I’m driving south on Interstate 5 and an ambulance, with lights flashing, in the fast lane, is headed north on Interstate 5.
I watch it come closer and then start to cry. Fighting the tears. Biting my lip. Willing the tears to just.go.away.
Then I cry.
It happens the exact same way EVERY SINGLE TIME.
My mom’s been gone 8 years and I still have this gut-grief reaction to seeing an ambulance. It always startles me for a moment. Then…. bear with me… it oddly comforts me.
Maybe it’s more accurate to say that I continue to get more comfortable with the fact that grief never leaves me. And I finally understand that deep grief comes with deep love…
I’ll try to explain what I mean…
We live in a small(ish) valley. The major hospitals are North of us, in Portland. An ambulance driving north with lights on means someone from a smaller hospital in an outlying community in our valley is critically ill (not lifeflight-ill, but small-hospital-can’t-handle-the-complexity-ill) and headed for help.
My mom was in one of those ambulances in January about 8 years ago.
And it was the last time she was ever on Interstate 5. It was a one-way ride. None of us ever entertained the thought that she would never see home again.
I remember when our Corvallis hospital made the decision to transfer her to Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU) and there was a scurry to get her moved.
My mom had a MRSA infection in her blood. She needed infectious disease management for a really complicated health-profile. She was super sick and needed more help than our local hospital could give her.
They loaded her in an ambulance, paramedics reassuring us they would take the very best care of her, closed the doors and took off with lights flashing headed for OHSU about 90 minutes away.
I remember my dad driving behind the ambulance, upset because he couldn’t ride with her, trying to stay close to the ambulance. I was following in another car. I could see glimpses of the paramedic in the back with her and, true to his promise, you could see him holding her hand and talking with her the entire trip. Comforting her. I was driving and trying to fill in details via the phone with my sister, asking the neighbors to take care of the farm, calling to let work know I’d be out. I was hoping my dad was paying better attention to the road/rules/drivers than I feared he was…
I followed that ambulance terrified for my mom, heartbroken for my dad and HOPEFUL we were headed to the help that would figure out how to save my mom.
It never occurred to me how the story would end. I was clinging blindly to hope.
OHSU was incredible. They tried everything, experimented with brand new drugs, never gave false-hope, FOUGHT as hard and smart as they could.
My mom died 3-10-10.
Driving back down Interstate 5 that day was as traumatic as it had been going up behind that ambulance. This time my sister and I were driving away mom-less daughters, with a dad so grief stricken he was compliant and numb and totally lost.
Our world was totally, inexplicably, irrevocably changed.
And I would begin to understand grief.
And over the next few years I would come to view grieving in a whole different light. Not shameful, with a time limit or mandatory sadness that would disappear. I began to view grief as a permanent part of who I was, expanding my empathy and teaching me critical lessons about the honor of being able to lean-in and embrace someone else with a breaking/broken heart.
Where at first my grief was raw and dangerous and soul-deep hurt… Like… steal your breathe and literally throw you to your knees. Now, years later, grief is this ever-present reminder that while something good is gone and life is different; I can remember that it’s only because I had something so good, that this sadness actually has grown, for me, into an odd form of comfort and reassurance that I was blessed with a deep love.
Kind of like ‘Hello. Yes, grief, I see you; you’re kind of hard to miss. Yes, grief, of course I remember my mom is dead and gone. I don’t forget. Not for a single moment, except sometimes when I first wake-up; but I always remember within seconds… I promise. But yeah, thank you for reminding me how special she was and how lucky I was to have had her in my life…’
‘Grief is just love with no place to go.’
Someone who has just lost someone — will not understand any of this. They’ll be bewildered and possibly offended. I sure as hell would NOT have understood that I would come to a place where I could accept that my mom was gone and not be a puddle of incoherent tears. But if you’re a few years out from a loss, you might accept that grief is actually a permanent part of who you are now and you can begin to embrace it as proof of love…
You might understand why I cry when I see an ambulance.
As I’m driving this weekend watching the ambulance approach on the other side of the interstate, I’m automatically scanning the other cars behind the ambulance wondering if there are loved ones frantically following the ambulance.
I send up a quick thought of healing and peace and prayers for the person, their family and most importantly for the ambulance crew trying to transport, comfort and save this person… I always wonder if this ambulance contains one of the lucky ones and they will get to drive their loved one back home.
And then I cry. I cry because my mom is dead. And I miss her every day. And I’m a better women for having had her, her abundant and persistent lessons in grace and love and kindness at the center of my life. I cry because she shouldn’t have died so young. I cry because she would be so proud of me and what I’m trying to do with my life and I want her to be here and be in the middle of it all and know my friends.
I don’t rationalize or hold back or even get embarrassed when other drivers passing by notice the streaming tears. I don’t give a shit what anyone else thinks about my grief. Hell. If they had known my mom — they’d be crying too. I sob and choke and cry my grief almost as rawly as the day she died…
Eventually the tears slow and dry.
Gratefulness emerges and fights for my attention.
I am flooded with reminders of how lucky I am to have been given someone I would miss so much. How lucky I am to have had this woman as my mom. Of ALL the women in the world — I had her for 42 years.
And grief just kind of crawls back in the passenger seat, waiting for the next ambulance.
I keep driving.