A Case of the Human Condition: Peter Has Appendicitis in Minnesota — How Do I Mother Him from California?

before her son in the hospital with appendicitis. Barbara Falconer Newhall's son gestures expansively before the appecitis attack. Photo by Barbara Newhall

How do you deal with having your son in the hospital a continent away? You can’t. Here’s Peter feeling invincible, which, of course, he wasn’t, in 2007. Photo by Barbara Newhall

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

Monday, Peter tells me on the phone that he has a big pain in his abdomen. He’s had it on and off for a couple of years. This morning, he emails to say  a CT shows appendicitis.

Peter’s my son. He’s 28.

Peter’s in Minneapolis.

I’m in California.

I phone Peter. He’s on his way to the hospital. I want to jump on a plane.  Peter laughs at the idea. So does husband Jon.

“There’s nothing you can do,” says Jon. “There’s no point.”

Yes, there is a point. I can be there. Being there is something. It’s not nothing. Most of the time when bad things happen, being there is all we can do. In which case, being there is everything.

Some years ago, Jon wound up in the hospital with cellulitis, a serious, life-threatening infection in his foot. Off he went to the hospital. Meanwhile, the doctors found a lump in my breast. A biopsy was scheduled.

Either one of these emergencies was doable. We could survive them (which we did). Or not survive them. By doable I mean, I could be there for Jon — unable to do much of anything. And Jon could be there for me — also unable to do much of anything. But each of us could be fully attentive to the other and the other’s plight. And that would make all the difference. That would be everything.

But as it was, Jon and I each had to focus on our own risky, potentially fatal situations; we couldn’t give each other our full attention. We couldn’t be there for each other. And that was not OK.

I check with Northwest. Flights going out today are $506 and depart every few hours. I don’t make a reservation. By the time I’d arrive in Minneapolis, Peter would be out of surgery.

I leave the Northwest website up on my screen and go pack a bag, just in case. How much liquid can I carry on to the airplane? I forget. How big can the plastic bag be? Will I need my work-out clothes? Should I take something half-way presentable so that I’ll have something to wear once Peter comes through this OK and there’s a chance to get together with Peter’s girlfriend Emily and her family? .  .  .  Will Peter comes through this OK?

I go back downstairs to my computer. Today’s airfares have gone up to $589 RT.

That’s a lot of money. By the time I get there, Peter will be out of surgery. And, yes, I probably would just get in the way. I’ll just sit here by the phone.

Peter took the family to Joshua Tree National Monument on New Year's Day, 2009. C 2009 B.F. Newhall

Peter took the family to Joshua Tree National Monument on New Year’s Day, 2009. Photo by Barbara Newhall

Jon has to take a conference call for work. Our land line is tied up.

My cell phone doesn’t work in my office — we live on a steep hillside. I take my phone up to our driveway. It works up there only once in a while. I get through on Emily’s cell phone. Peter is comfy in a hospital bed and gown, she says, an IV in his arm. They’re waiting for the surgeon to arrive.

I tell Emily that my phone isn’t working well. “We might get cut — ”

We get cut off.

I go inside and wait for Jon’s conference call to end. I may not be there for Peter today. But I am here.

Looking back on this crisis now, I think — why not just spend the money and fly to Minneapolis? But . . . all’s well that end’s well; here’s the follow-up story.



  1. Alden Yeats says:

    Wow, Barbara. You’re so right. We can do something; we can be there!

    Call me unPC, but I think that motherhood exacerbated my need to be there, always. My greatest fear was that I’d miss too many moments of my mother’s life. But I guess I didn’t. I was the only sibling for miles and miles when she slowly faded, dying in my arms as the “almost here Blaine” kicked my tummy (and probably his granny’s head!).

    The men in my family are wonderful about running out for cough medicine or prescriptions. It’s a task with a beginning, a middle and an end. That’s them. That us their “there.” It must suffice, and it does.

    To paraphrase Susan Sarandon in “Shall We Dance”, maybe we just need someone to have witnessed our lives. We all have our ways of going about it.

    Thanks for a heartening piece. With love, Priscilla

    • Barbara says:

      Priscilla, I love your idea about how some people (especially those guys in our lives) go about “being there” — by doing the concrete and necessary life tasks. I will now attempt to be more appreciative of said guys.


  1. […] about Peter at “Peter Has Appendicitis in Minnesota. How Do I Mother Him From California?”  Also, “Time to Crack Open That Hope Chest and Live a […]

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