From Chicken Soup for the Mother's Soul 2

Growing Up

Children are the anchors that hold a mother to life.


My mother had been reading me the story of The Borrowers, tiny visitors who hid in the nooks and crannies of a house. Captivated, I had set up a tiny dining room under a bookcase with dollhouse furniture. For weeks, I’d left out crumbs and a little bowl of water—the cap of the ketchup bottle—before I went to bed. Each morning before school, I would check to see if the Borrowers had returned. The water and crumbs would be gone. Sometimes there would even be a minuscule thank-you note left for me.

At nine, I should probably have been too old to really believe in the Borrowers. And though I suspected that my tiny visitors might be my mother’s doing, I still held on to my belief that they just might be real. Then one day I came home from school, and my mother was gone. So were the Borrowers.

“Mommy is very sick,” my father said to me, his usually bright blue eyes looking tired and sad. “She’s going to be in the hospital for a while until she gets better. Her kidneys aren’t working right, and the doctors are going to make her better, but it’s going to be a few weeks until you can see her because the doctors need that time to fix everything, okay?”

At first it seemed almost like a holiday. Everyone was especially nice to me; my father made my favorite meals or we would go out to dinner. He would bring home letters from my mother, “Make sure you ask Daddy to help you brush your hair; once the knots start, they are so hard to brush out.” My hair, fine and wavy, was prone to tangles.

“Why can’t I go and see Mommy?” I would ask him.

But his answer was always the same, “Not yet. She’s too weak right now . . . but soon.”

It was difficult to imagine my mother weak. We went swimming together every day in the summer, walking the five or so miles to the community pool and back again. Sometimes we chased each other around the house playing tag until the downstairs neighbors became so aggravated they would bang on the ceiling for us to stop. Then we’d collapse on the floor from laughing so hard, each of us trying in vain to be quiet.

And no matter how busy she was, she always had enough time to sit on the floor and play dolls with me. In her games, my dolls were never just going to parties, they were architects or doctors, or even running for Congress! I was probably the only nine-year-old whose mother introduced her to Jane Eyre and Gone with the Wind. I would read a bit of the book each day, and we would sit and discuss it over tea and cookies.

“The women in these books are strong, Lisa. They go through very difficult situations and learn that they can take care of themselves,” my mother would tell me. She admired the strength in Jane and Scarlett, and she wanted me to value it as well.

But then things had begun to change. More often I would get up in the morning to fix my own breakfast, or come home from school to find a neighbor waiting to bring me to her home after school. Sometimes my parents would be in their bedroom talking with the door closed. The day the Borrowers stopped coming, I knew something was really wrong.

With my mother gone, I noticed that my father rarely went into my parents’ bedroom anymore. I’d sometimes get up in the middle of night and find him lying asleep on the couch in the flickering light of the television, still in his work clothes. Pulling the blanket up over him and turning off the TV, I was a girl who was growing up. A girl who no longer believed in the Borrowers.

“Daddy?” I asked my father one day, “Is Mommy going to die?” He looked at me for what seemed forever, then grabbed my arms and pulled me to him. “Maybe,” he said and then lowered his head and began to weep. I wrapped my arms around his neck and held him close. We sat there and cried, for the first time, together.

Then he told me that my mother had been diagnosed with end-stage renal failure, which meant that her kidneys had failed and that unless she had a kidney transplant, she would probably die. In the early 1970s, dialysis as a treatment for renal failure was in its early stages. My mother was at the County Medical Center where they had access to new medical technology. It had been touch-and-go for several weeks, and at times it appeared as though they might have waited too long to be able to help my mother. I told my father I wanted to see her.

At the hospital, my father shouted at the nurse at the desk in the intensive care unit, “I don’t care if it’s not allowed.”

“It will be too disturbing for the child,” the nurse said to my dad in a low voice, motioning for him to lower his voice as well.

My father walked over to me where I was sitting on a bench against the wall. “Listen, Honey, I’m going to go and talk to the chief of staff about you seeing your mommy. Sit here and draw me a picture, and I’ll be back in a few minutes, okay?” I nodded my head and watched him walk off down the hall with the nurse.

The large double doors had the words “Only Medical Staff Allowed” written on them in large bold letters. A sign in front of the bench said “Children under fifteen not admitted.” The sounds coming from behind the double doors frightened me and the thought that my mother was in there frightened me even more.

But as I sat there, my fear dissolved and I became angrier and angrier. Who were these strangers to keep me away from my mother? Scarlett O’Hara wouldn’t have sat by and let people tell her what she could and couldn’t do. My mother was behind that door, and I was going to go in and find her.

Putting both hands on one side of the ICU door, I pushed as hard as I could. Inside, bright fluorescent lights illuminated the room, people in white scurried around and loud beeping filled the air. Without knowing how I knew, I turned to my right and started to walk toward a bed where most of the activity was being focused. No one seemed to notice me.

The woman on the bed seemed very small and was surrounded by tubes and machines with blinking lights. She looked like my mother, except paler and smaller than I remembered. Her eyes were closed and her long dark hair was spread out on her pillow.

“She’s not responding!” a white-coated man shouted.

“Her pressure is too low,” a nurse shouted back to the man in the white coat.

“Mommy,” I said quietly, then again louder. “Mommy?”

People started running over to me. “Get her out of here!” bellowed the man in the white coat.

“Wait!” shouted the nurse and motioned for me to come over. As I walked over to my mother, everyone stepped back except for the man in the white coat who tried to grab my shoulder. The nurse standing by the bed put her hand up to stop him.

“Look,” she said, glancing down at my mother.

My mother had opened her eyes. “Lisa?” She turned her head to look at me and smiled. The frenetic beeping seemed to slow down.

“Mommy, it’s me.” I stood next to the bed, wanting to crawl in beside her despite the machines and tubes all around her.

“Come here.” She raised her arms, and I let her wrap her arms around me. “Don’t be scared by all of this. These machines are going to make me better. We’ll have one in our house, and I’ll be able to come home to stay.” Frowning ever so slightly, she added, “Has anyone been helping you brush your hair?” Laughter from behind me reminded me that we weren’t alone. Doctors and nurses were standing around watching us, many with tears in their eyes.

They knew, though I didn’t, that only moments ago my mother had actually died. Later she told me that she remembered seeing a young woman lying on a hospital bed connected to tubes and machines. She felt very sorry for the woman until she realized that she was looking at herself and, for the first time in months, she felt no pain or discomfort. In what seemed like a movie, she remembered seeing people rush over to her to try and resuscitate her.

“I felt such peace, such happiness. I didn’t want to be that woman on the bed anymore until I heard a girl’s voice that said ‘Mommy?’”

When she realized that the voice was mine, she knew that she had to come back. I’m sure that if I hadn’t violated hospital policy and been there to call her back, things would have turned out very differently.

Soon after, my mother came home, along with a dialysis machine that became a permanent part of our family. And although the Borrowers never returned, I didn’t need them anymore. I was a girl who could brush the tangles out of her own hair. I could fix a meal or two without any help. I was a girl who still had her mother. And that was the most important part.

Lisa Duffy-Korpics

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