December 10, 2008

Mothering My Mother

The phone call with my Brother that day remains very clear in the folds of my usually foggy memory. It had been over a year since our Mother had fallen out of a five-year remission from breast cancer and as the new aggressive version of the disease was attacking multiple organs at once, frequent trips to the hospital became a normal occurrence in her threatened and fragile life. “I think it’s time to come home,” he said, the words rising from the receiver like a toxic vile of chemotherapy signaling the precise moment I had been terrified might happen.
I was in Los Angeles only three short months, after moving from New York, before the news of her re-diagnosis became a devastating reality, which, over the course of the next twelve months, had me flying back and forth across the country to her bedside all too often. “I think it’s time to come home,” he said, and I knew immediately from the tone of my Brother’s voice that not only was our Mother in the hospital again, but that, yes, it was time to pack up and move home to care for her - indefinitely.
Soon after my arrival, her situation began a steady descent into an almost full body paralysis and a permanent state of confusion as the cancer clawed its’ way through the last line of defense and straight into her spinal cord and her brain. The days of seeing my Mother walking her two pugs in the park or spontaneously taking me in her arms and dancing me around the room or laughing at the sarcastic, abstract and witty humor circling the table at my 32nd birthday dinner were only a few months away from becoming activities she would no longer be able to physically or mentally handle. And with these new conditions, she would be forced to rely on my physical and mental abilities to function for the both of us; I would soon become her arms, her legs and her interpreter to the confusing and chaotic new world which was forming around her.
Much like parents with their firstborn, I wanted an instruction manual on how to care for her best or a magic green light/red light decision meter so there would be some cosmic guide I could follow for the incredibly difficult choices that we would be faced with. I felt myself having to navigate through territory I remembered little about.
At the time of my Father’s terminal illness from a brain tumor fifteen years earlier, it was my Mother who lead the way, becoming his nurse, his protector and his source of comfort while she let me quietly watch from the sidelines, entering and exiting the battlefield at my own discretion, allowing me the open space necessary, free of heavy responsibilities, to figure out how to say goodbye to him.
But now it was my turn to lead and my confidence was extremely shaky. After all, at the time of my Father’s diagnosis, Mom was a seasoned parent, having already raised two children to the gateway of their twenties, while, at the time of her diagnosis, I was a childless adult who quit walking the family dog I had begged for in my youth after just one week; she was a skilled professional with diapers, feeding times and wound care, whereas I would nearly faint at the sight of a drop of blood.
I had spent my life up to that point being responsible only for myself, while conveniently having a Mother by my side who continued to be responsible for me also, and when this harmonious equation blew it’s top and erupted hot lava through the windows and doors of my comfort zone, I was forced to examine the composition of my core. My insecurities were many, but the love I had for my Mother overpowered any of these and I began to look for guidance and stability in the strengths that she had made impossible for cancer to steal from her: her unyielding hope, her unbreakable courage, her fearless spirit and her extraordinary capacity for love, acceptance and forgiveness.
Our days together spun in alternating cycles of calm and chaos. Some weeks would have us following a familiar routine of breakfast, medication, bath-time, bandage-time, doctor appointments, lunch, nap, dinner and family visits while other weeks were marked by an unexpected infection and another hospital stay. Slowly my life melted into hers, or what was once hers, and the dogs she used to walk were now in my care, the bills she used to pay had my signature, the friends who used to call her direct would dial my number instead, the emails she received had my words for a reply and her neighbors who I ran into on the streets would quietly ask me how my Mother was.
As the medical defeats mounted and Dr. Mason’s treatment options for her became more and more limited, the unpredictable weeks turned into numbered weeks and soon lawyers were called, arrangements were made and hospice arrived with an oversized, mechanical bed for the ”living” room and an indisputable message: It’s time to stay home, Patty, it’s time to stay home.
I remember trying my best. I remember being told I did a good job by family and friends. I remember some of the endearing moments we shared as Mother and Daughter involved in a premature role reversal, where at times I would be bathing her, and out of reflex, much like a child, she would turn to me and simply say “I love you” and out of reflex from my entire life I would turn and say the same. I remember one of the last gift’s she imparted to me, during a rare moment of clarity, her words softly finding their way to my ear, “I have now seen who you are and what you are capable of and I do not worry about you anymore. You are going to be just fine.”
I can remember all of this and yet, after her death, it was as if all the good memories were placed on the inside of a television set where I was able to view them, but was completely disconnected from actually feeling them or living with them. They remained remote, and one by one as they flashed before me, instead of providing comfort, they became annoying background noise to the ever more powerful collection of inadequacies in which I was sure I had committed during my Mother’s care.
There was that time she wanted me to stay next to her bed for longer but I was so tired I had to lie down (She just wanted my company, what was another hour). And the time I didn’t take her home from that doctor’s appointment quick enough, before the anxiety set in (She must have been so uncomfortable, how could I have forgotten to bring her medication with us?). Or the time my arms gave way while transferring her from the wheelchair to the bed (I can’t believe I dropped my Mother, how could I have been so careless?). And the time I showed up without the video she requested and the wrong flavor of ice cream (It was the least I could have done). These were the real memories, the ones I could feel penetrating my logical mind and my broken heart, the ones that kept my guilt firmly in place.
“Are you crazy?” my best friend Sarah said on the phone when I reported that guilt was the first emotion I felt after the fear, abandonment and sadness, which had plagued me after the funeral, had somewhat subsided. That same response was repeated by my Brother’s wife, who had lost her Mother just three years before to cancer, and my Mother’s best friend, who had lost her Mother at the same age as me, while raising two small children at the time.
No. I wasn’t crazy. I wanted to save my Mother. I wanted her to feel safe and protected. I wanted her to feel no pain. I wanted to take away any discomfort. I wanted to take away any fear. In mothering my Mother I was introduced to the extraordinary efforts we make on behalf of unconditional love. She had done this for me all of my life, and now I was standing in her shoes; the invisible cord between us remained, but it’s metamorphosis through her illness from dependant to equals came with the unspoken understanding that we would always be there for one another, whatever it took.
I have been walking in many different directions looking for the path through my grief and my guilt in the 18 months since my Mother passed: meditation, energy healing, clairvoyance, psychiatry, genealogy and world travel to name a few. It took me wandering through the open space of the Mongolian outback before I was able to finally switch the channel in my mind and start viewing my care of her from a logical perspective. I know that one more hour by her bed, leaving the doctor’s office at precisely the right time or arriving with the correct flavor of ice cream would not have changed the outcome of the situation. And, that by the very nature of being a cancer patient, there will inevitably be uncomfortable moments that no one can make smoother, just as being in a state of mourning will inevitably create unpleasant moments of sadness, doubt, anger, and fear in which nothing more than the passage of time will bring relief. The basic questions regarding the precarious situations of the people we love the most remain the same, weather for a teenager who is distant and depressed, an adult who is battling substance abuse or an ailing parent who needs care: Did I do enough? Did I love enough?
In one of the last days of my Mother’s life, as I stood over her bed, putting ointment and bandages on her infected foot, she turned to my Brother with amusement and said, “Look! Your Sister is still trying to fix me.” Not once during her illness did I live under a veil of denial, I was only trying by best, just as she had taught me to do, and I hope in the end, that my best was good enough for her.

1 comment:

Dan5280 said...

Andriana... you made me cry! Your story of China makes me want to go there sooooo bad. I can't wait to see you again soon. Have great travels.
Michelle and I are moving back to Denver soon. If you are back by this summer, we're doing a huge reunion at Adam's land in South Park. Electric Swingset (with Schley and with Junior), Psychodelic Zombies and Log are all playing. I hope you can make the trip out.


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