Updated: Aug 28
10 years ago, in June of 2009, I turned 15 years old.
Against most teenage stereotypes, I had very few complaints approaching my 15th birthday. I had just gotten my braces off after four awkward years, wrapped up my freshman year of high school, and was finally turning the age Taylor Swift sang about on her new album, Fearless. She sings “...you're fifteen, feeling like there's nothing to figure out,” and that I was.
That summer, I spent long sunny days in the garden with Mom, pulling weeds and planting flowers, and humid nights stargazing and giggling with friends on our backyard trampoline. We listened & analyzed every line on the album; mesmerized by how perfectly certain lyrics aligned with the way we felt about life, love, and each other. Even Mom was brought to tears the first time I played The Best Day for her in the car – a thank-you ballad of sorts to Taylor’s own mom. The lyrics string together childhood memories that are so specific and personal, they feel like your own.
At the end of August, after months of not-so-subtle hint dropping, Mom & Dad got me and my younger sister, Ireland, tickets to see Taylor perform on her first headlining tour – The Fearless Tour. This was, as you’d probably imagine, the best day of my young life. The soundtrack that usually filled my too-pink bedroom via a 90’s-style boombox was brought to life with full theatrics, mid-song outfit changes, and 8000 screaming voices just like mine. For the first time, I felt like I was a part of something bigger than myself.
I rushed home after the show to my desktop computer, eager to show Mom the photos I’d taken on my point/shoot camera. After almost a year of car rides with Fearless permanently in our minivan’s CD player, she seemed just as excited to see me go to this show as I was to attend. I flipped through the photos, pausing to recount every bit of stage production that the images failed to capture, and she listened patiently in amusement. When the last photo froze on the screen she leaned in close and said, “I can’t believe you took this,” and I replied, “neither can I”.
I fell asleep that night with butterflies in my stomach and a strange new sort of hope in my heart. “This is life before you know who you're gonna be”.
September brought a new school year, and with it, PSATs, AP classes, and, despite my reluctance, a college fair at the end of the month. I complained the whole ride there, arguing that none of my friends were going and how embarrassing it was to be seen there as only a sophomore. But still, Mom insisted, claiming it was never too early to start looking.
I refused to chat with any of the representatives, being a combination of shy and unwilling, but we walked from table to table listening to their enthusiastic pitches. About an hour later, I climbed back into the car with an armful of picturesque brochures and a lingering attitude. “That wasn’t so bad after all, was it?", mom joked, and I shook my head begrudgingly as a smile snuck onto my face. We started driving towards home when she asked if I had any initial thoughts about where I’d like to attend. I combed through the information I'd just heard in the gym, and thought back to the handful of schools I'd toured with my older sister. I knew straight away that I was not interested in anything that looked or felt like a city, and told her I thought I’d be happiest in a school that felt like a small-town; somewhere with trees, brick buildings, and people playing frisbee on the lawn. Then, in my extremely eloquent 15 year old vernacular, I added, “and I don’t want to go to an actual art school. Art kids are really weird, mom. I’m not an art kid, I just do art – there’s a difference.” She agreed, laughing, and told me that was a good start.
Come mid-December, as I approached 15½ years old, I found myself in a waiting room chair at the ICU of Lawrence & Memorial Hospital. As it turns out, going to a college fair with your mom at 15 doesn’t feel so pointless when you realize she might not be there to take you on college visits once you’re actually old enough to apply.
Back in September, a few weeks after our conversation about college, mom fell while stepping over a baby-gate in our house – a necessity installed after adopting our extremely rowdy golden retriever, Riley. I was mindlessly typing an English paper about Huckleberry Finn when I heard her scream. Ireland and I ran downstairs to find her laying on her back in the hallway, clutching her leg. She looked up at us in pain and said, “call your father. I don’t think this is good”.
After a not-so-sensitive exclamation upon entering the house (“–what the hell did you do?”), Dad concluded that her leg was almost certainly broken, and called 9-1-1. Being an ex-police officer and EMT in a tiny Connecticut town, he knew the dispatcher on the end of the line & all the paramedics that came through our front door about ten minutes later. They greeted my parents by name and calmly asked questions about pain level and medical history. Despite the clearly unfortunate circumstances, everyone seemed fairly light-hearted about the whole thing. One of the EMT’s confirmed Dad’s suspicions as they carefully strapped her to the stretcher– she had somehow broken the largest bone in her body by simply falling a few feet, and was going to need surgery.
Dad instructed Ireland & I to pack a bag to stay at our cousins’ for the night before disappearing into the back of the ambulance. The flashing lights had just barely cleared our street when Ireland appeared in my doorway holding back deep sobs. She told me she was scared and I met her fear with an awkward hug and encouraging remark. “There’s nothing to worry about! It’s going to be okay – it’s only a broken leg.” I had no way of knowing this for sure, but that’s what Dad had said before he left, and people break bones all the time.
Sure enough, the next morning a metal rod was installed where Mom’s unbroken femur once was, and everything went as planned. She was cleared to leave the hospital within a few days and moved to a rehabilitation facility in town. According to my super-scientific in-depth google search, recovery times for this sort of injury ranged from 12 weeks to 12 months depending on the patient, so I knew there was a long road ahead. Mom’s sister, Leslie, came down most days to sit and chat with her between physical therapy appointments, and we visited for a few hours after school. For the first time in my 15 year old life, my stay-at-home-mom was not at home, and everything felt off.
It was early November when she was discharged from the rehab center – equipped with a wheelchair, a walker, and a list of exercises to do at home. While this was no-doubt a comforting change for all of us, it also presented a new set of challenges. For starters, having a second-floor bedroom and a house full of narrow hallways was not ideal. And on top of the day-to-day obstacles, the holidays were quickly approaching and few preparations had been made.
Mom, being the “hostess with the mostest” as we called her, always went above and beyond for celebrations, big or small. On any given Sunday afternoon during football season, we could always expect an array of handmade hor dourves & Bloody Marys, followed by a full feast around the dining room table. And as you’d imagine, holidays were like Sundays on steroids.
Though neither Ireland nor I could drive yet, we knew Mom would need as much help as we could give. Grocery shopping trips were now strictly a group activity, and mom served as the ‘visual director’ during our Christmas decorating while we ran around hanging wreaths and placing Santa statues. She leaned on her walker while cooking at the stove and we fetched things from the pantry. I could tell it drove her crazy to need help all the time, but we were all happy to be together again; our team was back together.
On December 15th around 9pm, I was wrapping a gift in the living room when I saw her shuffle her walker toward the stairs. I called out, asking if she needed help, but she happily responded, “nope! I’ve got it!” and smiled as she slowly made her way up. I was proud of her, and I could tell she was proud of herself – this was a big step towards gaining her independence back.
The next morning, around 8am, she pushed her walker to my doorway & poked her head in. “Good morning – do you want corned beef for lunch?” she whispered, knowing I’d always been partial to dinner leftovers rather than deli-meat sandwiches. I agreed through groggy eyes and she made her way down to the kitchen where I assumed Dad was reading the paper. On any other morning, Dad and I both would have left by this time (him off to work, me catching a ride to school with our neighbor). That day though, Ireland had an eye doctor appointment at 9:30am near my school and Dad agreed to drop me off late when he brought her. Their faint conversation carried up the stairwell as Ireland I got ready. I spent extra time picking out my outfit and braiding my hair, taking advantage of the late start I was being granted.
I was just finishing up in the mirror when Dad’s frantic voice shook the house. “Girls! Help! I need your help!” We rushed downstairs to find him clutching Mom in his arms, lowering her to the hardwood floor. Her body was convulsing, and a sound came from inside her that I would have deemed inhuman had I not been witnessing it first-hand. I held Riley by the collar, away from mom, while Ireland dialed 9-1-1. She handed the phone to Dad and he spoke with an unnerving sternness, “Eileen is having a seizure. We need an ambulance. '' Within a few seconds, the seizing subsided and she was conscious again. She asked what was happening, sounding scared. Dad began to reply, “the ambulance is on its way, you just had a sei–,” but she was seizing again before he could finish.
The paramedics arrived & moved with much more haste than they had a few months prior. I watched as they strapped her non-responsive body to the board, my arms still wrapped around Riley. Dad climbed into the back of the ambulance and asked my uncle, who had come as soon as he heard the dispatch on his truck radio, to take us to school. It was obvious this was more serious than a broken leg, but she was my mom and I was 15. My mom’s mom, Granny, was a smoker and lived until 78. My dad’s mom, Nanny, was 82 and forgetful, but still alive and well. Parents are supposed to outlive grandparents, that’s the rule I knew, and my mom was only 49. I remember looking out the windshield on my way to school thinking, “there’s a fee when you miss an eye-doctor appointment”.
That week, I learned what it really meant to be Fearless. As Taylor put it in the liner-notes of her album: “Fearless is not the absence of fear… [it] is living in spite of those things that scare you to death,” and the days that followed were exactly that.
My Mom died on December 19, 2009 after three days in the ICU at Lawrence & Memorial Hospital in New London, Connecticut – the same hospital where she gave life to me and my three siblings. A post-surgery blood clot formed in her leg and traveled to her heart, stopping the flow of oxygen to her brain.