I dubbed it the Worst Week Ever, and it was only Tuesday.
My almost-two-year-old had a nasty case of croup. He sounded more like a barking puppy than a toddler; a doctor’s appointment was necessary. I called out of work again and mentally prepared myself for a solo trip to the pediatrician and the subsequent tantrums in the waiting room.
While en route, speeding down a busy highway to make our appointment on time—or at least get there a respectable five minutes late—I heard a faint gurgling sound coming from the backseat. My son was still rear-facing, so I called out his name. He didn’t answer. I called his name again and heard a distinct choking noise. I panicked.
I screeched over onto the shoulder of the road, got out and ran to his side of the car. In those short seconds it took me to reach him, I prayed.
Thankfully, my son was not choking.
He was vomiting.
He was covered in large chunks of curdled milk, puffs, and barely digested chicken nuggets. The smell was enough to make me dry heave. Vomit was in his hair, caked in the straps and buckle of his car seat, on his stuffed Elmo, and on the dry cleaning I picked up a few days earlier but never bothered to bring in the house.
Carefully, I took him out of his seat and stripped his clothes off, right there on the side of the road. That’s when she appeared. Seemingly out of nowhere, a concerned woman wearing nurse’s scrubs stood beside me, asking if my son was okay. I looked back and noticed she pulled her SUV right up behind my car.
“He’s okay. The poor thing has croup and we are actually on our way to see his doctor. I just need to get him cleaned up. Oh God. And his car seat. I need to clean that,too.” I was babbling.
“Been there,” she said with a smile. “Do you have an extra set of clothes for him?”
“Why don’t you take him to my car and get him changed and I’ll take care of the car seat for you.”
Tears welled in my eyes. I was so overwhelmed with motherhood. A sick baby. A pile of work that I continued to neglect at my corporate job because of my sick baby. A backseat covered in vomit. And here was this woman, a complete stranger, taking away some of my burden.
I half-heartedly protested. “You really don’t have to do that. His car seat is disgusting.”
“Oh, it’s nothing. I have little ones. And I’m an ER nurse. I’m practically immune to puke.”
“You’re a mom?” I asked.
“Sure am,” she said. “We moms gotta stick together.”
Five days later—a Sunday morning—I strolled through Trader Joe's, blissfully alone. My husband offered to take our son for the morning and give me a break, if you consider a kid-free grocery shopping trip a break. I do; I might as well have been in the Bahamas.
I purposely left my phone in the car so I could float through the aisles and not be distracted by social media posts of lucky people who were actually in the Bahamas.
I was only gone about 45 minutes, but when I got back to my car, I had seven missed calls from my husband, a dozen more from my mom, and an ominous text from my dad—“Emergency. Call when you can.”
Something was very, very wrong.
I called my husband and knew by the tone of his voice that something tragic happened. After he reassured me repeatedly that our son was okay, he delivered the most horrifying and unexpected news I have ever received—my sister’s husband, my beloved brother-in-law, dropped dead of a heart attack. He was 39.
I just saw him two days earlier when I stopped by their house for a visit. He was having a dance party with his kids in the living room. My sister and I stood in the kitchen, sipping our iced coffees and gossiping. Eventually we joined in the dance party.
And now he was dead? Nope. Not logical. No way. Too unbelievable. No. No. No.
I called my mom next and she gave me the facts as she knew them: My five-year-old niece and seven-year-old nephew, his children, found him. They couldn’t wake him, so they ran and got a neighbor. By the time the ambulance arrived, he was gone. There was nothing anyone could’ve done. My sister was on a girls’ weekend away in Florida for her best friend’s bachelorette party. She couldn’t get a flight home due to bad weather. The situation could not have been worse.
My reaction was guttural—a blur of hysterical screaming.
I must’ve fallen to the ground because I felt someone physically pick me up off the cold pavement.
I heard a voice. “Honey, I think you’re in shock. Hold onto my hand. I’m going to walk you to my car where it’s warm.”
I looked up to see a woman with kind, grey eyes. I will never forget those eyes.
She sat me down in her passenger’s seat, removed her coat, and draped it across my lap.
“I read somewhere that when people go into shock they get very cold. I’m going to keep you warm. Is there someone I can call for you?”
“Please call my mom. I was just on the phone with her. Wait, where is my phone?”
“I saw you drop your phone when you collapsed,” she said. She was holding my phone.
“I collapsed?” I was so confused. Was this a weird dream?
She found my mother’s number and called her. I could only hear her end of the conversation.
“Yes, hi. I’m with your daughter … She appears to be in shock … Oh I’m so sorry to hear that … That’s just terrible … My condolences to your family … No, I won’t let her drive … I’m going to treat her as is she’s my own daughter … You don’t have to worry about a thing … I’ll stay with her until her ride gets here.”
She hung up.
“I’m so sorry for your loss,” she said. “Your mother is sending your brother to pick you up.”
I nodded. Numb. None of what she was telling me made any sense. I think she could tell that I was delirious with grief so she started to ask me questions about my life.
I told her about my son. I told her about his croup and how I thought that was the worst thing that could happen to me—a sick toddler. Now I felt so stupid because, my God, in one sickening instant, my life was infinitely worse. And my sister was a 37-year-old widow. And my niece and nephew no longer had a father.
She listened and pretended I was making perfect sense. She told me about her own grown children.
She never once let go of my hand.
Again, I babbled to a complete stranger who appeared out of nowhere to help me in my time of need.
And again, this stranger was not only a woman (a few men had passed me as I sat screaming in the parking lot and none of them stopped to help), this stranger was a mother. A fellow mother.
In less than one week, it felt like I met two real-life angels. But really, they were just two other mothers, who saw something in me that they recognized as fragile, as worrisome, as worthy of their time.
There isn't a way to properly thank these women. Chances are, I will never see them again. But I can honor them by being a woman who helps other women. I can be a good sister.
On the night of my brother-in-law’s viewing, I slept beside my sister in her childhood bed. Her children slept on the floor below us. Each time she woke to weep, I rubbed her back until she fell back asleep.
Guest post written by Kaysie Norman. Kaysie lives at the Jersey Shore with her husband, two-year-old son, and dog. She lives for summer and prefers being outdoors but if she's stuck inside, natural light and chocolate seem to help. Reading a good book in a steaming hot bubble bath is her guilty pleasure. She has a MA in creative writing, and her work has been published on popular motherhood sites including Pregnant Chicken and Scary Mommy.