This November has been very special. It’s the first month of my media career sabbatical — a month that I devoted to my mom.
My mom survived a stroke eight years ago, when she was just 52 years old. Although I am grateful that she remains the strong-willed woman she was prior to that fateful day in 2006, that stroke stole so much from her. It stripped her of speech, replacing it with aphasia (the inability to articulate words). It left her with a weakened right side, which slows down her every movement. It poked holes in her cognitive ability, demonstrated daily when she’s unable to comprehend simple statements or requests.
To see my mom go from independent-minded mother-wife-physician to someone who is so utterly dependent upon others … is something with which I don’t think I’ve ever fully dealt. There is acceptance of her condition, yes, and acknowledgement of the “silver linings” that came with her survival. But it doesn’t prevent this question from continually creeping up: “Why?”
Over the years — this past year especially — I’ve witnessed her physical and cognitive abilities decline. In some aspects, it’s been a very sharp decline. It’s motivated me to take action. To help. To be more fully present. To spend time with my mom. To observe her as only a daughter can. To get her out of the house. To provide stimulation. To encourage her to try new things. To perhaps even encourage some amount of progress.
Time is precious. If there is any “silver lining” out of my mom’s stroke that trumps all others, it’s that our time on this earth is paper-thin precious. I certainly learned this the day I almost lost my mom. I also get gentle reminders about this from my friends who’ve lost a parent, or both parents. They cannot get that time back. I, on the other hand, still have the opportunity to make the most of this time together. Career can take a temporary backseat to this time I am allocating for us. I am incredibly fortunate in that I can financially and emotionally afford to put “the real world” on pause like this.
For those who might chuckle and think that this month has been “easy,” I chuckle back at you. It’s been exhausting and frustrating at times. Atop the other life challenges and opportunities with which I’ve been juggling, attending to my mom can be like trying to keep a kindergartener happily preoccupied — only it’s not my child, it’s my mother. When she doesn’t understand something, I cannot get angry. When she tries to express herself in garbled language, I need to be patient and encouraging while doing my best to interpret. When she doesn’t listen to me, I need to keep a thick skin when my scolding gets an eyeroll. When she cannot move as quick as I’d like her to move, I need to remind myself to slow down — which is a beautiful lesson for the both of us, really.
In every situation we’ve encountered, no matter how challenging, I just gather as much patience and empathy as is stockpiled for that day and forge ahead. I recognize the role reversal at work here, and it’s something that I’m still learning to accept. I want to remain the daughter, the one who is taken care of, nurtured, provided for, mothered. But, any child who is lucky enough to watch their parents enter into retirement years knows that these roles will reverse (if even by a few degrees) in time. It’s just happening a little sooner for me than my other friends. The positive thing is that each moment with her illuminates new perspective, growth and humor. And with that, acceptance of my evolving “role” of daughter-mother will come.
I don’t know if my mom’s physical and cognitive abilities will continue to slip, or if anything I’ve tried to accomplish this month in the form of traditional and non-traditional therapy will stick. Many of our activities integrated physical therapy into the diversion — i.e. chopping apples during a baking class (strengthening the right hand), knowing when to get on the correct bus (cognitive).
One thing I do know: November 2013 is a beautiful vignette of memories. If anything, those memories are a form of therapy in itself. Not only for my mom … but for me, too.
One this eve of Thanksgiving, I have so, so, so, so, so, so much for which to be thankful.
My mother is one of them.
Some highlights from our time together this November
We learned how to make apple-cranberry pie …
… and how to decorate cakes.
We went to the theater several times …
… and attended a performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
We explored several museums.
We pretended to be fancy while sipping tea at The Drake.
We attended a painting class … and learned how to paint a naked man.
We took the ‘El’ and CTA buses around Chicago, something that provided my mom with a newfound freedom and sense of empowerment.
We hung out with drag queens at an entertainment-infused brunch.
We explored diverse Chicago neighborhoods.
We learned how to make perfume.
While I won’t be present for Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations in Chicago this year (as I will be in Nepal), we got an early start on celebrating the holidays together.