is a writer, musician, and MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles. His short stories and poems have been featured in publications such as Venture Magazine, Foliate Oak, and others. Esteban also previously wrote for The Boston Globe as a correspondent and The Suffolk Voice as Editor-in-Chief.