My Truth About Illness in the Family

Mom with Lymphoma Cancer and Stroke

For as long as I could remember my mom had always been sick. Growing up I remember how often she would feel tired, how often she would be bedridden from intense migraines, her frequent visits to the acupuncturist and the perfectly rounded bald spot hidden at the top of her head caused by undue stress.  It wasn’t until years later, when my sister Audrey and I reached middle school that we discovered it had a name –  she had Leukemia, then it was Multiple Sclerosis and finally, the correct diagnosis, Lymphoma Cancer.

A tumor had formed in her brain and none of it had registered. My sister and I would have extended sleepovers at close family friends’ homes while my mom received treatment. Truth be told, I don’t remember much more than this. Before I knew it we had an in-home caregiver who quickly became a sister to Audrey and I, and my once beautifully (still beautiful) thick raven haired mom became bald. What felt like shortly afterwards, my mom had suffered from a stroke and then another. The right side of her body became limp and her right hand developed a tremor. Her outer appearance was still Sherry, but like she often tells me, “People think I look normal – they don’t know that I’m sick”.

My recollection of my mom’s illness, how it happened, when it happened, when she recovered, when it worsened, is one giant blur. At times I wonder if it’s because I were too selfish to care or a more forgiving point-of-view people offer, is that I’ve managed to suppress my memories. These gracious people express their empathy and oftentimes commend Audrey and I for being such great daughters, and my dad for being the wonderful husband/dad that he is. I’m sure many have experienced something similar to us. I’d like to share some of the darker realities I’m sure others can relate to. If not, then I must be a more terrible person than I feared.

I’ll recount yesterday’s outing with my mom to shed some light.

The other day I take mom out to Lakeshore. My mom doesn’t show many emotions –  from time to time I observe her expression staring blankly out to the road ahead from the passenger seat. I blare music in the car and notice she’s unconsciously tapping her feet and nodding her head to the music. She especially loves Macy Gray. I know this because though she’s never listened to “I Try”, she still attempts to sing along in tune, seconds delayed. She also asks whether Macy Gray is black because to my mom, black people are indisputably the best singers.

When we arrive I make sure to ask if she’s hungry before we set out to walk by the lake. She says yes so we eat something quick and easy. Pizza with Grape Fanta. After this, I take her to the bathroom to get it out of the way before our walk. Right as we’re about to head out she tells me she’s thirsty. She begs to have the rest of the Grape Fanta but I know the carbohydrates will only leave her feeling more thirsty. Instead, I allow her one measly sip of water to avoid having to walk back to the main street for another bathroom break. I want everything to run smoothly so that our much anticipated walk by the lake is pleasant and goes uninterrupted.

I wheel mom up unlevelled sidewalks and rocky gravel until we reach the smooth paved trail unwinding alongside beautiful lush parks and sparkling water. We listen to the water lapping against rocks and point to pretty trees towering over us. Mom thanks me repeatedly for taking her out and I’m saddened I don’t do this more often. I’m especially saddened knowing something as simple as a walk is one of the little joys she gets to experience.

“Thank you Lauren. Thank you Lauren.” She says repeatedly.

Midway through our walk I can tell my mom is distracted. She’s no longer looking out to the water and she’s slumped on her chair.

“Lauren, let’s go back. I need to go to the bathroom.” I immediately turn to frustration.

“Can’t you go in your diaper?”

“NO!” She exclaims incredulously.

I’m ashamed I even ask this.

“I told you not to take that sip! You weren’t going to die of thirst!”

I hastily wheel the chair around and I walk faster than my normal speed-walking pace, angry, sweating, and racing. This time I run over her feet because she’s brought them down to pace with me. I hear her wince as she let’s out a loud “OW!”

“How many times do I have to tell you not to do that! I’m pushing you – you don’t need to do that. Otherwise you’ll get hurt like this!”  

I hear my mom:

“I’m sorry Lauren. I’m sorry Lauren.” She says repeatedly.

I tell her to stop saying she’s sorry. Whether I want her to stop to rid my guilt or because I don’t want her to feel as though she’s a burden like she often thinks she is, I’m unsure. Probably a bit of both. I make a pit stop to the nearest bathroom on our way out of the park. The bathroom is dingy and my mom is visibly uncomfortable taking care of her business here. She really had to go but I can tell she’s quieted herself as soon as another woman enters the tight spaced bathroom. Even with her sickness disrupting her bowel control, my mom refuses to poop undignified. I roll my eyes, wait until the other woman leaves, wait until my mom finishes, help her back into the chair and we’re off again.

I walk us back begrudgingly to the car as we return back to the main street feeling angry at myself for having so little patience and understanding. I was looking forward to this walk and I ruined it, I thought to myself. Then I hear my mom’s voice: “What’s in there?” It’s as if she’s forgotten the entire incident. She points  to one of the small boutiques that’s caught her eyes. I’ve been given another chance to make this trip worthwhile. “Let’s go in.” I say. We browse the hippie styled shop and share our likes and dislikes. I wheel mom through the sex toy aisle and watch her engrossed with a look of disgust as we pass through all the pink plastic dildos and laugh at her. We leave feeling ready to leave. Both of us happy to have gone.

Moments ago I was prepared to tell myself I’m never doing this again. I was overcome with a mixture of guilt and anger but I realize, if I want to make progress with helping my mom find happiness I just have to keep pushing through. Push through the guilt, leap at the opportunity to make things better and press forward. If you’re short-tempered  like myself, I know it’s cheesy to say, it does get better. You will start to become a little more understanding. Lucky for me I have a mom who has the memory of a goldfish when it comes to my wrongdoings. By the end of the trip she exclaims:

“Take me with you the next time you come here!”