Pasta Roni and pork steak. Certainly a forgettable pairing but they made for a memorable meal. Well, there was the lovely iceberg lettuce salad sprinkled with slices of spicy red radishes and the diced up green part of a scallion, adding some health and color to our plates. I don’t recall the date or even the day of the week, but that greasy, “sort of” meat and side dish of sodium won’t leave my head. The Pasta Roni was being particularly stubborn as it clung like glue to the side of the pan. At 18, after years of indoctrination, Mom’s standards for dishwashing had become my own. “Why can’t we just put the dishes in the dishwasher Mom, isn’t it supposed to clean them?” “Yuck! The dishwasher is only for sanitizing”. This had always been her opinion of the machine with the misleading name living under our kitchen counter. So, I scrubbed. I would have undoubtedly scrubbed that pan until I was out of breath and my arms weak, ensuring every bit of those tenacious carbs were gone before daring to find it a place amongst the other already clean dinnerware, but my sister appeared next to me at the sink just shortly into the battle. “Mom got on the phone while I was on it and told me to get off” she said. Remember the days of lifting the handset from it’s cradle, hoping you’d get a dial tone instead of the yammering of another conversation holding the line hostage?. “So?!” I snapped. Sisterly love and compassion poured from me. I looked up and realized my sister was worried. She sensed more was going on than just the need to make a call that led to our mom’s phone line piracy.
“What do you think is wrong?” I asked. “She just sounded weird” is all that she could tell me. I decided to investigate and headed to my parent’s bedroom. The door was closed which was definitely weird. The only time that door was closed was when they were settled in for the night. All of our doors had to be closed at bedtime becasue a closed door was vital to creating a fire barrier in the event of an overnight blaze. (Learn more about Dad’s fire safety manifesto here) I knocked lightly and when no acknowledgement came, I slowly opened the door. She wasn’t on the phone as I expected to find or even anywhere I could see in the small master bedroom. I took the few steps needed to cross the room and came to the doorway of the adjoining bathroom with its avocado countertop, vanity mirror outlined in “fuzzy balls” she had attached herself in a moment of creative inspiration (each of our other bathrooms had this feature as well. If you’re going to do something, do it 100%), and plush carpet in a brown and white swirling pattern. There she was half knealing and half sitting in front of the toilet with her arms hugging the top of the bowl where the seat usually rests. “Mom, are you ok?”. She looked at me sideways with her cheek resting on the white porcelain and mumbled through the foamy remnants of our meal, “Get out.” Good enough. I have a pot to scrub. No need to be a spectator.
Once back at the sink though, it hit me. There was something really wrong. Why had she barged in on my sister’s call just minutes before expelling the Pastroni and porksteak? The timing wasn’t right. I mean, you don’t just decide to make a phone call if you are on the verge of losing your dinner unless there is some urgent need. What was with the call? I was going to find out even if she didn’t want me to, so I returned to the bedroom. She was curled up on the bed hugging her knees. “I called your dad. The ambulance is on the way. Go open the front door”. Calm leadership from a woman in the middle of a medical emergency.
As I sat at Mom’s feet in the ambulance, watching the paramedics stick her with needles and cover her face with an oxygen mask, questions were racing through my brain. Was the Pasta Roni and porksteak to blame? Would we all soon be clutching the toilet and making phone calls? Would I ever get that pan clean? Was…she…going…to die? It wouldn’t be that night. That night she would escape. We all would escape. That night it was just her first one. The one they called the mild heart attack.