“I will make everything around me beautiful – that will be my life.”
-Elsie de Wolfe
My Nora is asleep. Finally, after six days of treatment in this hospital bed – IV antibiotics, oxygen support, steroids and respiratory therapy – she’s breathing comfortably. Her long, five-year-old’s leg presses beside my longer, mom leg. I give her room but stay so close I feel her heart and hear each squeak or rattle or hum in her breaths.
A bluegrass song plays through my earbuds. I’ve been listening to this playlist on and off this whole hospital week. I found it the day Nora was admitted.
She was asleep then too, exhausted from fever, vomiting, seizing, and trying to breathe. I was tucked up next to her to help with on again off again, intense coughing, and intermittent, vomiting. I knew I needed to close my eyes, especially after the buzz of the emergency room downstairs; I also knew that, even though I’d been awake since 4:00 AM and it was well past noon, our day at the hospital was just beginning.
I needed music in my ears, I needed a few deep breaths, and, I needed whomever was about to walk through Nora’s hospital room door next, to carefully consider the absolute necessity of nudging awake a potentially sleeping mom with traces of vomit on her tank top.
It was a very long week. But, now, Nora’s lungs hum, peaceful and healed. I try to rest.
Inhale. Exhale. But I don’t sleep. I stare at the butterfly poster hanging from a tiny, strategically placed command hook. I knew when I bought the picture for my home, it would be easy to take down from any wall, roll up, like a large map (the kind Columbus probably used to chart unexplored territory), and pack for the hospital — a small, portable, piece of our home to make my butterfly-loving daughter smile.
I look over to the Dixie cup full of wildflowers on the counter – yellow and white, only yellow and white. I picked them for Nora earlier in the week, from the side of the road, on my run from the hospital to an airfield and back again. I attempted the same running route, just two days ago, but instead found myself crying on the side of the road as a complete stranger pulled tight to the curb to ask me “Are you okay?” Of course, I wasn’t ok. She knew it. I knew it. Every car driving by probably knew it… I start to imagine what I must have looked like, hunched over, sobbing on the side of the road, crying before God and the universe….
I shudder. “So embarrassing,” I whisper out loud as I unsuccessfully attempt to push the memory out of my head. Suddenly, I’m reaching, carefully so as not to wake Nora, to grab my “Ronald McDonald House Charities” baseball cap. I quickly position the hat on my head, brim pointed downward, trying to cover as much of my face as possible. As if somehow, someway, the hat might be able to disguise me from me…. or at least hide me away from the memory of me being me.
I peer out from under my baseball cap, looking again towards the mirror and the Dixie cup full of wildflowers by the sink. My eyes catch the green miniature whiskey bottle, filled with water. It also holds a single, largely out of proportion, yellow wildflower. Just yellow. I push the thought away and think instead about the month. April. And the year, 2019. I thought, by this time in my life I’d have it all figured out. I’d always assumed, in my twenties, that I’d enter into this month with complete confidence in exactly who I am. I turn thirty in days.
I carefully move myself off Nora’s bed and crawl on top of my sleeping bag. Hat low, music high, attempting to hide from the memory of me being me but also, from the quickly approaching reality of becoming future 30-year-old me. Suddenly, mid song — the music stops. I lift the brim of my hat to check my now vibrating phone as a picture of Annaliese, my BFF since 7th grade and my maid of honor, lights up the screen.
My thoughts race. Oh God, she must have read the blog post from yesterday, A Note to the Woman Who Pulled Over for the Sobbing Runner, and now she’s worried about me. Of course, she’s worried! I would be worried too if she were posting weepy thank you notes to strangers on the internet! I know Annaliese only calls, or I only call Annaliese, if something is incredibly important, life altering or, as some of our favorite conversations tend to be, if something is incredibly and ridiculously unimportant. Not to say we aren’t in close communication, we just almost only text one another, especially because we are rarely in the same time zone, or even country for that matter.
Our texting this week started on my way (back) to the ER with Nora, who was feverish and struggling for breath in her car seat, an oxygen cannula across her face and tucked behind her ears. The tank was wedged between the captain seats while a pulse oximeter alarmed loudly in the passenger seat next to me. I was at a stop light, a few blocks from children’s hospital, when I decided to send Annaliese a quick, insightful, non-dramatic, incredibly mature text: “Today sucks and I miss you.”
Later I saw she had texted me back a selfie, a floral scarf wrapped around her neck, wearing red lipstick and blowing a kiss, with the self-deprecating caption (because she knew she looked stunning) “Hobbit hands hold big kisses” and asked for a Nora update. I sent her a medical update, along with a picture of me, in cut-off denim shorts, tank top and pink roller skates on the fourth floor of a medical “employees only” parking garage, nearby Children’s Hospital.
She gave me a much needed confidence boost (because my face and eyes were incredibly swollen and puffy from lack of sleep) when she replied “LOOK AT THOSE LEGS GISELLE!!” which of course, also made me a little embarrassed and reminded me why I rarely wear high waisted, cut-off shorts and roller skates in clinical settings, especially as I think through how many impromptu medical conversations I happened to have this week in shredded denim, either wearing my roller skates, or with my roller skates strung around my shoulders. I tug at the brim of my hat, pulling it close to my nose, again attempting to hide me from me and duck further down into the sleeping bag.
The phone continues to ring.
“Thank God it’s you,” I tell her when I finally answer. “You are quite honestly, one of the only people who could possibly understand my current situation.”
I hear Annaliese’s laughter fill my earbuds.
“Explain,” she states.
“Well, it’s the middle of the afternoon, and I am lying on Nora’s hospital room floor, on top of a sleeping bag and staring at a Dixie cup filled with wildflowers, and a travel size whisky bottle I’m using as a bud vase.”
Again, I hear laughter erupt in my earbuds, then “YESSS Jess! The vase! I love that.”
I laugh too. “Okay but wait, it gets better…” I say as I slowly pull myself up and readjust my hat, just a fraction of an inch, enough to see Nora, still sleeping in her bed.
I hunch back down on my sleeping bag and lower my voice to a whisper, and tell Annaliese, “I’m currently wearing a 1950’s retro pink Ronald Mc Donald House cap that matches my roller skates.”
We simultaneously explode with laughter until I say, still giggling, “When I wrote that post, The Woman Who Ate Cat Food on Christmas Eve, about befriending the horrifying Ronald McDonald statue, I think I truly, actually, brought him to life.”
Again, we both explode with laughter. I continue.
“The other day, when I was walking back to the hospital, from my run/cry on the side of the road…”
I hear silence in my earbuds, the I’m-actually-concerned-about-you type of silence. I know she is waiting … wondering… if I am okay after crying on the side of the road. After all, it wasn’t all that long ago.
I continue my story, “I was still on again, off again tearing up but I ended up with a second wave of sobs as I passed this beautiful patch of side-of-the-road wildflowers. When I had run by earlier, I made a mental note to stop to pull a purple flower for Nora, purple is her favorite color, and I’d only gathered yellow and white the other day.
But when I left the hospital for my run, she still hadn’t really even woken up fully for the day. She had opened her eyes for a minute, but she wasn’t really able to track or focus on the things and people around her. And when I passed the patch of flowers and thought about her, all groggy and sick in bed, I realized, she probably wouldn’t be alert enough to focus on the flower, she probably wouldn’t smile or reach for it, like she would when she is healthy, alert and happy.
The tears kept coming as I thought about my little girl being so sick from everything this week that she wouldn’t be able focus on her favorite purple color or smile at beautiful things like wildflowers. It just hit me so hard because it feels like she’s had so many groggy, sick days like that these past few months.”
I pause and take a deep breath. Inhale. Exhale.
“I didn’t bother to pick the flower. I just kept walking – without the purple flower – which of course brought more waves of tears and by the time I got close to the hospital, I was completely exhausted. I knew I needed a minute; I knew I needed to sit down, probably before I fell down. On the way back to the hospital from the airfield, there is a second Ronald Mc Donald fiberglass statue. Of course, he’s just casually sitting on a bench with his big red shoe crossed over his leg, happy as can be under a shady tree. I was still crying, but in that moment, I decided I better just sit down and collect myself before walking back to Nora’s room.
I sat down and took a few breaths. I wiped my face, and texted Tyler, who’s been super sick too at home all week, ‘I’m crying on a bench next to Ronald Mc Donald, it’s time to trade.’ He texted back ‘I’m on my way.’ which instantly made me feel a whole lot better. But when I was ready to head back to Nora’s room, the most surprising thing happened: as I stood up, I did this quick double tap on the top of Ronald’s red shoe like, ‘We’re in this together, Ron. See you out there my friend.’”
Again, we both explode with laughter.
I tell her, “I’ve been going over to Ronald McDonald House every morning for breakfast and a newspaper. The pink hat is my prize. I bought it!”
“I just love that it matches your roller skates.”
“Right?! I don’t know what I would have done this week without my roller skates and that parking garage – it’s my hospital self-care. And also, I skated through the hospital hallways for a quick second the other day…”
“Wait. What!!??” She says, already laughing as I dive into the story, “In retrospect, I’m not sure I would do it again. But in that moment, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world. I was late. I had just walked up to the parking garage, laced up my skates and put my helmet on, when my mom who was with Nora, called to tell me the doctor was walking into the room. I was sure he would (probably) wait for me to get back to the room if my mom asked, but I thought I ought to also do the decent thing and hurry back, and since skating is faster than a quick sprint in flip flops, I just went with it.
I hear Annaliese begin to laugh in my earbuds.
“I took the elevator down to the first floor of the parking garage and skated over to the hospital, through Subway, and into the elevator up to Nora’s room. I chose not to make eye contact with anyone, so I’m not really sure how people reacted to the whole situation, which was all well and good until I skated into Nora’s room and saw the doctor, standing near the sink, also somehow, perfectly positioned to see my wildflower whisky bottle bud vase near the mirror which gave me this feeling of extreme panic in tandem with this liberating sense of freedom as I realized, “There is absolutely no coming back from this.”
Laughter explodes in my earbuds as I smile and say, “Okay but wait, wait, wait. The story gets better…”
“Tell me,” she says, still laughing.
“So when I got into the room, I sat on Nora’s bed and began to unlace my skates as the doctor said something clever about checking hospital policy regarding roller skates, which made me smile. I replied with something along the lines of, “I’ve kind of been dying to skate in the hospital, these floors are so slick”.
Laughter fills my earbuds as I say, “slick, Annaliese. I used the word SLICK. Like I’m a 1950’s greaser? Does anyone use that word?”
Annaliese is still laughing, but then suddenly stops as I shift my tone and say, “But can I be serious about this for a minute?”
Listening silence fills my earbuds as I continue to talk:
“Annaliese, I am turning thirty in twelve days. Thirty. And, I’m lying on a sleeping bag in the middle of the day on my daughter’s hospital room floor and staring at a whisky bottle bud vase. Not only that, I roller skate in parking garages and occasionally through hospital hallways. I decorate with wildflowers in Dixie cups and now, apparently, I cry on the side of the road so hard that people feel compelled to give me their contact information. AND I’m wearing a pink Ronald Mc Donald hat to congratulate myself for finally finding the courage to walk across the street for a decent meal while my daughter is in the hospital, after eating almost-cat food and trail mix for like four years. Who would actually choose to live like that? And, on top of it all, I frequent the word ‘slick’? Isn’t this the opposite of what anyone might hope for thirty? Or any age for that matter?”
I stop talking and start to pull the Ronald McDonald hat down down down down over my eyes, completely hiding my face. I absorb Annaliese’s long, steady, silence though my earbuds. Until she says, clearly and firmly:
“Jesse. Freaking. Rauch. This is all just you. It’s so you. And, I love you for it. All of it. Take a second and look at your life! You have made everything around you beautiful.”
I open my eyes and slowly lift the brim of my hat, looking up to my right, at the butterfly picture and tell her, “I brought a giant butterfly canvas to the hospital for Nora.”
“There you have it,” she states.
“And, I adhered a tiny command hook to the bathroom door to hang it…” I say as I start to smile, “I’m probably not supposed to do that…”
We both laugh as Annaliese says, “Well, how else were you supposed to hang a picture in her room?”
I laugh as she says, “I have to tell you Jess, thirty is weird. I’m in it and I can’t believe it either. I’m so bummed I won’t be there to celebrate your birthday… but Drew and I decided we are moving back to California in June, so I’ll be home soon.”
“Wait really!? This is incredible news!! That’s so soon!! We’ll celebrate both our birthdays then.”
“So…” I say cautiously, “The real question is, are you going to roller skate with me?”
“I’m so down,” she says, “I’ll keep an eye out for a pair.” Then, “How much longer do you think Nora will be in the hospital?”
“That’s a great question. I talked to the doctor yesterday about getting her home today or tomorrow. I’ve decided, and I know, she’s ready today so I packed us up this morning. But I left the butterfly poster up and a few of Nora’s things out to remind myself to be polite and collaborative about the whole process.”
“God you’re amazing, I can’t wait to hear about your great escape! Give Nora big kisses for me, love you Jess!”
“I will, love you back,” I tell her.
I hang up the phone as the bluegrass playlist suddenly resumes through my earbuds. I stare out from under the brim of my hat, at the yellow-only wildflower in a whisky bottle bud vase.
“Thirty…” I say quietly as I adjust my hat to cover my face and eyes, staring into a glowing dome of 1950’s retro pink.
I thought I’d have it all figured out. But I never could have guessed that I might enjoy running, roller skating, whisky, wildflowers or a bluegrass playlist. And today, in this moment on the hospital floor, I know I wouldn’t trade my heart-people, story, life, faith and who I am, or who I am becoming, for anything. And I know without a shadow of a doubt, I am not interested in my daughter and I staying here, in the final few days of my twenties, on the cusp of thirty, to overthink my unexpected use of the word “slick.”
“Who even cares?” I suddenly say out loud, “Slick is a great word.” Then think to myself, AND it deserves to make a comeback. Along with mom’s on roller skates, Ronald Mc Donald, 1950’s retro pink, and the good old-fashioned emotional breakdown on the side of the road.
Suddenly, I’m sitting up. I lift my hat completely up off my head and set it on top of my sleeping bag. I take my headphones out of my ears, pull my knees up to my chin and tightly wrap my arms around my legs. I look at Nora, breathing breathing breathing, so beautifully. I look up towards the sink, to the Dixie cup full of yellow and white side-of-the-road wildflowers. I decide that beautiful things like purple wildflowers will always and forever be worth going back for. For Nora, and for me. Whether I’m walking or running, crying or laughing, I want to claim faith and courage by doubling back, as many times as it takes, to share hope and beauty with the people in my life. I want to pick each purple wildflower.
And then, suddenly and all at once, I know – the best is yet to come.