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By Samantha Williams

I turned my head to peer at my mom through the hospital bed’s thick railing. All my life, I’d thought that if I ever got really sick, my husband would be the one beside me. My husband — the crinkly-eyed, deep-voiced, kind-hearted man whose face I couldn’t picture but whose existence I was certain of. In his place was my mother, fluffing her hair on the low pullout chair that served as her uncomfortable bed, already masked up in anticipation of the next doctor’s visit. Hearing me stir, she looked up at my swollen, gauzed face and smiled at me like I was the most beautiful thing in the world.

“Do you need something, Samantha?” she asked. She pushed herself up to start her morning ritual of preparing a warm cloth to wash my face. I touched her hand as she stood and said, “no, Mom. I’m just so glad you’re here.”

On June 3, 2021, I had surgery to remove a benign pituitary tumor that had given me a rare condition called Cushing’s Disease. The surgery was successful, but I had the misfortune of suffering not just one but two complications. I ultimately stayed in the ICU for 20 days, during which I had a spinal tap/drain and a second surgery to repair a cerebrospinal fluid leak. I also lost my mind; the ICU delirium the nurses warned me about hit me hard.

On a particularly quiet day, I sat up in bed and took stock of my situation. Because of the complications, I’d begun mixing up my words in confusion. For the first time in my life, I couldn’t express myself clearly to others. The CSF leak had left me too dizzy to stand or even move to the chair next to me.

“I am useless to the world,” I thought. In the midst of this, my sister walked in and hugged me. I thought of the vigil she and my mother had been keeping, alongside my sisters and brothers-in-law who couldn’t be there in person. While of course their prayer was that I would heal from this and become myself again, I also knew at that moment that they would never love me less if I didn’t.

I started to see that other people saw me this way, too. I hadn’t told many people about the surgery, but once word got out people really showed up. One of my best friends sent a check to help cover the costs of the unexpectedly long stay in Atlanta, where I’d gone to do the surgery at a specialty center. My colleagues from around the world sent funds but also sent video messages, flowers and care packages. I talked to my CEO every day and lived for videos of my baby nephew. Old friends and cousins I hadn’t spoken to in ages made solid offers of help and followed up on them. They were eager to help, and more than a little unimpressed that I’d played it so close to the chest.

People continued to show their love after I left the hospital and my mental health cracked open. I was suddenly and deeply aware of death, certain that every ache was an omen, and facing an uncertain future. I waited for them to tell me that my pain was too much, that they couldn’t support me through this. They never did. When I went home to New Orleans with my youngest sister, my college roommate flew from California to check on me, Delta variant be damned.

It took months, but I am finally on the mend…and I am still not alone. My friends put me on notice that they will be driving through if I don’t return their messages within a reasonable timeframe. I spend nearly every other weekend with my mom, receiving love that is so deep that words fail to describe it.

I’ve thought about the end of life many times since the surgery. The ICU does that to you; it shows you the wires and tubes and helplessness that accompany serious illness and makes you yearn for just a little more time outside of those walls. I didn’t make a lot of meaning while I was in there, but I did think about what I wanted if I was able to leave. I wanted to sing, and I wanted more memories with the people who love me already.

I still want to be married, but it is clear to me that I’ve been cheated none in these 37 years. This powerful love I’ve received is not a weak substitute for something else, and I would be a fool to fixate on what isn’t there in light of all that is.

Samantha Williams was born in Daphne, Alabama, and currently resides in New Orleans. She currently writes a weekly newsletter at samanthawilliams.substack.com and hosts Inside Global Girls’ Education, a gender equity podcast available on Spotify or Apple Podcasts.