The last thing I did before leaving Shanghai for a three-day trip to Beijing was email the name and phone number of the hotel that I would be staying at to my dad and my boyfriend of three years, in case of emergency. I warned them that I probably wouldn’t have Internet until I got back to Shanghai a couple of days later. Then, with a dozen of my closest friends from study abroad this past summer, I took a bullet train to China’s capital.
I wish I could say that sometime during the trip I went to an Internet café or even paid to use the hotel’s WiFi for an hour. I wish I could say that I had seen my dad’s email for me just a few hours after he sent it, but instead I left the hotel early every morning and stayed out late each night.
We had less than a week left in China, and we wanted to make it last forever. After a whirlwind trip of exploring everything from the Great Wall to the Forbidden City to Beijing’s nightclubs, we arrived back in Shanghai, exhausted. As we walked into our dorm, I felt my phone vibrate as it connected to the university’s WiFi and downloaded all my unread emails. While waiting in the lobby for the elevator, I took it out of my bag to see what I had missed. What I saw made my blood run cold. An email from my father read:
Please call me as soon as you get this. [Boyfriend] called and asked me to let you know his mother suffered a brain aneurysm. It was a particularly severe rupture and she is in a coma. [Boyfriend] said he may be hard to reach while in the hospital. I’m sorry to give you the news this way but it is the middle of the night and [boyfriend] couldn’t reach you on the phone numbers you had given us before the trip.
After (literally) picking myself up off of the floor, I immediately went to my room to try to reach my boyfriend. He Skyped me from the hospital and explained the situation: the burst artery had caused a fluid buildup and clogged her brain’s drainage system, the resulting pressure of which sent her into cardiac arrest.
Because his parents were divorced, all medical decisions fell into my boyfriend’s hands. He had two choices: he could either have the doctors aggressively treat the aneurysm, which would prevent it from bursting again but leave her in a persisting vegetative state, or he could let her have as comfortable of a death as possible.
He decided to allow nature to run its course and let his mom pass with minimal pain. I am extremely thankful that he was able to make this decision with a clear conscience. When he was a teenager, his mother battled breast cancer and had told him that, if anything were to happen, she never wanted to be completely supported by machines. At the same time, because we are both orthodox Jews, he had to take into account what Halakha (Jewish law) required of him in order to respect the value of her life. By choosing not to pursue aggressive measures, he was able to respect her wishes while not causing her death.
The week between finding out about his mom’s aneurysm and my flight home was one of the longest weeks of my life. I tried to be as supportive as I could while I was on the other side of the world, but I blamed myself for being unable to get home. After taking my final exams, I had Shabbat one last time at a synagogue in Shanghai, and boarded a plane for the States that Sunday afternoon.
My original flight itinerary had me scheduled to fly from Shanghai to Chicago, and then have a short layover before my flight to Austin, where my boyfriend and a couple of friends of ours were supposed to drive from Houston to meet me for a night of partying on Sixth Street. I was supposed to take my final flight home to Dallas the next morning. However, I needed to get to Houston as soon as possible. Immediately after going through customs, I went to the service desk to try to get home to Dallas that night so that I could immediately drive to Houston the next morning.
After a three-hour layover, much of which was spent on the phone with my boyfriend, I boarded a flight to Dallas. My dad picked me up around one o’clock in the morning, and as soon as I got home I wolfed down some guacamole and fell asleep. I was unable to change my flight before my luggage was put on a plane to Austin, so I woke up early to pick up my bags from the airport, and began the nearly five-hour drive to Houston.
To this day, I do not know how my jetlagged self did not fall asleep at the wheel and crash in a fiery blaze. Fueled on energy drinks and adrenaline, I arrived in Houston shortly after noon. After a mishap of going to the wrong hospital, I found my way to my boyfriend’s mom’s room in the Intensive Care Unit.
I was still recovering from the mixed emotions of seeing my boyfriend for the first time in months combined with reverse culture shock, but all of those distractions went out the window when I saw her lying comatose in the hospital bed. Instantly, a flood of memories from twelve years before came rushing back.
When I was nine, my mother unexpectedly went into cardiac arrest at the alarmingly young age of thirty-six. She was comatose for a week. Throughout that time, I have only a few vivid memories, as most of it was a blur: my father trying to wake her by playing her favorite song (“What a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong), my first time seeing a grandparent cry as my dad’s father broke down into tears in the waiting room, and an especially chilling memory trying to hold my mom’s hand, which was lukewarm and heavy because she wasn’t awake to animate it.
After just under a week, she was declared brain dead, and my father chose to donate the usable organs that she had left.
Seeing my boyfriend’s mother in a coma forced me to confront my own issues about my mother’s death. Their situations were eerily similar: unexpected cardiac arrest followed by a coma. I felt deeply for my boyfriend’s little sister, who was just ten years old – only one year older than I was when my mom died.
My boyfriend and his grandmother left the room to meet with a worker from the hospice care center because his mother was holding on longer than the doctors thought she would, and could remain in a vegetative state for an indefinite amount of time. I found myself alone in the hospital room with her. I stroked her arm gently and told her that I would watch after and take care of her son and her daughter. I told her that we all loved her and wanted her to wake up. I cried softly, the memories of my own mother swirling around in my mind.
A short time later, a nurse came into the room to check her vital signs. She told me she couldn’t find a pulse. I sat there quietly, not realizing what that meant at first. And then it hit me: my boyfriend’s mom had passed while alone with me. The nurse went to get my boyfriend, who ran into the room, crying. A few minutes later, a heavily pregnant doctor came into the room to call the time of death. It was all over.
I don’t pretend to know why things happen the way they do. I trust that it is all a part of a larger, clearer picture that we just can’t see yet. I have faith that there is good in everything that is seemingly bad. We have a choice on how we react to the situations that we find ourselves in. And, at that moment, I knew I was placed in that situation for a reason. I’d like to think that my boyfriend’s mom waited until I was back to pass so that I could be there for her son.
It is now almost a year later, and Mother’s Day is on Sunday. My boyfriend, his sister and I have plans to spend it at the zoo. While his sister isn’t ready to talk about her mom’s death now, I know that, like it did for me, the stress of the memories will inevitably catch up to her in the future. I will be there for her when that time comes, and she will know that she is not alone in this journey.