13: Being Strong for Mom

13: Being Strong for Mom

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Caregivers

Being Strong for Mom

We acquire the strength we have overcome.

~Ralph Waldo Emerson

“We need to call the doctor,” I told my mother. “No! I’m fine,” my mother shouted at me. “He was very clear. We should call if anything changes.” “I said no,” Mom declared. She turned to the visiting nurse. “Can you believe this? She has OCD, you know. She had a nervous breakdown.”

It was the worst, most hateful thing she could say. I told myself it was the illness talking, even while I hated her right back. But I realized it was time for me to be the parent. Shaking, I dialed the doctor’s number.

My mother had always been the strong one. A scientist at a time when most women didn’t even work, she was the life force of our family, the one we all relied on. Once when I was very young, Mom came home from a night class, exhausted, to find that my brother Jeff had gashed his head on a radiator. The babysitter who’d instigated the wild romp that led to the injury? My dad. Why hadn’t he brought Jeff to get stitches? He couldn’t leave my sister and me. Exasperated, Mom snatched up all three of us and dashed off to the emergency room, my hapless dad in tow.

It seemed like Mom had imparted little of her vigor to me. At five, I screamed and cried the five blocks from our apartment to the doctor’s office in anticipation of a vaccination. “That wasn’t so bad,” I admitted in shocked amazement after the tiny jab. That insight didn’t stop me from repeating the same behavior. A few years later, Mom had to carry me screaming into the dentist’s office to have an abscessed tooth removed.

At 21, my anxieties combined forces with an undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder. Overwhelmed by psychic pain, I found myself poised on an overpass at my parents’ beachside community, staring down at foamy waves crashing against sharp rocks. My life had come to a screeching halt. As the result of the obsessive-compulsive disorder, I saw visions: flocks of birds exploding in midair, faces rotting, flesh dropping from skulls and eyes rolling out of their sockets. I felt as though I had died inside. I came to the bridge to see if I had the courage to die for real.

Then Mom pounded down the road to me. Sobbing and screaming, she pulled me away from the railing. “Don’t ever, ever do that again. Don’t frighten me like that. You’re going to get better. I’ll make you better.”

And she did. She found the right therapist, who gradually convinced me that the visions grew out of fears inside me. They lost their power over me, and eventually faded away.

I returned to school, married, and had children. I made my own decisions, but still liked to talk through problems with Mom. I especially valued her scientific insights when it came to illnesses. When my son had recurring strep infections, it was Mom, not the pediatrician, who told me that I needed to change his toothbrush after he started on the antibiotic.

But when Mom reached her seventies, I began to question her judgment, at least as applied to her own health. As we walked up the steep driveway of her house one day, I noticed that she had to stop several times to catch her breath.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, alarmed.

“Nothing,” she replied. “Well, maybe my heart valve. They say I need surgery, but I’m positive my vegan diet is helping. I’ll beat this yet.”

“Uh, okay,” I replied, uncertainly. My father had been a vegan for over 20 years, and had recently persuaded my mother to give up meat and dairy as well. She told me she had chosen veganism as a healthy lifestyle choice. I hadn’t realized she expected the diet to reverse her heart valve disease. And since this was my brilliant, scientist mom, I almost believed her. Unfortunately, she kept getting sicker.

Finally, we sat across from her cardiologist, Dr. W. At this point, Mom could barely cross a room without needing to rest. We’d reached consensus that she needed the surgery; the question was, who would perform it? Mom was holding out for the surgeon who’d performed Bill Clinton’s bypass. A good friend said she knew him professionally and could arrange it. Having a celebrated surgeon would go a long way toward allaying Mom’s fear of the eight-hour ordeal. The only problem was Dr. W. hadn’t been able to reach him yet.

Although Mom wasn’t in danger, we needed to move quickly. A different doctor, the head of cardiac surgery at a prestigious hospital, could be scheduled immediately. My father offered no opinion—at 80, he hadn’t become any more practical than the day Jeff cut his head on the radiator. The decision would have to be made by my mother and me.

“I don’t know,” Mom said finally. “I feel like I’m not making good decisions anymore.” She turned to me, a panicked look on her face. “What do you think I should do?”

My panic matched hers. Over the years, I’d learned to manage my anxieties and obsessive tendencies. I loved my life—my husband, children, and job. But in some ways, I was continually surprised at my achievements. I focused on my occasional bad decisions, blaming them on the anxiety and OCD. I worried now about telling Mom what to do. I took a deep breath and tried to summon wisdom, or at least common sense. “What would you do?” I asked Dr. W. “Would you want this man to operate on you?”

“Absolutely,” Dr. W. said, and in that moment both Mom and I believed him completely. Our decision was made.

The surgery was every bit as hard as we’d feared, but by the end of her hospital stay Mom had more strength than when she was admitted. At her discharge, the doctor commanded me to memorize the pattern of redness at the suture. “It should only be getting smaller and fainter. If you see more redness, you must call us.”

Over the weekend, I thought I saw a little spread of the red, like a tiny foot creeping out from the base of the zipper-like scar. It looked new to me. I was going to get my mom to the doctor, even if she cried all the way.

I realized it was tough being the strong one. Mom had been there for all of us, and now I was grateful I could be there for her. And after dragging her into a cab, Mom finally agreed with me. “You were right. I’m just so tired. I didn’t mean it.”

“I know,” I said, hugging her back. The doctor agreed with me and put Mom on an antibiotic. If I hadn’t acted when I did, the wound could have become infected, leading to serious complications. As we snuggled together in the cab, I realized that Mom really had given me some of her strength.

~Nancy Hoffstein

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