The First Panic Attack

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My child had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, a brain tumor that no child survives. She had been through the treatments to prolong her life. She had tried an experimental vaccine to save her. And now, we were facing the end. For many reasons, I had missed the perfect window of time to take her on her Make a Wish trip, and I was now faced with going with a much sicker child. A child under hospice care. My husband and I alerted friends and family. Informed them all that our daughter would need prayers and extra steroids to make it on the trip she wanted to take. Told them about hospice.

Once we were back home, everyone knew it was not long before the end of my daughter’s life. First an aunt and cousins came in to say goodbye, without using that final language. Then, the favorite uncle, a doctor who knew all too well what was about to happen. All of her grandparents lived nearby. One chose the last weeks of her granddaughter’s life to leave the state for the rest of the summer. She gave the newly thirteen year old a quick kiss and a “bye” and never saw her again.

Later, at the Celebration of Life for my daughter, my mother-in-law made the rounds. Told one of my friends “I didn’t want to just wait around for her to die” told another that her son was suffering more than anyone “because it’s harder for men” and told the favorite uncle “I didn’t want to be here for The Death Watch”. She invited one of her friends to the invitation-only dinner held after the memorial. They sat with her daughters and sons-in-law at the largest table. The one that was meant for my husband and I and whomever we chose to sit with us. I had to find a different table to sit at for the dinner honoring my daughter.

I didn’t hear about the awful things my daughter’s grandmother had said at the memorial until months later. I hadn’t seen her because as soon as the public displays of appropriate attention to the death in the family, she had left the state again. The trip down to the memorial a blip in her summer plans.

Once I did hear, I realized that it would be a long time before I felt comfortable around my mother-in-law again. I explained that to my husband. I didn’t tell my other children, two young adults and an elementary school aged son, what their grandmother had said. After my mother-in-law came back home, she decided to meet her son for lunch one workday. He invited me and our kids, and all declined to join them. He decided to inform his mother why his bereaved wife didn’t want to see her. She decided that her own discomfort at being viewed in a negative light was the most important part of that conversation and headed straight for my house, with no warning.

I was at home with my children when the doorbell rang. I wasn’t expecting anyone, so I had no expectations when I looked through the peephole and saw my mother-in-law standing there, ironically wearing the exact shirt she’d had on when she’d so quickly said goodbye to her dying grandchild. I had no coherent thoughts except that I did not want to speak to her at that moment. Alone. No one else to support me in my grief and anger. I fled to my bathroom, knowing that she had a key to the house and terrified that she’d come in and force a conversation. My oldest child was out, my youngest was watching tv, and my middle son was in the shower upstairs.

Locked in my bathroom, I called my husband for help. I got none. He informed me that his mother LOVED me, that there was nothing to be upset over. I was sobbing so hard that words had trouble escaping my mouth. I hung up the phone and called my own mother while rocking back and forth on the bathmat. My mother, who had retired from her job to be available to help while her granddaughter was dying and who had been at the bedside for the sweet girl’s last breaths, told me that I could tell my mother-in-law that I didn’t want to speak to her. Gave me reasonable words to use to protect myself. But I was beyond reasonable words. I was breaking apart.

I got off the phone and texted my son upstairs to ask if he could see a car in the driveway. When he said that his grandmother was gone, I thought I was going to feel better. I left the bathroom, only to sink back down in my room. First, leaning against the side of my bed but then lying prone and struggling to breathe. Endless sobs and terror at the lack of oxygen. My hands and feet began to tingle. I had never experienced anything like this before. I wanted to reach out to my best friend but felt foolish and weak. After everything I’d been through, why was this my undoing?

That night, while I dealt with a strange floating feeling and a headache in the aftermath of my first panic attack and after hours spent with my friend to calm down, my husband told me that the entire thing was my own fault. If only I hadn’t hung up on him or had answered when he called back to continue to tell me that his mother’s selfish behavior was really love, then I would never have been in that state.

A mother of a dead daughter, lying in anguish on my bedroom floor.

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