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a woman covering her face while she does a yoga pose in a dress
Kristine Lassen
January 7, 2022

I Can't Fix It

I know how to talk to people who are grieving, yet not under these circumstances.

I turn to her at a stoplight, her beautiful profile drawn with worry and sadness. I hate seeing the agony on her face. I reach for her hand.

“There he is,” my daughter says to me, pointing to a middle-aged man with a baseball cap. He walks through the hospital doors, onto the sidewalk toward the three of us. Only his eyes are visible above his mask. Tired. Bloodshot. Worried.

I’ve agonized about what to say to him all morning. I know how to talk to people who are grieving, yet not under these circumstances. Not when I know his son. Not when my daughter is in love with his son. His son, who is thirty-six hours post a traumatic brain injury that has him in a medically induced coma, one that could last anywhere from another week to the rest of his life. This is completely different.

He pulls down his mask and reaches out to shake my ex-husband’s hand. “I’m S. Sorry we had to meet under these circumstances…” His voice trails off. I remind myself not to cry. I remind myself to be strong for my daughter. She is why I’m here.

“Hi, I’m Doug,” my ex says as the two men shake hands. S turns to me. I reach out my hand and take his, my stomach in turmoil. “Hi, I’m Doug,” I say. My daughter gasps. S looks at me, back to Doug, confused. “You’re both Doug?” he asks, his hand still in mine. I squeeze it tighter, making everything more uncomfortable.

“No,” I say and close my eyes, wishing I could hit rewind. “I’m Kristine. Not Doug.” My hand remains in his, well beyond what is socially appropriate. I’m mortified. Of all the ways I thought this might play out, calling myself by my ex-husband’s name is not on the list. “Thanks for arranging this meeting,” I say, releasing his hand, and any thought of recovering gracefully. 

“They’re waiting for us on the fourth floor. The Palliative care social worker will answer your questions. Then we can go see J.”

J. I don’t want to see him this way. I don’t. Not with tubes and wires and a pulse oximeter and his heart rhythm on display on the screen above his head. If I see him, I’ll know how bad it is and how bad it could be. I’d rather remain ignorant, with my imagination substituting for reality. I don’t want to accept that his condition may not be fixable and what that means for my daughter. What it means for me. What kind of mother am I if I can’t fix something for my child?

I answered her call two days ago, early for a college student on a Saturday morning.

“Mom?” she says, and I know. The time of day, the quiver in her voice. I take a deep breath.

“Are you okay?” I ask, trying not to betray my triple digit heart rate and quickened breathing.

“It’s not me. It’s J. There was an accident. I’m not sure what happened. I found him on the ground. He was bleeding. He didn’t respond. And now he’s in the ICU.” Her staccato sentences break into tears.

I feel like throwing up. I want her here, in front of me so that I can hug her, or do something, anything, to take that fear out of her voice. I want to rush in. I want to fix it. I want to make it better.

“Mags,” I exhale. “I’m so sorry.” Relief and guilt and fear creep in as my breathing stabilizes. The news is awful, but it’s not Maggie. She’s safe. But the person she loves is not. My mind ricochets back and forth and sideways—images of J in the ICU flash before me, interrupting thoughts of Maggie and the trauma she’s amid and what I can do. I feel helpless, handcuffed, unable to do anything that this Mama Bear wants to do. I’m eleven hundred miles away. My child is hurting, and it’s big. How do I fix this?

Brain injury. Fuck. Of all things. My mind goes to my own early days as a physical therapist working with this patient population. I remember names and faces and methods of injury, and the fear and hope on the faces of family members. They looked to me for something, anything, that would return their loved ones to them. They wanted miracles, and despite employing all the latest treatment techniques with the zeal of a young clinician, I couldn’t deliver. Wishes and dreams were recalibrated over and over and over. Grief searched for a final resting place. Their faces flash in my mind now as I think of J—the young woman who fell off a moped while vacationing in Mexico and would never become a mother; the teenager whose hopes for college were dashed when the driver of the car she was in mixed up the gas and the brake; and the grandmother who laughed uncontrollably at the wrong times and squeezed people’s noses without warning. I couldn’t fix them. Nobody could.

I wonder how many times my daughter would have to recalibrate and grieve. I wonder how I will be able to watch things unfold with my hands tied.

“You don’t have to come down, Mom,” she says in a phone call later that Saturday morning, her voice and words are incongruent.

“I’m coming down. I’ll leave today and be there tomorrow.”

         “You really don’t have to. It’s fine. I can handle this.”

No, she can’t, but shock and burgeoning independence and a will that made her potty training a nightmare are all allowing her to function. Coming at her head-on is out of the question.

“Maggie. This is big.” I choose my words carefully. It’s early, way too early, to know what the outcome will be. Although hundreds of scenarios play out in my imagination, most of them influenced by my clinical experience and met with my penchant for catastrophizing, I can’t share them with her. “At the very least, I can feed you.” She pauses. “Okay.”

We walk down the hall toward the elevators, the shiny floors extend out in front of us, people in masks milling around. The smell is unmistakable, despite the three cloth layers covering my nose—a toxic mix of cafeteria food, industrial cleaner, sickness and worry waft in the air. I tuck in beside my daughter and squeeze her hand. For the first time since she was little, she squeezes back.

We take our seats in a small room designed for this kind of meeting. The room is filled with comfy couches and chairs. Boxes of Kleenex rest within arm’s reach of every seat. Maggie and I sit close to the social worker. She wears enviable hammered gold earrings and bangle bracelets. Under different circumstances, I would ask her where she found such pieces.

She leans forward and speaks with a kind voice and precise words. For the first time, I find myself on the other side of one of these meetings. I’m not the clinician today—no, today I sit with the patient’s family. I know what she’s up against—giving information without false hope. Leaving room for the yet-to-be-determined outcome while being as concrete as possible.

Maggie asks her questions with clarity and composure. I want to weep at her strength and compassion in the face of a crushing collection of unknowns. My heart feels like bursting.

When my turn comes, I say, “I know that J is in excellent hands here, and there is a lot we don’t know. I’m concerned for Maggie and what she’s going through. I want to know how I can support her.”

The social worker turns to my daughter and explains how this is her trauma as well and that her healing was just as important as J’s. She tells Maggie, in no uncertain terms, that she can’t fix J. All she can do is focus on her own well-being. Maggie can’t get so wrapped up in his healing and pain that she neglects her own.

She and Maggie exchange numbers. “Text me anytime,” she says. “And I’ll give you the names of some clinicians who specialize in trauma.”

I exhale, and my body relaxes for the first time in days. The words are what I want Maggie to hear, what I want to say, but a trained professional, not her mom, speaks them. Surely this advice carries more weight when administered by a kind professional with enviable jewelry than from a mom from whom she is in the process of separating. Maggie nods in agreement.

We drive from the hospital in silence, exhausted and hungry. The social worker’s words roll around in my mind, taking shape and gaining weight and taking hold. I realize that I need them as much as Maggie does. She and I are on parallel paths—powerless as we watch someone we care about in pain. Grieving. Scared. Unable to fix anything. No amount of worry or teeth-gnashing or love is going to make this any easier for her. I can’t clear this path. She must navigate this on her own. I can’t make it better.

I turn to her at a stoplight, her beautiful profile drawn with worry and sadness. I hate seeing the agony on her face. I reach for her hand.

“If I could take this hurt away from you, I would. I would carry it in a heartbeat if that was possible. I can’t fix this. You can’t love J enough to make him better, and I can’t love you enough to keep you from hurting. I wish I could.”

“I know, Mom,” she says.  I fight back tears as I drive, my own words settling into my bones. I can’t fix this. I have to watch her go through something devastating and hard without being able to make it better. As a mother, this is crushing. And necessary. I need to put my own need to fix this and my own discomfort at seeing her hurting aside so that she can figure this out. I need to support her in a way that doesn’t impede her growth. I need to recognize the gift here, an opportunity for me to see my daughter as an adult and know that the only way she can learn to survive and thrive in this thing called life is for me to allow her to do so. I know this, and I hate it. I just want to wash the wound and put a Hello Kitty Band-Aid on it and make it better. She outgrew that a long time ago.

When we get back to her apartment, I cook dinner, making extra for the freezer, and we snuggle on the couch watching Elf in April and laugh at all the places she has loved since she was four. Over the next few days, I sit with her on the couch, in the car, in the waiting room, by J’s bedside. We watch endless Friends re-runs—I can quote full episodes. I stock her kitchen with her favorite rotisserie chicken, Mom-cooked meals, and banana bread.

I stay until Maggie tells me she’s ready for me to leave, well before we know the outcome. She makes an appointment with a therapist, rallies her friends, returns to classes, creates some semblance of normalcy for herself. She is as well-equipped as she can be for the weeks and months ahead. I’m amazed as I watch her do this.

“I’m glad you came, Mom. Thank you,” she says on my final night, hugging me tight.

“I’m glad, too.”

I leave Maggie spent, yet less anxious and helpless. The risk for introducing myself as Doug is gone. I know she has food for at least a week. I drive away more confident that regardless of what happens to J, Maggie will be okay.

It took something so big, so unfixable, for me to realize that my ability to fix things with a Band-Aid and a kiss or a cup of hot chocolate diminishes with every step Maggie takes away from the nest. It took something so catastrophic for me to see that perhaps it is my discomfort that I am trying to smooth over, something that serves nobody in the long run. It took something so out of my purview for me to see that sometimes the best thing I can do as a mother is to walk beside and not in front of my child.

I can’t fix this or her or J or any of the other curve balls that life will hurl at her.

Turns out, I don’t have to.

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