On November 25, 2005, my mom had a stroke.
It was the first time my husband and I were leaving our 11-month old son with my parents for the weekend. We were going to Barcelona to, of all things, throw my father-in-law’s ashes in the sea.
We dropped our baby off at my parents’ apartment and my mom drove us to the airport. My sister and Feli, the woman who’d been helping my parents at home for 35 years, took care of the baby.
My husband and I boarded the plane and I turned off my phone. When I turned it back on in Barcelona one hour later, I found a couple missed calls from my mom. I called back. Feli picked up. “Your mom, she’s very sick,” she said.
She’d been calling me because she and my sister couldn’t figure out how to set up the travel cot for the baby’s nap and she wondered if there was any special trick. There was one, actually but I’d forgotten to tell her before I’d left. Now my mom was in a coma and I suspected it was my fault because I hadn’t told her how to set up the goddam cot.
My sister also felt guilty because she’d made her nervous, and my dad, who’d gone to pick up mushrooms with his friend.
Of course, the neurosurgeon told us later that this was probably a latent condition that my mom had and the hemorrhage had nothing to do with her being nervous or any travel cot badly written setting directions. There was nothing to feel guilty about.
I was completely devastated. My mom. She was so young. The only thing I could think of was that she didn’t deserve to miss her little grandson when he started to walk, to speak.
Three days later, on Monday, I was starting my intensive one-week course in the master’s program in TV journalism where I taught vocal technique for TV presenters. Even though I felt incapable, I had a commitment to the students and the program, and I thought my mom would tell me, “Go teach your course, it’s your responsibility!”
Monday and Tuesday were horrible. Words would come out of my mouth without my even noticing. On Wednesday, I started to pay attention to the students. And on Thursday, I made a joke. And the students laughed.
I felt horrible. How could I be making people laugh? And the students, how could they be laughing, given the circumstances? Immediately, of course, I forgave the students: they didn’t know what was going on and this was their time. They deserved to be happy.
As soon as I left the classroom for the night, I started to cry. I called my friend Isabel Del Olmo, whom I always referred to as my ‘primary-care psychologist,’ and asked her. Was I horrible because I’d made a joke while my mom was lying on a hospital bed, in a coma, being kept alive by artificial measures?
My friend explained to me that the root of what I’d done had a name: resilience. Her words were, “What you did today is worth a medal because you were able to put your students first. You forgot about yourself and focused on what your students needed. And you delivered.”
She said that that ability, although it had caused me a lot of pain at first, would help me get through the grief.
It did. My commitment to my profession as an educator and to my students helped me step out of my unbearable pain.
My job as a teacher required that I cover certain needs of a group of people who were investing time, money, and energy in a program that could change their lives. They came to class full of expectations. They didn’t deserve a zombie voice teacher who couldn’t give them the best of herself because she was in pain.
Learning that my telling the joke was a sign of resilience helped me forgive myself for not being extremely sad all the time as it became clear to me that I, as a teacher, was at the service of my students. That feeling of responsibility to go on with my life, not because of me but because the commitment I had to my clients, students, and son, pushed me to allow myself some breaks from the absolute sadness.
Ultimately, I coped with my grief.
When she finally died after 10 years living with the disabling consequences of the stroke, I allowed myself to sink in for a while and then I allowed myself to feel happy again about the future. I had a commitment to my son, my family, and my own realization, and I had to deliver.