Above: This is a photo of Johanna Burr, Vivian Burr, Todd Burr, and Sophie Burr in Retiro Park in Madrid on a day that my mother was feeling better. This photo was taken before my mother had to go to the hospital.
I am five. I walk through the hallway towards a hospital room. My stued animal, Froggy, is clutched in my arms. The hallway feels too narrow, too dark. My mother is in the room. She has tubes coming o her chest. She is sleeping. My dad holds my hand. I see the memory as if through a blurry prism. I stand and watch her chest rise and fall, watch the blinking green and red lights of the machines all around. I wonder when she will come home.
She had been in the hospital for three months at that point with pneumonia that had, at rst, been misdiagnosed. It had time to turn serious before the doctors realized what it was. She had to have surgery; liquid pumped o her lungs. Her chest was never the same. She still has scars on her abdomen where they went in with their scalpels and tubes. Tiny white lines.
I know we moved house during her time at the hospital, even though my little sister, Sophie, was only 6 months old. Sophie stayed with my grandparents. I remember helping my dad pack up our things. Carrying small boxes. I remember feeling useful. I remember feeling proud. I remember asking when Mommy would be home in our new kitchen, putting chip bags into the cabinets. The house felt too large. Hearing the answer, “soon. She’ll be home soon.”
Now, I’m an adult. It’s January 2020. My family is on vacation in Spain, visiting me as I teach English in Madrid. My mother has had a ue for the past two weeks that won’t respond to antibiotics. She tells us her breathing is shallow. We call a taxi and rush her to the hospital. My father and sister are not allowed in the ER.
My mother is having trouble breathing, I tell the ER doctor in Spanish.
They rush us to a CT room. My mother has to take o her shirt and bra to do the scans. Her frame is thin and bony in the unnatural light, but her skin is olive and freckled. I feel embarrassed for her, but she doesn’t seem to care. She’s used to stripping in doctor’s oces she tells me.
The doctor scans her heart and lungs, then takes us to the waiting room. I read to my mother from the biography of Sandra Day O’Connor, trying to take her mind elsewhere and calm my own rapid breathing.
This is not how it was supposed to be.
We’d been dreaming of this vacation for years.
Another memory. I’m nine. I’m sitting on the couch, crunching on salt and vinegar chips while my father folds the laundry. The laundry is still warm. I loved jumping in the piles of warm laundry. My mother is knitting a scarf. She’s gotten really into those lately. Her scarves are brightly colored and striped, like Doctor Sues scarves. Sophie is playing with a pink plastic phone on the oor. Yellow light falls on the crimson couch and huge, boxy tv.
We are watching Rick Steve’s Travels in Europe, the Christmas edition. My family often watched Rick Steve on Sunday afternoons. Rick Steve’s kind eyes, further softened by the 90s quality lm, look straight at the camera as he pleasantly recounts the details of Christmas pudding recipes, the quaint gifts found in German holiday markets. Vivaldi plays during the wide shots of charming villages bedazzled in wreaths and snow. There are candles in all the windows.
During our Rick Steve afternoons, my mother would often chime in about the archeological dig to Italy she went on for her undergrad in art history and the Danish villages she and her sister visited in their twenties while they were looking up distant cousins from “the old country.” Europe seemed so perfect, so safe. Like a fairyland.
“I want to move to Europe!” I began to announce to the family at large. “We’ll all go there someday!” My father would say, “A family vacation!”
And it seemed like it was all working out that way. I’d moved to Spain; Sophie was taking a gap year in Sweden. My parents nally spent the money, and both ew over. We all met in Paris. My mother insisted we visit Paris. But instead of spending our family holiday in art museums, quaint cafes, and manicured parks as we had always fantasized, my mother had been bed-ridden. The one day she felt well enough to leave the house while in Paris, we rented a wheelchair and explored the Musée de l’Orangerie because she was determined to see Monet’s water lilies. She cried at the panorama of violet and pink buds blooming on a wash of turquoise, velvet green, and prussian blue. She asked us not to take pictures of her with the painting because she didn’t want our friends to see her in a wheelchair. The next day, she was worse.
That evening, I sat by myself and watched YouTube clips of Rick Steve’s Travels in Europe, the Christmas edition.
The doctor calls us back into her oce.
The scans show there is nothing wrong with your heart or lungs. translate this for my mother.
“But I am having trouble breathing; I can feel that my chest is tight. I have had pneumonia several times. I know what it feels like.” She turns to me, desperate. I can see the fear of death in her eyes.
I tell the doctor all this, trying not to cry, terried that if I don’t get the doctor to understand my broken, panicked Spanish, my mother will drown in her own lungs. I remember her face, long ago, surrounded by tubes, blinking red and green lights, she is so still, so still...
Ok, well, we’ll put you on oxygen and see what happens.
The doctor takes a mask from the wall, places it on my mother’s face, and ips a switch. After only 30 seconds, my mother says,
“Oh my god, the tightness is gone. It’s working.”
I laugh in relief and collapse into my chair. Just breathe.
I text my father and sister, who were barred from entering.
Then I lace my ngers through hers and hold them to my chest.
“I was so scared.” My mother tells me after a few minutes of silence. “I know.”
“I thought, ‘this is it. This is the time it gets me.’”
I can only nod, but inside I whisper, “me too.”
Above: This is a photo of Vivian Burr, Todd Burr, and Sophie Burr in Retiro Park in Madrid on a day that my mother was feeling better. This photo was taken before my mother had to go to the hospital.
The next morning, my mother takes “a shot” from the inhaler the doctor prescribed, and we push her around the cobbled, hilly streets of Toledo. We drink espresso and eat jamon. We examine in wonder the enormous Belen in the central square, with its tiny, ornate shepherds and gilt wisemen. We trace our gaze along scarlet, Hebrew prayers in one of the last surviving temples in Spain.
We enter the Cathedral. I bounce around my family, showering them in facts I learned from my art history course. On the Eastern Wall is a giant mural of St. Christopher carrying a tiny Christ across the roaring river, and far above us billow pastel statues of angels, poised as if to sweep down and gently kiss our foreheads.
“This is the most beautiful church I have ever been in,” my father confesses as we stand together, gazing up at the painted ceiling of clouds.
“Yes.” My mother agrees, “I never even knew this place existed!” I smile, “I’m so happy I got to show it to you.”
Above: Johanna Burr is an MFA graduate student specializing in creative writing at Iowa State University. She also works as a part-time professor teaching English Composition. Her poems and essays can be found in the OWL (Ohio Wesleyan Literary Journal).