The Parallel Universe

A detail from the Dungan mosque in Karakol, Kyrgyzstan. Photo by the author.

You get the call. You have gotten the call. You will get the call.

Mine came from one of my brothers a few weeks ago. Flat voice, naked, no artificial sweetener: “You need to get here, Laura. She is in the intensive care unit, and she is not doing well.”

It’s about your mother. It’s about your son, your sweetie. It is someone sewn into your heart, someone whose death would unmoor you, someone whose illness has brought them to a precipice between here and there. And so you go. You answer the call that bends time and edits your life.

We all take turns with this, and now it is mine.

I am in the hospital elevator, up against the back wall and shredded from a red-eye flight. I am rearranging the furniture in my heart to make room for the possibility that my mother might die in the next few days. I smell toilet bowl cleaner and burnt coffee. My eyes are red with deep shadows beneath; I look like an overweight crack addict.

I press four. A woman in blue scrubs and cornrows steps in and presses seven. The elevator lurches upward and pings at four. The doors open. I stay planted, burst into tears, and the doors shut. The woman in scrubs looks at me, her face soft and searching. “I don’t know you, but I am gonna give you a hug.” She steps forward and wraps her arms around me. She smells like warm shampoo. I love her instantly. “We are gonna ride back down to the fourth floor again together. Okay?”

She takes my hand, and I hold tight. I murmur a watery thanks and give myself over to her sturdy kindness. I am omnipresent, and I am nowhere. I am hyper alert, and I have perfected nothingness. I have been issued a travel visa into what my friend Caren calls the parallel universe.

The parallel universe is an ephemeral place marked by grief, confusion and sadness. It is also illuminated by insight and connection. In the parallel universe emotions smell like burning metal. We don’t brush our hair or sleep more than four hours a night. We eat meals from vending machines and stare at clouds for a long, long time. As we move from shock to our new normal, we have difficulty finding most things important. We don’t try to stop crying in front of anyone because we have come to know our tears as tribal markings.

Day three or four of the bedside vigil. I leave the building for a walk to escape the beeps and kilowatts of keeping people alive in what my brother calls the intensive scare unit. Skies are low and drizzly with warm rain. A traffic cop with beefy pecs straining his short-sleeved shirt directs cars around a construction zone in the hospital parking lot. I stand on the curb, pulsating with gorgeous exhaustion. I am exalted by how vivid life feels. I also hate everyone.

“Ma’am?”

I snap to; the traffic cop stands inches from my face. I’m crying. He takes both of my hands in his hands. He isn’t a prophet or an angel. He doesn’t offer anything particularly wise. But he keeps holding my hands. And I let him. I feel love surge through me.

In the parallel universe our deflector shields are retracted, and we are gloriously addled with emotional jet lag. We know our sadness to be soupy and clarifying. All of our feelings show up in a chorus line, hell bent on their high kicks. Life feels startling and messy, as we widen to accommodate extremes. In the parallel universe strangers offer remarkable kindness that we’re usually too armored to accept — or ask for.

I am on my flight home. There is no death I’m weathering, but there is loss and frailty. The five-hour flight is full. As the doors shut, a flight attendant bends over me. “We have an empty row of seats. Follow me.” I sleep for a few hours until the attendant nudges my shoulder and hands me a glass of wine. “It’s on me,” he says. We hold eye contact, sharing the secret of secrets.

Are they always around me, these small and surprising kindnesses? Is this world always throbbing with tenderness that can crack my heart open? How can I take some of this way of seeing with me?

You get the call. You’ve gotten the call. You will get the call. Go there. It’s fleeting: All of it.

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This piece first appeared in Flag Live.

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