Updated: May 19
Years ago, I remember my friend Eddie saying that he was seeing the number 11:11 everywhere. This happened in the very early days of the internet, back when there were actual bookstores, so in lieu of googling the info, as one would automatically do now, he headed into his local New Age bookshop and asked the clerk if he had ever heard anyone mention the number 11:11. Indeed he had, he said, and pointed to the back corner of the store, where Eddie came upon an astonishing number of books about these curious digits. He never did figure out what 11:11 meant, other than it was a spiritual sign of some sort, but there was certainly enough written about it.
Fast forward maybe two decades, and here I was one sunny spring morning in May of 2018 on the banks of the Hudson River, staring at the Manhattan skyline after just having come home from a two-week stay at the hospital for septic appendicitis. Not only had I been deathly ill, requiring two major operations thanks to internal bleeding (due to my blood clotting disorder), but I was also in a state of profound grief, having just lost my mom in the very same hospital during the very same period, just one floor apart. She died of a flare of emphysema that had turned into pneumonia, and she passed quickly, meaning I had no time to say goodbye let alone process that she was even gone.
I did have one last phone call with her, thanks to my cousin Dossie, who intuitively knew my mom was failing rapidly, as she could no longer speak due to a condition called CO2 toxicity, which happens when a patient is taking in more oxygen than they can expel. Thank God Dossie thought to call me in the hospital while my mom was still very much alert, and we were able to say our “I love you’s” on the phone over and over, although my mom could only mouth the words, translated lovingly and repeatedly by Dossie.
On that day, I knew things were bad, but I really didn’t think my mom was going to die, as she had come through her own hospital stay and was now supposedly getting her strength back while in rehab. In the week or two prior to my hospital admittance, I stayed at my parents’ apartment so that I could visit my mom daily and also tend to my dad, who was n a different rehab center after a two-week stint in the same hospital due to a myriad of problems. When I look back on this whole period, it’s mind-boggling how awful it all was for the whole family...my parents, myself and my sister, who was facing the possible deaths of her father, mother, and only sibling, all in the same week.
But in my case, my appendicitis hit one night after I had just visited my mom in rehab and said I would be back after dinner to sleep in the chair. But as soon as I got back to the apartment, I became doubled over with severe abdominal pain and vomiting, which proceeded to last for the next six hours. I was praying it was just food poisoning that would pass, but when nothing was different by midnight, I called an ambulance and was taken to St. Barnabas, where I was diagnosed with a large and inflamed appendix that was about to burst (and ultimately did).
After that, time lost all meaning as the pain was agonizing and I knew my mom was in trouble. I do recall getting the call from Dossie, but the next thing I remember was two-fold: that my first operation had failed and I was bleeding internally, thus needing another, and that my mom was officially dying.
As my bladder had been nicked in the first operation, I was completely bound to the bed due to a foley catheter along with a lengthy and uncomfortable tube that was down my nose to relieve gastric pressure. Had I not been in such a state, I would have done everything possible to go see my mom in her rehab room, but it wouldn’t have done much good in hindsight as everything began happening at warp speed.
At some point, I recall being rolled into a room to wait for operation #2, screaming and swearing at the doctors as I was in so much pain, which they completely ignored. I actually remember them chit-chatting and laughing about sports while I writhed in pain from all the blood accumulating in my ever-expanding abdomen. Not one person said a kind word to me, nor did anyone soothe me about what was to be a highly risky operation. I had become a thing to them, just another screaming mouth that would soon be quieted with anesthesia. And indeed, in short order I went under, awakened later to learn that my mom had slipped into a coma during my operation and that she would soon be brought to the emergency room from rehab so that my dad and I could be wheeled in to say our final goodbyes.
The nurses were all extremely kind, and friends and family were all in that small ER space holding vigil with my mom until I got there, after which she was transferred to a hospital room upstairs from mine, not for treatment, but to wait for the inevitable. Again, the nurses were kind enough to bring me one more time to hold my mom’s hand and tell her how much I loved her, but she was completely unconscious. I want to believe she heard me.
It was hard to grasp that I was losing her as I’d just seen her days before when we were laughing and talking about her coming home. It all was profoundly surreal, and I could barely breathe as I was crying so hard. I didn’t want to leave her side, but as my accompanying nurses had to get back to our ward, I was wheeled away and back to my bed against my wishes. I don’t know what time that was, but just after midnight on May 6, 2018, my sister came into my room to say that our mother was gone.
I cried so much that week that I don’t recall a time that I wasn’t crying. My family proceeded to have my mother’s services without me, another mind-boggling twist, although the hospital did allow me to go to the funeral home for an hour the morning before she was taken to the cemetery. My family said that my illness was too unpredictable to wait for me, but in the end, I missed her services by just three days.
You don’t realize just how important those services are until you miss them, as they’re a final rite of passage for you and your loved one, a process that was put in place eons ago for good reason. While close family members and many of my and my mom’s friends came to see me in the hospital, it’s not the same as seeing everyone at the funeral home, where those who loved her came from far and wide to pay their respects. I didn’t have that consolation, that sympathy; I didn’t ride in the procession to take my mom to her final resting place; nor did I witness her burial. I didn’t even have the repast afterwards, where a meal with loved ones at least suggests that life will go on. I had five minutes in the funeral home where I had to listen to a priest who didn’t even know my mother expel words from his mouth that meant absolutely nothing.
And then, three days later, I was home in my own apartment, which is the tiniest unit in the building but which that night felt cavernous. My sister and brother-in-law first brought me to my parents’ apartment to gather my belongings, and then they brought me home, hugged me goodbye, and left. All I could think of in those first hours was the silence of my telephone, which would never again ring with my mom’s photo on the screen. She and I used to talk for an hour every day about God knows what, something we’d always laugh about as we couldn’t even remember our topics from thirty minutes earlier. I so much wanted to call her to tell her about this horrendous experience I’d just been through, but she would never again be on the other end of the line. Once in awhile, until this day, I’ll call her, but she’s still not there.
And so that was that. And to soothe myself in those early days of being home (and for months after), I would take my journal down to the river and write until I could write no more, and then come back to my tiny apartment with my loving cat, Olive, who seemed to intuitively know that I was devastated.
One day, I asked my mom to give me a sign—any sign at all—that she could hear me, that she was around, but nothing ever happened, except for bright sunny days that kept coming one after the other, which felt grossly inappropriate. The only unusual thing that began to happen was that I started seeing the number 11:11 everywhere, but I took no notice other than casual observation, as I was just too distracted by grief.
There it was, over and over, for a solid week. I’d see in on digital clocks, on store receipts, on gas receipts—even the hair color I’d always used changed its color number to 11.11. And then it hit me. Was this my mom’s answer to my request for a sign?
Of course, I googled what 11:11 meant, but like so many years earlier when Eddie did his own investigation, there was no solid definition as to why it was appearing. The answer was, essentially, that if you were seeing it repeatedly, you had to ask what it meant to you.
Naturally I believed that since I was now conscious of the number I would never see it again, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. In fact, since I asked my mom for that sign sometime during the weeks of May 2018, I haven’t stopped seeing it. Almost daily, it appears in one way or another, and most assuredly when I’m going through a particularly difficult period.
Countless times, when I’ve drifted off in front of the TV set, I’ll awaken at the precise moment the clock on the cable box turns 11:11. Or someone will call, and when I pick up the phone, it’ll say 11:11. Over and over, it appears, and I so desperately want to believe that this is my mom’s way of telling me that she’s around.
While I’m of course grateful that she’s maybe communicating with me in this way, I must admit that I’m greedy and I want more. But in thinking about that, what could possibly satisfy me other than a direct phone call from my mom asking me what I’ll be making for dinner tonight.
I suppose one must be appreciative of small (if profound) gestures, but I’ve been considering lately going to a medium who comes highly recommended by my cousins. Will I feel any more relief or consolation above what 11:11 provides? Probably not. If my mom wants to come through to me, I fully suspect she will find a way, and she will do it at a time that is perhaps best for me. Right now I’m thinking to leave well enough alone.
Yet this 11:11 thing has me intrigued and obviously hungry for more. But is it a real hunger or just an indulgent one, like wanting that extra piece of cake? Certainly, no one could fault me for wanting to talk to the woman who was my soulmate in this life. But I don’t want to cheapen the 11:11 experience either, because it’s been reassuring, surprising, delightful, mysterious and beautiful. And each time it happens, I say, “Hi, Mom.” What more could I want, really?
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