At what age do you think we realize our mortality? That is the question I posed while lying in the MRI machine, trying my hardest not to freak the fuck out over how claustrophobic I felt. God damn it, Maya. Why can’t you think about something more pleasant to pass the time? You just had the most incredible summer; a pinch-me moment summer. The pinch me moment came while I was on a whale-watching boat in the San Juan Islands of the Pacific Northwest. I had Poppy on my lap, and she was giggling over the ocean swells we were bouncing over. The salty ocean water splashed our faces, and there he was. Just across from us, I locked eyes with him. Those eyes were just as they had always been, only now, they were extra sparkly for me. He laughed out loud, took out his iPhone, and snapped a picture of Poppy and me. I felt my stomach drop as I pinched the inside of my arm, and I felt the slightest tinge of pain. I hadn’t had one of those moments since before Ronan died. Why can’t you think about that moment while you are lying here instead? Why the fuck do you have to have such a morbid brain? Duh. You know why. Insert dead child here. I closed my eyes to try to block out the impending doom blasting in my ears from the MRI machine. You would think with all the incredible technology in the world, somebody would have figured out a way to make this “experience” a little more pleasurable.
Six days prior, I was on an airplane with Woody and Poppy en route to Omaha, Nebraska, to take Liam to college. Liam, Quinn, and their best friend Landon were driving Liam’s car out, and we had planned it so we would all arrive in Nebraska around the same time. Mr. Sparkly Eyes stayed behind because he had a couple of appointments and also the animals to look after. Despite my best efforts to get him to come, he remained steadfast in his decision. “Please.” I played with his foot under the dinner table, hoping I could coax him with the delicious homemade meal that I had placed in front of him. “My darling. The love of my life. Trust me on this one. This is an emotional time for all of you, taking Liam to college. I have things to take care of here, so I will stay behind while you spend this time together. It’s three days. You have to trust that I know what I’m talking about. I’ll say my goodbye to Liam here and let you all have your time in Omaha as a family.”
“You are also our family, and everyone wants you to come, not just me. I understand your reasons for not coming, but I will miss you so much.” I pleaded, but I knew he wasn’t changing his mind.“It’s only a few days, my darling, but I will miss you, too.” He kissed the top of my forehead, and we finished up the rest of our dinner. We had been through a war to get to this point, and someday I will share that story, but not here.
I boarded the Southwest flight to Omaha a few days later and took a slew of emotions with me. Our first college kid drop-off. How the fuck are we all going to survive this separation? And why doesn’t anyone talk about how hard this transition is? What do you mean I must be so excited about sending my firstborn twin off into this big wide world and trusting that the Zodiac Killer won’t abduct him? Why can’t he remain with us for the rest of his life? Or better yet, let’s pack up and move to Omaha for half the year and spend the other half in Santa Cruz with Quinn. I’m not exaggerating when I say both of these “plans” had crossed my mind. Woody was not handling the boys leaving for college well. I was not handling the boys leaving for college well. But I think out of all of us, Poppy was the most heartbroken. Once the boys had decided on colleges, we discussed it more frequently, and she started having mini breakdowns. I wanted to be proactive in trying to help her navigate things, so I found a therapist for her to see once a week. Her therapist was a good fit and someone Poppy took to. I wanted to make sure she knew her sadness was valid and that she felt comfortable expressing whatever she may be feeling. Some nights I would find her in her bed, under the covers, with tears streaming down her face. I would crawl under the covers to hold her, and often, we would cry together. She would eventually find her way back to me, and the words would start.
“Why do my brothers have to leave me behind?”
“I’m never going to get to see them anymore.”
“I’m going to be an only child now.”
“I’m going to be lonely because they are my best friends.”
“Who is going to play board games with me?”
“Why can’t they just stay here and go to ASU?”
I would answer her questions one by one. Eventually, I would make her laugh, and we would find our way out of the darkness and back into the light. I am quietly trying to teach her the importance of embracing the darkness in this messy, complicated world. That everything cannot be fixed with a fake smile or stuffing down feelings. Not acknowledging our truth can be detrimental to our mental health and significantly impact our lives in a harmful way. I cannot tolerate the fakeness that people carry around in this world, sprinkling it around like it is the answer to everything. Eventually, you will rot from the inside out, and I am such a huge believer that embracing the darkness has the power to invoke so much healing in ourselves and lead us to places we never knew we were capable of going.
“Mama. How long is this flight? Did you pack my headphones? What about snacks?” I looked over at Poppy and felt my heart flutter. Fuck. I don’t know what I would do without her. For as much as she needed me, I very much needed her. She was the yin to my yang. My mini in so many ways yet so fiercely her own little being. She was magic and fire, and I still thank Ronan every fucking day for her. I KNOW he had a hand in giving us this little girl of ours. The sister he always wanted. His “Minnie Mouse,” as he wanted to name her. I pulled her backpack out from underneath her seat and got out everything she needed to occupy her for the next couple of hours. I pulled out my computer and spent the majority of the flight going over edits on my book while I listened to my writing music on my headphones. Side note: I ALWAYS only listen to Taylor Swift when writing. An hour and a half went by, and Poppy tapped my shoulder to ask if I would do an activity book with her. We had about thirty minutes before we landed, so I put away my things, and we started doing a crossword puzzle. Twenty minutes passed, and the flight attendant got on the loudspeaker to announce that we were making our descent and that the plane would be landing soon. That is the last thing I remember about our flight. I woke up on the tarmac of Omaha, Nebraska, in a parked ambulance with no memory of how I got there.
“Do you know where you are?” My eyes slowly refocused as I looked at some sixteen-year-old paramedic asking me this question. A question that I couldn’t answer. I had no idea where I was. I could see a solemn-faced Woody trying to comfort Poppy. She was trying to be so brave but was quietly crying. I could see my daughter crying, but I could not figure out how to articulate any words or motions to comfort her. My brain cannot process anything that happened or what was going on at the current time. I was asked a few more questions by the paramedic, which I do not remember, and I have no idea if I was able to answer.
Mr. Sparkly Eyes called. “My darling. I’m on my way home, and then I’m getting on a flight. Woody called me from the plane and told me what had happened. I’m landing close to midnight. I’m trying to get there as fast as I can. I have the best doctor I know in Omaha at the ER waiting for you. She’ll look after you and update me on everything, but I’ll be there as soon as possible.”
I thanked him, told him I loved him, and hung up. I hardly remember arriving at the ER, but when we got there, we were met by multiple nurses and a doctor. Blood was drawn, vitals were taken, more questions were asked, and a CT scan was ordered. A couple of hours went by, and a doctor walked into the room.
“Your lab work came back normal, and your CT is normal. Have you been under a lot of stress recently? You had a Grand Mal seizure, which can be induced by stress or lack of sleep.”
I think about this question, but my brain feels foggy, and my head feels so heavy. I answer back. “Not more than normal, but maybe taking your firstborn to college is stressful? I’m not stressed, but maybe I am. I just feel sad.”
She smiled at me and said, “Well, we can release you, or we can keep you, but if you stay, you’d have to stay in the Emergency Room because our hospital is full.”
“That’s not necessary. I want to be discharged.” I looked over at Poppy and Woody; both looked pale and terrified.
“Alright. We will unhook your IV, and you can be on your way.”
Twenty minutes later, I was out the door, walking to the car. I asked Woody what happened, and he explained details I had no memory of. I asked him if the boys knew, and he said he didn’t want to tell them until we saw them in person, which I was so thankful for. The car ride to meet the boys was quiet. I felt like absolute garbage. We arrived at Airbnb, and just as we parked and got out, the boys pulled up to us, horn blaring as the three of them were excitedly laughing away. They hopped out of the car only to be met by our stone-cold faces.
“What’s wrong?” Quinn asked.
Woody replied, “We just got out of the ER. Mom had a seizure on the airplane right before we landed.”
All three boys looked shocked and perplexed.
“What the fuck?” Quinn said.
“Exactly. What the fuck is exactly how I am feeling.”
They all came up and hugged me and asked if I was alright. Besides the inside of my lip looking like raw cartilage and feeling extremely tired, I was ok.
“Yes, I’ll be fine. I’m just tired. Let’s get you settled and grab a bite to eat. I’m sure you all are starving.”
I managed to make it through dinner, although looking back, I don’t know how I didn’t pass out in the salad I was trying to consume. We returned to where Woody, Poppy, and the boys were staying and waited for Mr. Sparkly Eyes to land.
I sent him a slew of texts.
“Is this brain cancer?”
“Am I going to die?”
“I don’t want to die.”
“I’m so happy, and I haven’t been this happy since before Ro got sick.”
“I love our life together. I love our love and what it has created for us.”
“And now I’m going to have some terminal illness and die, and I cannot leave my kids without a mom.”
I didn’t care how irrational I sounded because I knew what would come next. It would be his arms, wrapped around me, talking me down from the ledge in the most rational way. In a way that only he can do. He knew just what to do with me and knew just how to handle all of my worst fears.
Woody drove us to the airport close to eleven p.m. To say I am thankful for him is the understatement of my life. No matter what has happened and how different things are now, to me, he will always walk on water. He is the best of the best, my best friend and the two of us are in a better place than we have been in such a long time. Honesty will do that to you, as well as being on the same page about the kind of family dynamic we want to exist in. Not caring about what other people think/judge or gossip about also helps. We are family and that will never change. On the way to pick up Mr. Sparkly Eyes, we spoke quietly about what had happened on the flight. Woody was calm and rational, which is the way I knew him to always be-even in the worst of moments. But I knew he was worried as fuck. Mr. Sparkly Eyes arrived, and we picked him up at the terminal’s curb. He looked concerned but gave me a quick hug and said, “Well, this is one fucking way to get me to Omaha.”
I laughed out loud for the first time that day.
“You scared the shit out of me. Let’s get you to the hotel; I know today has been horrific.”
I let him sit in the front with Woody while I listened to them talk about what had happened and the plans for the rest of the weekend.
The following morning, I woke up feeling like I had been in a horrific car accident. My entire body ached with pain I hadn’t ever felt before. I was exhausted, and my head still felt foggy, but there was no fucking way I was going to let that get in the way of moving Liam into his apartment. We spent the next two days getting him settled, and leaving him was as hard as I thought it would be. Poppy hugged him and sobbed goodbye. That in itself broke Woody and me. I was unprepared for how gut-wrenching this new life transition would be. I know this is a “win” in the parenting handbook of life, but it doesn’t make it any easier.
Monday morning, I found myself in the patient room of a Neurologist who is good friends with Mr. Sparkly Eyes. The three of us sat there for an hour while he asked questions and examined me. He was pleased my CT was normal but wanted an MRI and an EEG. Wednesday afternoon, I found myself in an MRI machine pondering my morbid question. When in life do we realize our mortality? It was at this moment that I was down a rabbit hole of my own.
I watched a reel of my life in my head. All that I had done and had yet to do. Ronan’s life. Ronan’s death. The always present grief that I had finally learned to accept and understand. My book is almost finished but has not yet been published for reasons I can’t discuss now. Fuck. My kids’ lives are going to be filled with so much pain because I’m going to fucking die. The thought of Liam and Quinn enduring another loss nearly sent me over the edge. Thinking about leaving Poppy on this earth… no fucking way. I know we are not in control of any of this. I know this because of Ronan, and I start to think about the end of his little life again. Did he know he was dying? Did he know he was going to be ripped from my arms? Did he know I would spend the rest of my time on earth waking up every morning, and my first thought is always, “How am I going to get through this day without him?” Eleven years later, my grief is even more present in my life, but I have learned the secret to nurturing it; it keeps me close to him. I start to spiral and panic, and just as I think I’m going to scream for the technician to let me out, a little voice fills my head.
“Stop it. Remember all the times Ronan would be in this machine, without anesthesia, holding completely still? Remember how brave he was? And he was only a baby. You are a full-blown fucking adult, so stop it. You don’t get to be scared, and even if you are, you don’t get to act like it.”
I closed my eyes and made it through the rest of my scan because of Ronan. I redressed and walked to the waiting room where Mr. Sparkly Eyes was. I asked him how long it would take to have my MRI read, and he told me probably a day or two. We went out to the car and drove to pick Poppy up from school. A couple of hours later, the images from my scan were uploaded to the portal. I could view the pictures, but because I’m not a doctor (duh), I had no idea what I was looking at.
I handed my phone to Mr. Sparkly Eyes so he could take a look. He looked at the images for a few minutes, said he couldn’t see anything abnormal, but made a phone call anyway. Ten minutes later, my results were read, and thank fucking Ro, my MRI was normal. MSE grabbed my hand and said, “Look at me. You’re going to be fine. You don’t have cancer. There is no brain bleed. Whatever this is, we will handle it together. This very well could have been a fluke, as the Neurologist said. That you are in the five percent of people who have an isolated seizure once in their life, and it never happens again.”
Usually, I would have the utmost confidence in his words, but my anxiety was at an all-time high, and I am generally not an anxious person. All these new feelings I was being flooded with were very unfamiliar to what I feel in my day-to-day life. I had one more test to do, an EEG, before I could confidently say nothing was seriously wrong, and I had to wait two weeks for that test to be done. After you have a seizure, it is a strict law in Arizona that you cannot drive for three months. Driving is one of my favorite things in life and a part of independence that is very important to me.
“But, AMY. I cannot drive for THREE MONTHS! Do you know what that means? All of my freedom is gone! No more road trips! No more coffee whenever I want it! No more driving in the car, blasting my music, however loud I want!”
I hear my new friend I met through an old friend, laughing on the other end of the phone. “Maya. You need to calm the fuck down and just pretend you are living the life of Taylor Swift, who is black car driven everywhere. This is great; this is a dream come true. I would love it if I had someone to drive my ass around at all times. ” Once she put things this way, my whole perspective changed.
I had one person to drive me around for the next three months, and I wasn’t sure how it was going to go, but the first couple of weeks went like this:
Starbucks orders while I leaned over his lap, and Poppy chimed in from the back. He would laugh and say, “What did I get myself into?” Making him laugh feels like I’m wrapped up in my favorite sweater on the perfect autumn day.
He takes Poppy to and from school. Some days with me and some days without. On the days I am not with them, I get a full report about what the two of them talked about and how “bloody funny, kind, and smart” my little girl is.
He drops me off at my swim team and goes to work out until I finish.
He drops me off for lunch with my girlfriends and sometimes joins us.
He takes me to my appointments—Poppy to her voice lessons, therapy, art class, drama, and other after-school activities.
He takes me to the grocery store where we shop together, and he marvels at my bizarre opinions about specific olives and pickles. We converse about which milk is best, but he always defers to my choice. He stays at home with me while I work and is my harshest critic and my biggest cheerleader.
But my favorite moments in the car are the sporadic dance parties. If he senses I am feeling anxious, worried, or annoyed with him over something stupid; his go-to is to blast Harry Styles. He moves his shoulders in a way that looks like he is dancing and begs me to dance with him. In these moments, I cannot resist his charm or his wicked smile. I have no power over myself, and I always laugh and dance with him. But then there are the quieter moments. Or the moments that he grabs my hand and says in that thick South African accent, “I am so madly in love with you. Because of you, I finally know what real love is. You have shown me what it is like to be loved truly.” These moments and all the quiet moments in between turn into deep conversations about life. This whole not being able to drive thing has turned into the most unexpected quality time. Not once has he made me feel like I am a burden, or that he is too busy, or I’m too demanding, or I take up too much space. He makes me feel imperfectly perfect, which is only one of the thousands of things he loves about me.
Can I end this here? This feels like an excellent place to stop for now, but I promise there is so much more of this story to come.
P.S. My EEG came back to normal. So, I am going to trust what the doctor has said and go with this as a fluke and a one-time thing. I do not have brain cancer. Or a brain bleed. Or Epilepsy. And I am not dying. But I also know that at any moment, life can change in an instant. So you can be sure that I am going to continue to live my life in a way where dance parties in a car full of laughter and love are a very regular thing.