I preface this piece with the knowledge that both my mother and sister follow my blog postings. I hope what I write here provokes them to write their own version of events, whether fact or fiction, adding their own unique perspective, their own truths. Let our words find the same type of inspiration that the artists De Chirico, Picasso, or Matisse found as they challenged their own perspective and played with multiple and varied focal points to create their own provocative compositions worthy of dialogue and debate.
I guess if you are an adult child that has a living parent, you have anticipated or at least wondered about the fact that parents aren’t invincible; that parents are mere mortals. You have thought, or perhaps tried not to think, about the moment when a parent’s health and/or a physical challenge puts you, the child, in the driver seat. You fantasize how you will do everything well, make the right decisions, and keep everyone’s dignity intact. You will be a blessing, bringing relief to worry, a salve to pain, and you will redeem yourself from all the thoughtless deeds that transpired during your teenage years. For some of us that moment comes later than others, but let me assure you it almost always comes.
For me, my first experience happened when my mother scheduled what some might term a vanity doctor appointment with a vascular surgeon to discuss the removal of varicose veins in her legs. (It is usually only termed “vanity” by those who haven’t had to live with both the physical discomfort and the visual embarrassment of such a condition.) During the initial exam, the surgeon discovered that her carotid artery had an 80% blockage. She was a walking candidate for a massive stroke. Surgery was scheduled and my sister and I scheduled the West Coast to East Coast trip (we live in Seattle, she lives in Florida) to make sure our mother was not alone and could recuperate under supervision. My older sister took the first, and probably most frightening, shift. She would be present for the surgery, hospital stay, and would work her way through the healthcare morass. She was assigned to the vulnerable period. I would come just in time for the first full-day at home and the post-op oversight. I had what I’ve come to think of as the re-claiming of independence period. We planned to have a few days overlap for bonding, change of guard, etc. The good news: my mother sailed through the surgery and was (as she is fond of saying in a pretend thick Slavic accent) “strong as bull.” The surprise? I was no salve, nursemaid, nor teacher. I was still a student, at the hands of my parent, and here is what I think I learned.
How not to stall a car that refuses to idle. Just prior to my arrival, my sister informed me that our mother’s car had a proclivity to die when it came to a stop and particularly in the middle of busy intersections. My sister, under tutelage from my mother, nursed the car to the airport. Once together, my mom tried to give us instructions on the proper technique of driving the car without using the brakes or coming to a complete stop. (Oh, did I mention that the RPM dial and speedometer only worked occasionally.) She was horrified that my sister was driving with her left foot on the brake and her right foot on the accelerator, alternating between the two (and sometime using both at same time) and insisted that we just let her drive or both learn to drive “flat footed.” I still don’t know what that means. When it was my turn, I used the one foot approach with my right heel on the brake and my right toe on the accelerator, and channeled some sort of calm expression on my face to fool my mother that all was under control. Thank goodness for antiperspirant. A few days later, when I finally gave in and let my mother drive, she was beaming and her rate of stalling out the car was far lower than either of her two daughters. I learned that for her, driving a car, whether it stalls or not, means independence.
The time to debate the status of healthcare reform is NOT when your mother is going through a health challenge. This lesson learned may sound obvious to everyone but me, my mom and my sister, but with the system staring you in the face, I think we really believed that the intellect and opinions of three headstrong women would align on such a volatile issue. The discussion quickly disintegrated into separation along generational lines (seniors vs. baby boomers), value judgments (knowledge vs. belief) and ended up with three grown women arguing, pouting, and taking pot shots at each other, all ending in hurt feelings and misunderstandings. We forgot to feel ecstatic about the good prognosis before us. Due to good medical diagnostics, a competent surgeon, and a patient that was “strong like bull” our mother’s 71 year-old carotid artery just got another lease on life. Healthcare is not an intellectual issue, it’s an emotional one, with no easy answers.
I still roll my eyes, and my mother catches me, every time. Yes, I did it. I can blame FOX News for the incident, or the interview with Karl Rove, or the news report on whether the RNC really paid a stripper or was it a hoax. Florida politics, bumper stickers (i.e. Impeach Obama; If you don’t like how I drive, my truck will run over you; Red is my favorite color) or the media’s fascination with Tiger Woods didn’t instill me with a tolerant attitude. Mom, I hope you know that I just missed my NPR, my liberal ideals, and that I need to believe in a better world. I just can’t be inspired with the thought that everyone in elected office is an idiot, a crook, or out to do me in. I learned if in order for me to stop rolling my eyes, it’s best if I don’t watch FOX News anytime soon.
I’m a formidable match for an alpha male cat. My mother’s cat Blue rules the household. He determines what type of furniture survives his claws, what and when he eats, whether you can sleep in or not, and is a suspect when it comes to missing items or broken treasures. He gave my sister a run for her patience as he staged a sit-in on the roof the morning of my mom’s surgery and became the second concern of the household, causing a fraught-filled trip back to the house in order to confirm his sit-in status. This Russian Blue (with a hint of Siamese) is wiry, strong, and intense. By the end of my stay this short, strong and intense woman had Blue at least wondering who was in charge. I learned that leaving a question mark is not a bad idea.
Doors and drains can be easily opened. Sometimes we live with inconvenience and forget how life was before we adopted the obstacles. My sister, the self-taught plumber, fixed the sink stop in my mother’s bathroom and suddenly the act of brushing one’s teeth or washing one’s face was simplified. My meager purchase of a 12-volt battery made the garage door magically function. And a hammer, a few picture hooks and nails, got original paintings off the floor and on the wall to be admired. Not that every door should be easily opened. If we can convince our mother to lock the front door when she is out and not leave the car keys on the floor of the unlocked car when she is shopping or working, we will all be happy.
It takes more than one person to make good food and good wine, good medicine. My mother loves a good deal. Her cupboards are full of eclectic items picked up as she shops closeout sales and inventory reductions. She has a creative mind, follows interesting food trends, and knows the difference between a good buy/brand and junk. She also knows where to find bargain wines before they hit the big time. Unfortunately, to cook for one is not fun, so the items in the cupboards often expire or become stale before they are used. But to break bread and drink wine with friends or family, well that’s a different story. I learned that I could cook a Mediterranean inspired Cornish game hen, make a simplified version of haroseth, and wilt greens in the microwave if we approached it as a culinary version of a scavenger hunt. And I also learned that when the price is right and the wine is good, you never feel guilty about pouring that second glass and toasting to good health.
Things look different in 3-D. Finally, as part of our recuperation/bonding experience, the three of us (mother and two daughters) went to see the Tim Burton movie “Alice in Wonderland in 3D.” What could have been a historical retelling of a well-known book became a feast for the eyes; allowing characters and landscapes to have depth, volume, and texture. As we peered at the screen through our special glasses, I glanced at my sister and mother over the thick black frames and it reminded me that it doesn’t take much to change one’s perspective; sometimes all it takes is the addition of a person or two.