I stood in front of seat 26B as long as I could. I had the aisle seat. The window was empty. Someone would, inevitably, come for 26A and I was going to have to get up and let them in and my ass was going to be glued to the seat for 2 hours anyway. Might as well enjoy being vertical while I could given it was everything I could do at this moment to be just that: vertical.
In row 25, the struggle of a lifetime was going on. A dad tugged and pulled, hoisted and hiked – strapping his toddler son into a car seat. I don’t know what it’s called when you have a kid seat that fits on airplanes but there was one thing certain: dad was trying to keep from losing his shit because his son was letting his loose everywhere. Tears and squirming, every strap countered by a wriggle in exactly the wrong direction.
This was, without a doubt, the single worst flight of this little dude’s life.
And all I could think was, “I feel you, buddy. Worst flight of my life, too.”
Only there was no amount of crying or wriggling that was going to get me out of being strapped in and down, my seat in its fully upright and my-life-cannot-possibly-be-locked-in-this position, headed for a place I hadn’t planned on going and for a reason that to this day seems completely ludicrous.
I didn’t sleep right the night before. Thursday night was a mess. All I can say is that it was a night that brought me out of bed and onto the couch so Philip wouldn’t be kept awake by me trying to sleep.
And the whole next day, Friday, was weird. Fine-weird. Like Mercury was retrograde AF and someone needed to hip-check the universe’s jukebox to stop the record skipping. I spent all day in rehearsal. Went on our two-hour dinner break. I’d just landed back at the theatre to watch one of the two mandatory shows I had to see each week as part of my contract. I stood in a pocket of the lobby, off to the side. Out of the way of the swarms of patrons because alas, I am just the understudy. I wanted to take up as little space possible so this pocket was ideal. This pocket…I have no idea how I ended up there and had no idea how important it would soon become.
My cell phone rang. My phone that’s usually in airplane mode by this time, as it’s 10 minutes from curtain and if any asshole’s phone is going to go off in the middle of a show, it damn well better not be one of the understudy’s phones.
Our family’s neighbor from back in Houston on the caller I.D. That’s a call I take – always.
They hadn’t heard from or seen my mom all day. Her blinds in the kitchen were still closed. They were always open by 7 A.M. without fail. Now, you might think it weird for the neighbor to notice when your blinds aren’t open but there’s little you don’t know about one another’s daily routines when your homes of 38 years are separated merely by a driveway.
They’d called. Texted. Nothing from mom.
Knowing mom’s moods — to say “mercurial” would be kind — I said I’d call her. I did.
So I called the neighbor back. Go check on her. You’ve got a key? The alarm code? Of course. And when she yells at you, tell her it’s my fault and I told you to come over.
And I don’t know how many minutes passed until my phone rang again. I just remember being in that pocket of the lobby. Protected. No one touching me. Not wanting to make eye contact with anyone. Seeing the stage manager and telling her in the most controlled voice I could muster that I’d be sitting on an aisle seat and I may need to duck out for a family call, but I’ll be back into the theatre soonest.
And then the phone rang.
“She’s dead, Erika.”
It just came out like that. Because there is no right or best way for your family’s lifelong neighbors to tell you they’ve just discovered your mother dead in her bed.
If there were a piece of John Deere equipment specially made to bore out one’s heart and soul – and in the most primitive, inefficient way possible – it was on my chest in an instant. I remember saying “no” more times in a minute than I’d said in a year. I slid down a wall into a puddle on the lobby floor. My breath left me. Again. And again. How could my body keep losing breath? And I wept. Heaving. Our neighbors, still on the phone. Call the police. Emergency. 911. Now.
And someone – some someones – got me to the external lobby. Another pocket where I hyperventilated and sobbed, clutching the legs of a woman I knew but barely. A woman who was just THERE and without quarrel or question. I have no idea how long I spent in these two pockets. But eventually, someone helped me to my feet and took me to the costume shop – up a flight of stairs where I stood, poleaxed. Eyes open, seeing nothing. Frozen. Terrified.
Jesus. I had to call my brother and sister. Fuck fuck fuck.
Sister: Dial. Voicemail. Text. No no no.
Brother: Dial. Voicemail. No no MY SISTER was calling.
And I had to be the one to tell her our mother was dead. When. How. What little I knew. And I could speak wobbly yet complete sentences until she began to wail.
Which is where I lost it again.
And then my brother. Stereo was up. Missed the call. What’s up? And it began again. Mom’s dead. When. How. What little I knew. And being the one in Houston, he was on his way.
A Constable’s deputy. The neighbor. A Commander I patched through to my brother in his car.
My aunt – mom’s sister. FUCK. Where is her number?!
And I only stopped crying long enough to speak more wobbly sentences to an officer. Mom’s medical history. Prescriptions. What she’s taking and where they’d probably find it.
Back to my brother. My sister. Can anyone find a number for our aunt?
And Philip. Oh hell. I had to call Philip. And he answered. And I broke again. My shit spread out like a yard sale stocked with emotions no one ever wants to feel, much less buy, and the price tag dangling off each said, “$everything.”
And there’s no way I can tell you how long I was in that theatre. In that first pocket, collapsed. The second, hyperventilating, clutching a woman named Gaby’s legs, my tears soaking her skin. The third, in a costume shop – a place where designs are spun into living dreams – seeing none of it. And realizing that I would, eventually, have to pull my shit together enough so I could drive 30 minutes home
The only problem is that I had no idea where my shit had gone to. Except I knew a part of it had died with a phone call. And the reality of each additional phone call, an additional assault on the remnants of the little shit I had left. With each person I saw or spoke to, it became more real: my mother was dead.
Which is ridiculous. Because parents don’t die. Regardless of age, they’re always exactly how old we’ve made them in our heads. They’re the ones who buy grape jelly when you like strawberry jam, the ones who “ruined” your teenage years but couldn’t wait to call when good news came knocking. My mother was a known quantity. An equation of eggshells walked for 45 years. My mother was immortal.
So I did the only thing I knew how: I asked a gal named Gwen to walk me to my car so I could get 30 minutes away from the theatre and 11 miles closer to the person I could collapse into.
And my heart broke once again as I pulled my door closed and turned the engine over. Because back in 2010, I’d received a call that Jason had gone into cardiac arrest and I knew I couldn’t get from where I was to the hospital without someone to talk my shit straight as I drove.
I’d called my mom. And she got me there.
And I couldn’t call her anymore.
So I called my friend Merredith and told her flat-out: my mom just died and I have a 30-minute drive and please just talk to me so I can get home.
I have no idea what she said. But she got me home. My car parked. Into my building and up the stairs. And when I unlocked our front door, I stepped inside. Closed it.
Locked it. Top lock. Bottom lock.
Philip emerged from his office and my heart – so exhausted from spending all its energy to not completely collapse in public – collapsed. In his arms. Snot on his shirt. The unprettiest I’ve ever been and a headache that threatened to bore the sentience out of my being.
My world had forever changed and I didn’t know what to do but to keep moving. Book a flight. Let folks know when I was landing. Coordinate arrivals through texts and emails I don’t remember sending.
I missed two calls from my aunt – whose number we’d found. My fucking phone was on “night” mode which was great on any day that wasn’t as…extraordinary as this one. And once again, I told a beloved family member that mom…was dead.
My brother, god love him, had to identify Mom when they brought her out of the house.
And all I could think at that moment was my mother – a lover of privacy and who died in a very private place and way – had become the most public she’d ever been. Ambulances. Constable department cruisers. Flashing lights. A medical examiner…whatever. Whoever.
Photographed. Assessed. Examined. Documented. Explored. Invaded. Case number assigned.
And zipped into a bag to begin answering the questions Why? and How?
And I hated it. I hated all of it. I was 1000 miles away and I couldn’t be there or help or do or even see. I couldn’t help my brother. Shield him. Prevent him from seeing what had to be shown because he was 30 miles away and I was 1000.
Which is how I came to be in seat 26B on an 11am flight from Chicago to Houston on March 17th.
Because the reality I’d known for 45 years – all the way until March 16, 2018 – had shattered.
I spent the entire flight hoping no one would ask me if I was okay or how I was doing.
Because the answer was “no” and the other answer was “I don’t know.”
I was probably going to cry if someone did ask.
And what I wanted at this very moment, strapped into seat 26B, was for none of this to be real.
For the weight on my sternum to lift and the breath to flow back into my lungs.
For my mother to be insanely pissed that I’d given our neighbors permission to enter her home when she’d just gone to sleep early and simply received my predictable sentence of non-communication for X amount of time, as was standard when we’d gone off-plan with our level of opinion, help, or concern towards her.
And to not spend 10 minutes silently wailing in a locked bathroom stall in Concourse E at Houston Intercontinental Airport, because it is exhausting to reduce your soul-shattering cry to a volume where only ghosts can hear you.