The very difficult emotions of caring for a sick parent

My mom is sick. Because of what can only be described as my crazy family dynamics I did not find out for 24 hours that she was taken by ambulance to the hospital in septic shock from pneumonia. She was hypotensive on arrival (not good) and pancytopenic (low white cell count, low hemoglobin, and low platelets – not good either). A CT scan showed multiple large, irregular lymph nodes in her chest. Worrying for lymphoma. To make matters worse there are no phones in the hospital rooms so I can’t actually speak with her (no, it’s not the third world, it’s Winnipeg, and while not having a phone is a pain in the ass, she won’t have a co-payment to worry about and won’t be booted out to a skilled nursing facility the second she can walk, so I’ll take the no phones any day). The plan is either a mediastinal biopsy or bone marrow biopsy later in the week. She’s 78 so that just makes it all that much more grim.

While I suppose this day, or at least one like it, was inevitable it is very tough, because my mother and I have had what I can only call a complicated history.

I have never been good enough. As I child I was reminded about that in a physical way, but the emotional roller coaster was pretty bad too. If I said something she didn’t agree with (and it varied day to day, so what made her laugh one day would bring storm clouds the next) the typical response was, “Do you want to feel the back of my hand across your face?” If there was an audience, so much the better. When I was little no one wanted to play at my house, and when I got older my friends would whisper, “Boy, your mom’s in a bad mood today.” I would laugh, because that was often said when she was having quite a good day! I didn’t let people visit on bad days.

My 4.0 in high-school, full scholarship to college, 4.0 in college, and graduating from medical school at the age of 23 were also not enough. In fact, she made a comment about how I didn’t get the gold medal. There was no gold medal at my medical school…it was pass/fail because the Dean believed the point was to learn how to take care of patients, not be competitive with each other! Even after I moved away, getting off the airplane to come home for a visit I would be greeted with phrases like, “You look less fat,” or “At least those glasses are better than your other ones.” And then of course, my personal favorite, “Is that hair on your top lip?”

I have done everything in my power to break that cycle. My boys know nothing about that part of my life, maybe later when they can understand a bit more. And as grandma has mellowed with age, they see a different side.

My husband was a little shocked when I said I was going home. He knows the history and when I was hospitalized with the boys he experienced the front line first hand. My parents came to visit, Aidan has just died and we did not know when I would deliver Oliver and Victor, and things were so bad for him alone at the house with her that he had to fly in his brother in to run interference! That was enough to break my fog of despair, because up until then he believed I had “exaggerated” things. I have never laughed so hard in my life.

So why I am going?

I survived growing up by always having some internal standard of what is right and by never, ever letting anyone beat that out of me. I stand up for myself and deal with the consequences. That mantra has served me well throughout my life.

I could stay at home. Truthfully, given my family situation my husband would understand and given the weirdness of my parents and their staid Britishness they would understand.

But that’s not the right thing to do.

If I look at my mother’s background there are a million formative reasons. I don’t think that’s an excuse, but it is important information. I am sure what I was exposed to was less that what she endured.

I believe I have ended the cycle. My kids no nothing but love (although we discipline, it is never with a a raised hand or voice). But what will they think of me growing up? Will they remember all of my nights beside hospital beds, home made Halloween costumes, and crazy road trips, or something else?

Ultimately, breaking the cycle is about actions, not words. Not physical actions, but about how we live. I want my kids to understand that caring for people is not always easy, but it is the caring that makes us special. And sometimes, the only thing we have to offer is caring and what a great gift it is.

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4 Responses to The very difficult emotions of caring for a sick parent

  1. Jeff says:

    Good for you. It’s hard to step outside of what you know and break a cycle. For me, it was corporal punishment. I’m proud my wife taught me not to hit our kids (I was whipped all the time).

  2. Casey says:

    My grandmother was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in May, she was given 6 months but we could tell very soon after that it would not be so long. It had metastasized in her bones.
    When my mom realized that her mother would be dying soon, she sprung into action, acting as a live-in home health aid. The things we all did as a family for grandma are things you think you’ll never have to do. Tend to bed sores, change depends, sponge baths, spoon food a grown person, administer sub-lingual morphine……… my mom even had to do a fecal de-impaction.
    My grandmother was the kind of woman who said what she felt, whether it was hurtful or not. I remember being 10 yrs old and her telling me how fat I looked in my bathing suit.
    I quit my own job last month to help ease the burden for my own mother, and I am very thankful that I did. It is not an easy thing to help somebody through the end of their days, but somebody has to do it because nobody wants to die alone.

  3. Randall Griffith says:

    What a brave choice. Whatever has been bothering your mother for lo all these many years, have chosen the path less taken and risen above it and her.

  4. Diane from Saranac Lake, New York says:

    It was good that tonight I stumbled on this web page. 17 years ago my dad died, a dad to whom my world revolved. Now I a caring for my mom, a mom whose tormenting was- is – challenging. I am one of four, oldest is my brother, then a sister, me, and another sister. My roots are strict Polish Catholic. Women, daughters,….females are meant to serve the needs of the family, especially ill parents.

    Nothing is greater than to have the privilege to say “my son the doctor”. I have two masters degrees and a Phd; I can wire and plumb a house; I can deadweight lift 80 pounds; and my sisters and I can also change the sheets, Clorox the bathrooms, vacuum and dust my mom’s house, because daughters do that and not sons. I can’t be ” my son the doctor.”

    After spending three nights care taking my mom (she lives 225 km away), I came home despondent. This web site helped. Courageous of you for helping your mom. I am SURE our moms love us.

    Tomorrow will be a better day.

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