I nearly lost my mother in Vienna last week. It scared the shit out of me.
One moment, she was by my side as we strolled the Schönbrunn Palace grounds. A few minutes later, after snapping some pictures of the beautiful setting, I turned around to find her lost in a sea of people swarming the Christmas market stalls surrounding the palace.
What should have been a joyful scene of ornament stalls, sweet-smelling hot wine, winter scarves and twinkling lights turned into a blurry nightmare, fusing itself to my fear, frustration, sadness, guilt, anger and panic.
It was exactly the sort of moment I wanted to avoid — losing my mother while on an overseas tour of Europe’s Christmas markets. My dad was going to kill me. My four siblings would join in.
Shit, shit, shit.
This episode wouldn’t have created such a panic seven years ago — before my mom suffered her stroke. Most daughters would just continue snapping pictures and shopping, and worry about re-connecting with their wandering (and impatient) mother later. No biggie. But not me.
My mom cannot speak. My mom cannot comprehend others’ speech with complete clarity. My mom walks with a slow, pronounced limp. These are all permanent disabilities from that stroke.
As a result, traveling with her anywhere — just the two of us, no dad or siblings to help shoulder the responsibility — is quite daunting. It becomes even more so when visiting a country where the language is foreign. My mother is an easy target for those with malicious motives. So I become her 24/7 translator, interpreter, caretaker and attached-at-the-hip chaperone. It’s an exhausting mother-daughter role reversal — mainly because she still wants to play the role of “mom” and is as stubborn as hell.
But I love our time together. It’s our time. Precious time. Just mom and me.
Mortality slapped me in the face when my mom had her stroke. There’s nothing like almost losing your mother to make you appreciate time with her more — time with everyone you love, really. That time is so fleeting. It can be taken away in an instant. Even the silly arguments and annoyances transform into something precious. (In hindsight, of course.)
I know it had a similar effect on her, even though she cannot articulate it into words. After her stroke, this one-time homebody expressed a desire to travel. I immediately booked us a trip to Paris. Two years later, it was London. A few years after that, it was a roadtrip through the Carolinas. And this winter, it was a cruise on the Danube River to explore Europe’s Christmas markets.
Which brings me back to losing my mother in Vienna. After involving the Austrian police and spending about 30 minutes swimming in panic and guilt, I had a moment of clarity: My mother, who is stubborn as hell and fiercely independent (even in her disabled body), may have been frustrated with my picture-taking and maybe — just maybe — simply limped back to the tour bus before our designated departure time.
And guess what? My daughter intuition was right. Police found her sitting on the bus wearing a smile.
Even the most frustrating moments with my mother can turn humorous — in retrospect.