This is my mom on the day before her birthday last year, having a laugh with her dog, Sunny.
Mom is an artist in several media, including oil painting, tole painting, watercolor painting and pastels. She’s a gym rat who has clocked more than 600 workouts at Curves in the past two and a half years. She’s a former RN and massage therapist, a Reiki master, a gardener, a cook, a collector of museum-quality crystals and gemstones, a believer in angels, and a fan of all forms of spiritual practice that involve compassion and loving-kindness. She’s been devoted to my dad for more than 50 years. She is a lively, beautiful, kind, funny, generous, compassionate woman and an amazing mom. I don’t mind telling you, I totally hit the jackpot in the mom lottery this time around.
Two weeks ago, she woke up and was unable to move her legs. She called the paramedics, who took her to the emergency room. Many hours of tests and anxious waiting later, she went into surgery to relieve pressure on the nerves in her spine from herniated discs and lumbar stenosis. Just as it appeared she was pulling out of the dense fog of anesthesia from this surgery, it became apparent that she had suffered a stroke that affected both her legs (the left leg in particular) and prevents her from walking. What had been a fairly straightforward orthopedic case with an expected recovery time of a few days suddenly became a neurological case with no clear answers or predictable outcomes.
She spent 10 days in the hospital, attended and cheered almost around the clock by her family and friends, and today my mother is rehabbing in a skilled nursing facility, working hard each day to regain the use of her legs and return to her normal life. Every day brings another small victory and success, and her therapists promise her she will walk again. That is what we are cheering for as well.
My father is also a stroke survivor since December 2009, so we know how this goes in my family. The main effect of his stroke was on his speech, which is still recovering its former fluidity, but he walked out of the hospital one week after it happened and has never had any significant mobility issues. Because my mother’s mobility is mainly affected, she is likely to have some issues with it for years to come.
It is fair to say that my mom got sick gradually, then suddenly. What has smacked us all in the face, though, is the sudden part—how life as we’ve known it all changed in an instant, and returning to that life exactly as it was before is not an option. This has given us the opportunity to reexamine and recalibrate our relationships with each other, one by one. My brother and sister and I, always formerly at slightly awkward cross purposes in different ways for different reasons, are solidly united now in the service of a single mission: to keep our parents together, in their own home, as safe and as comfortable as possible for as long as possible. My parents, always close and growing ever closer over the years, have pared their priorities down to only one: being together.
We all have a lot of work to do to adjust to this new life, and not everyone is going to be ready to move forward in the same direction at the same time. We’re talking about the options for rehab, for recovery, for new living arrangements for my parents that could help to ensure their safety and comfort in the years ahead. There will be hard choices to make and some hard losses, but there will also be opportunities. Sometimes letting go is not so much about the things you lose but rather about the freedom you gain by no longer having to care for, maintain, clean, insure and safeguard all that stuff. My hope for my parents is that they will be able to let go of the things that no longer serve them, and in so doing they will gain freedom from obligation, risk and fear for as long as possible.
We are all cheering for that.