Ten years ago, in November 2013, my world flipped upside down. It was Black Friday, and I was trying to get into the “Christmas Spirit.” Late that afternoon, I got a call from my dad, and I knew it wasn’t good. It had been over eight years since I last saw my mom or spoke to her, and my relationship with her had been severely fractured since my early teens. My dad told me that my brother had just found out our mother was at a hospital in New Smyrna Beach and that if I wanted to see her alive, I needed to get in the car and start driving.
I was frozen… I had no idea what to do. Why would I drop everything for someone who didn’t care about me? Emotionally, I had written my mother off years ago, and physically, she didn’t exist — even though we lived in the same small beach town. I remember my dad telling me he would go with me to see her. My parents were divorced, and my mom had alienated everyone related to her. I was still married at this time, and my then-husband said to me that I would regret it if I didn’t go see her — and he was right. I was scared. I had already been abandoned by her and moved on. Now I have to face her “leaving me” all over again?! I really wanted to just pretend like it was a bad dream, and I could wake up when the worst of it would be over.
I remember that I played “Oceans” by Hillsong United on repeat the entire two-hour drive to the hospital with these lyrics repeating: “Where feet may fail and fear surrounds me, You’ve never failed and You won’t start now.” I begged God to help me get through the unknown. I remember my mind was numb on that drive, and I couldn’t understand why I had to keep facing hardship after hardship. Like. “God, I’m strong enough… right? Hasn’t all the sh*t I’ve been through been enough? When will it end? When will those ‘easy’ days be coming? I’m tired, and I can’t face another thing.” I couldn’t make sense of it. That was the longest two-hour drive of my life. I was thinking about my little brother EJ this whole time, too. He was closer to her, and she loved him differently than me; they had a special bond. He had recently moved to California, and it was such a happy time for him. My 32nd birthday had just passed a few weeks prior which meant EJ was only 21 at the time. Why did he have to go through this at such a young age?
My dad and I arrived at the hospital very late, I think it was 10:30 p.m., and the ICU visitation hours were long over. The doctors and nurses knew I was coming because they had been communicating with my brother. I didn’t know this at the time, but my mom had written my brother in as power of attorney on her hospital intake forms. The nurses obviously knew what was happening and allowed us into her room for a few minutes, but it was understood we would have to come back early the next morning. I will never forget how I felt walking into that ICU room. A woman I “used to know” was hooked up to several machines (keeping her alive), and she was totally unrecognizable. My mom was the object of “perfection” to me my entire life — absolutely beautiful, with her hair, nails, and skin always flawless. Her clothes always pressed and starched. Her style always stood out, and she was so classy. Our home was perfect — nothing out of place, beds made, no dishes in the sink, decorative pillows, and perfectly matching furniture and home decor (that’s because we couldn’t use our furniture; I can laugh about it now).
But now I’m looking at this shell of a person who was not the woman I had seen years and years ago. I remember sitting in that room for only a minute or two alone… with her there… lifeless. I didn’t say anything. I don’t even remember what I thought. I was still frozen. Alcohol destroyed my mom. You would not have known on the “outside” because she was an expert at keeping up appearances. But in this moment, she was not well, and her body was giving up, rapidly. I wouldn’t really know or even understand what was going on and what had happened until days later when I connected all the dots.
I had to leave her side and come back at 7 a.m. the next day. We rented a hotel room down the street just to rest for a few hours until I could go back. But how was I supposed to rest when all I could think was how surreal all of this was? My brother was trying to catch a flight out of San Francisco to hopefully make it to the hospital by the next night. I talked to him on the phone, and he was so filled with peace — my little baby brother, only 21 years old, was being the BIGGEST BROTHER and comforting me. He was given the most difficult task: My brother was confronted with the task of making the DNR decision.
Moments before my phone call with him, we walked into the ICU to see my mom. The hospital is very small, and the ICU was only about eight rooms total. I was standing at the nurse’s station waiting for someone to come out of a room so that I could be escorted into my mom’s room. I will never ever forget what I saw while I was waiting. On this tiny 12″ old-school black and white TV monitor on the nurse’s desk was a live feed camera of one of the patient rooms. I saw life-saving CPR happening on a patient (which is very violent), and alerts were going off and all the doctors and nurses were in this room. It was my mother. She was being resuscitated at that very moment. A nurse saw me watching in shock and walked me back to the waiting area. That’s when I found out everything that was happening. My mom’s body was shutting down, and there was no fight in her. The doctor was there now, and he talked to me and my dad about what had happened.
My mom was traveling with her friend for an extended Thanksgiving when she got very ill on the car ride. Her friend drove straight to the hospital that just happened to be right off that exit. Upon their arrival, my mom was admitted and needed immediate surgery on her esophagus. Her friend called my brother to let him know she was probably going to need emergency surgery. I later learned she was experiencing complications from late-stage cirrhosis of the liver. She had already had this esophagus procedure and was strongly encouraged to seek help like AA or any other program because if not, she wasn’t going to live much longer. They did the procedure, and she didn’t respond well during surgery. That’s when we got that call. Now, here we are, and my brother is faced with the decision to no longer resuscitate her OVER THE PHONE WHILE TRYING TO BOARD A PLANE. The CPR was further exasperating her condition, and her body was done.
Life had so instantly changed. One moment she is on her way out of town to visit friends for a holiday, and the next she is on a ventilator. So many of her friends had no idea she had a problem. She hid it so well. She wasn’t what you think about when you hear the word, “alcoholic.” But if you really knew her, maybe you knew. I have a lot of thoughts on what led my mom down the path she was on. Childhood trauma, unresolved/undiagnosed mental illness, ignorance — I will never know. I will never be able to talk to her about it. I will never really know how she suffered. I will never know why she struggled. I will never know how she felt or why she made the choices she did.
After the nurses and doctors got her stabilized again, I was allowed to go back into the room one more time. My brother made the DNR call and now we just had to wait. Again, I was still frozen. My mind was racing and going nowhere at the same time. I was numb. I think I had been that way for years, and I was realizing that in a sterile hospital room. I went back to the waiting room, and we exchanged stories and old memories with her friend. He was so kind, and he actually gave me the only closure I was going to get from “her.” He told me that he had put his foot down with her on getting help. He had tried so hard to help her realize all she was missing and all she could have. I didn’t know it, but this man loved her, and they had even been engaged. He broke it off after a few years because he was not okay with her inability to consider reconciliation with me.
I had no idea someone had been trying to point her in a positive direction. I guess it helped me see that someone else saw she was sick, and they, too, walked away… and it was okay. I only saw that man one more time — at her funeral. I wish I could tell him thank you for that little bit of closure on that dark day.
A nurse interrupted our conversation and told us that it “was time” — and that if we wanted to be with her during her last moments, we would need to go in her room now. I froze again. I couldn’t do it. I had nothing left to give that day… and sometimes I still don’t. And I feel that frozen feeling again. I was emotionally overwhelmed and didn’t want to move. I really wanted a huge soft blanket so I could curl up in a ball like a child and hide; I didn’t want to feel anymore that day… or maybe ever again for that matter. But, my dad went, and he looked at me and said, “It’s okay, you don’t have to go.” He had just married our amazing stepmom two months before. He spent years loving my mom and raising me and my brother. And mostly on his own, in my opinion.
My mother hadn’t made his life easy. Despite everything, she dragged my dad through in the 32 years they had known each other and the 20+ years they were married, and HE WENT IN. He went into that room and held her hand as she left this earth and looked into the eyes of Jesus. My dad is my hero. He already was — and had always been my whole life. But in that moment, I saw what that whole “in sickness and in health” thing meant. He literally held her hand one last time, and I like to imagine that when he let go, Jesus took her hand from him and said, “My beautiful daughter, you’re whole now… Come to me.”
My dad came back to the waiting room, and the words he said forever changed me. He told me, “Adrian, she is whole and healed now in Heaven. She sees the truth now. She can see you for who you are and not what addiction had convinced her you were.” I never knew that MY HEALING would come in her passing. But it did. I felt a freedom and a weight come off me in that moment that I never thought was possible. I had no idea that her healing on THAT SIDE OF HEAVEN would equate to my healing on THIS SIDE OF HEAVEN.
I’m still on that journey to healing through the grieving process. Some days are still hard. Every year I think about all this, and I replay it in my mind. I think about the months it took to go through her estate. Her belongings, all the crap I had to deal with. Eleven22 was there for me during this time and was a huge resource and community for me. They held my hand through it all and even helped me with her funeral — she had never even stepped foot in that church and they were there for me like extended family.
And her passing brought me and my brother closer. Being 10 years apart meant we had very different childhood experiences. It was like he got the 2.0 version. Reflecting has been a big part of healing and I can see how far I’ve come in these 10 years. I’ve gone through more hard days and tough times, and I still look to God and want to know when those easy days are coming. One thing that is guaranteed in this world is that we will have trouble: struggle, hardships, crap, BS, etc. But Jesus said, “Take heart, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) God has never left my side. His strength is what keeps me standing tall, chin up, one day at time… with “just enough” for today. I pray I never lose sight of that. And that each year, I’ll continue to not only grieve my mother’s passing but remember how far I’ve come and that I’m still going. Where feet may fail and fear surrounds me, You’ve never failed and You won’t start now.
About the Author
Adrian Wall Gibbs is a 3rd generation Jacksonville native who grew up at the beach. As a single mom to three teenagers, there is never a dull moment at her house. With 20 years of marketing and management experience, including both plastic surgery and non-profit industries, Adrian took on a new adventure in automotive and became the Marketing Director for Nimnicht Family of Dealerships in the summer of 2022. Being a full-time working mom can be hectic, but when she has free time, Adrian loves watching live music and live sports. She also likes the regular stuff, too, like “long walks on the beach,” but this isn’t a dating profile… or is it? You are likely to run into her singing along at a country music concert or cheering for her Jags! #dtwd