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Early on a summer Saturday we got the call that Urszula had been taken to the hospital unresponsive, with heart failure and pneumonia. Urszula was my boyfriend Joe’s mother, she was 82 and living in Toronto’s only Polish long-term care facility. This was during a COVID wave and the hospital wouldn’t let us inside. They said her fever was going down, but she wasn’t waking up. Finally, they agreed to let one family member – Joe – in to see her. We rushed there and as Joe ran to his mom’s side, I waited in the car, staring up at the massive statue in front of the hospital of a mother nursing her newborn baby.

A few weeks before, in what would be our last conversation, Urszula asked if Joe was giving me enough “front massages.” She’d been complaining about her back and telling me how she’d love a man to come give her a back... and front ... massage, followed by a big cackle. Urszula was never quiet. Unless she’d fallen into a depression because of her bipolar disorder, but mostly she was loud, stubborn, mischievous, inappropriate, affectionate and very funny. In that same conversation, she looked at me like she was up to something and said, “You like to wear white dress? You know, you be like fresh girl.” I laughed. She never pressured us about marriage. We’d been dating for five years, lived together, and I’d always been ambivalent toward marriage. Though coincidentally, we had started talking about it. But in my mind, we were already partners, what difference would it make if we were legally married? Who cares?

Turns out hospitals during a global pandemic care. A lot.

It took a week for them to figure out why Urszula wasn’t waking up. But then they discovered a series of small strokes at the brain stem. Over the phone, and with Joe’s 17-years-older sister Sofie and her husband Mike on the line from Singapore, the neurologist told us that she wasn’t going to wake up.

The brain stem controls all of your basic motor functions, but the rest of her brain was unaffected. This meant that there was a chance that she was still conscious but unable to communicate, a condition known as Locked-in Syndrome. He said the best-case scenario was that she might regain control of opening and closing her eyes. No chance of speech, or movement.

Joe and Sofie knew their mother would not have wanted to live like that. She was Catholic. She’d signed a DNR. She longed to see her deceased husband again. The choice was made to keep Urszula alive until Sofie could come from Singapore, do her 14-day mandatory quarantine, and say goodbye.

The hospital moved Urszula to palliative care. That night and the following few days Joe wept so hard it scared me. He said he felt like his baby was dying. She was. I tried to pull him into my own body. Blanket him in the unconditional comfort she had given him.

In the depths of devastation, one thing became clear to me. I wanted us to be family.

Joe and his mother had a unique relationship. Urszula had him over 15 years after his siblings. She called him her “Old Baby” and he called her the same. They had their own language (literally Polish) but beyond that, their own way of communicating that involved a lot of not listening to each other, fake exasperation and making one another laugh.

Joe comes from a family of tall tales, filled with the struggles of mental illness and alcoholism, and the triumphs of a sister and found-brother (Mike) saving his life and nurturing his passions. Their family lived through so much and I was an outsider. I was “Joe’s girlfriend.”

For days, Joe tried to get me into the hospital to see Urszula, but the answer was always no. One night, frustrated and upset, I slid a little gold ring on my wedding finger and got out of the car. Seeing there was someone new at the desk, I seized the opportunity. “My husband’s upstairs. My mother-in-law is in palliative care.” He didn’t even check the list, “Go on up.”

I finally got to see her. Joe held her eyes open and it felt like she was looking at me. I told her I loved her. And that I would take care of her Old Baby.

We did video calls with Sofie, setting up a live-feed from her bed. Sofie would stay on with her all night after we left for some sleep. The screening desk gave me less hassle each day. One night we went in together. I told Joe to say we’re married. When they asked who I was, he hesitated, then said, “This is ma wiiife,” in an accidental full Borat-voice. Somehow it still worked.

The first time I met Urszula, she looked me up and down and said, “Straight nose, straight body... she’s okay.” I was awkward, knowing about her bipolar and worried I would say something wrong. She lectured me often about “devil women.” How men could be “sweet and sour.” How stupid people act like they have “brain upside-down.” She told me to stop dyeing my hair like a funny clown, and early on, she told me she loved me.

The night they finished their quarantine, Sofie and Mike rushed to the hospital. Soon after, Urszula was moved to the most beautiful room in the palliative wing. A private room overlooking Lake Ontario. The next morning, she went.

Urszula would introduce me to people as “My future.” They’d be confused. I’d explain, “She means future daughter-in-law.” This would be followed by, “Oh, congratulations!” I wouldn’t correct them. I liked being her future. She loved to remind me that as long as Joe wasn’t married, “Mother was No. 1.” She was right. Seeing Joe with his mom made me fall incredibly in love with him. They brought me into their weird world. Their rituals. Their jokes. Their love. It seemed the price I paid for that was to have to bear witness to them losing each other.

Four weeks after his mother died, Joe proposed. He bought the ring while she was in the hospital and showed it to her. Her death and our engagement are forever tied. Losing her clarified what marriage – what being family – meant to us both. Now, we’re her future, making our way together in a brain upside-down world.

Karen Kicak lives in Toronto.

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