A True Story

Mom was deathly afraid of doctors, and perhaps she had good reason to be.

When she was just thirty-five years old and I was nine, her health took a downward turn. She lost considerable weight and hardly had any energy to make it through the day. Eventually, Dad took her to a doctor and the doctor gave her allergy shots for almost a year. Then she started coughing up blood. So they went to a second doctor who recognized right away that Mom had an advanced case of tuberculosis. In an eerie twist of fate, Mom’s own mother had died of the disease when Mom was my age, and Mom had subsequently been raised by a foster family. So I can only imagine what was going through her mind when she heard this doctor’s diagnosis.

Fortunately, medicine had progressed by the time Mom fell ill and radical surgery—removing her left lung and part of her right—saved her life. Unfortunately, the health policy of the day dictated that she be quarantined for two years in a sanitarium which was eighty miles from our house! So every Sunday, Dad and I drove out into the country to see her, and since I was too young to go inside, I’d stand in the sanitarium parking lot and wave as she looked out from her sixth floor window. She cried a lot in those days, but perhaps it was as much about realizing how her own mother felt leaving her, as it was about missing me. At any rate, when Mom finally came home, she never spoke of her illness again—or went to another doctor.

As an only child, especially in my early years, Mom and I were practically inseparable. We were often at home all day because Dad took the family car to work. I would watch Mom wind her hair into tight little pin curls, cover them with a scarf and then spend all day washing, ironing and cleaning. In the evening, she would style her hair, put on a dress and heels and greet Dad at the door. It was like living in a reality TV version of the 1950’s sitcom “Leave It to Beaver” but without the jokes or laugh tracks. Mom tried hard to be the perfect housewife, yet I could tell that she wanted more out of life—independence, new experiences and freedom. So her relationship with Dad was fairly strained because, well, he wanted to be the boss.

Regrettably, when Mom returned home from the sanitarium, our relationship became strained as well. I was no longer the little girl she had left behind, and I felt self-conscious and awkward around her. As my hormones raged into puberty, she seemed out of touch with my world. Like many girls of my generation, I was determined to break the 1950’s housewife mold, and I criticized her for not standing up to Dad and for not “getting a life”. Sadly, more than once, my tirades brought her to tears.

However, despite all the family turmoil, something in Mom stirred. The year I left for college, she took a temporary job wrapping Christmas packages at our local post office. This led to full-time employment and a burgeoning career that eventually promoted her to Administrative Assistant to the Postmaster. She oversaw hiring of all their employees, had her own personal secretary and managed an impressive operations budget. But more importantly, her self-esteem soared. She invested in a new wardrobe, kept a weekly hair appointment, opened her own bank account, drove her own car and made new friends. In fact, she often said that that job was her “freedom” and I think one of her greatest regrets was leaving it behind to retire to Florida with Dad.

In the meantime, after college, I didn’t return home, partly to avoid the family drama. I travelled and lived in several cities before eventually meeting my husband and settling down in Ohio to raise a family. I kept in touch with Mom and Dad sporadically and visited them with our two young sons only on rare occasions. I think Mom would have liked to have seen us more, but she had her hands full taking care of Dad and making sure things were peaceful at home—and our presence just added more stress. However, she never complained, and it wasn’t until Dad died unexpectedly a decade after they moved to Florida that I began to keep closer tabs on her.

When I did, one thing became quickly apparent. Now that Mom was a widow, she seemed giddy with her new found freedom. She purchased a waterfront condominium and decorated it to her liking. And no longer tied down to a husband who was afraid of flying, she packed her bags and took off to see the world. She visited ports of call in the Greek islands; saw her favorite singer Wayne Newton in Las Vegas; sailed on a cruise ship through the Panama Canal; and kissed the Blarney Stone in Ireland. She even rode a helicopter into the mouth of a Hawaiian volcano!

She also toyed with the idea of getting her real estate license, momentarily took up golf and eventually had a live-in boyfriend. And she told me if anything ever happened to her, there was an old coffee can under the kitchen sink that contained her final instructions.

A decade later, Mom’s boyfriend too had passed away and she was alone once again and in her eighties. In contrast to Dad’s passing, though, this time she seemed subdued and almost reticent, content to stay at home rather than seek out new experiences. Yet, she still appeared to be healthy and thriving- AND one thing didn’t change. She was determined to avoid prescription drugs or get a check up with a doctor. She swore by her daily “health routine”: drinking a cup of instant coffee in the morning; taking a daily baby aspirin; eating one banana each day (for potassium); and using Benadryl for pain or when she couldn’t sleep. And by all accounts, this seemed to be working.

I, meanwhile, was busy with a budding writing career and helping my sons through college. It never occurred to me that something might be medically wrong with Mom, or that my occasional long distance visits might not be enough. Perhaps this was due to lack of experience on my part (after all, she had taken care of Dad til the very end). Or was I in denial? Maybe a little of both. Whatever the reason, at eighty-two, Mom finally had a serious health scare that brought me back to reality. I now understood—she needed me.

My next five years of caregiving for Mom were filled with some of our most joyful moments together. Yet, those years were also fraught with doctors’ appointments, medical procedures, and eventually hospitalizations and surgeries—everything she never wanted. Like her, I subscribed to alternative ways of healing, so traditional health care was unchartered territory for me. And, regrettably, she and I had never discussed what would happen if a situation arose where she needed it. Consequently, when she did, especially in those last few months of her life as her health declined rapidly, I was clueless about how to proceed. I functioned in what Dr. Hanzelik calls “a crisis orientation” and made some critical mistakes. Perhaps the most egregious of these was not listening when she finally tried to tell me what she wanted in her final days.

Ultimately, I realize how fortunate I was to take that journey with Mom. Despite its heartache, I gained a new understanding of the love in our relationship, and a deep appreciation for how strong she really was. It reminds me of this:

As a child, I assumed my parents were perfect.

As an adolescent, I saw them as severely flawed.

As an adult, they were at times irritating reminders of my own mortality.

But with their passing, I realized they were just like me,

trying to learn what life is about.