I’ve written at length about my father here, or more specifically about his death and the time shortly thereafter, but I’ve not written much about the unsung hero of my life: my mother. I’ve always said I was going to but it never seems to happen. Well today, on her 71st birthday, that horrible exploration of my own sloth should end.
First of all, this is my mother:
Well, more specifically this is my mother and father on their wedding day. Those people who know her now might be surprised she was a redhead, but the rabbit hole goes much deeper than that. But I’m getting ahead of myself, let me go back to the beginning and try to present to you the woman I’m lucky enough to call “mom.”
This little blonde girl is mom, showing off her gleeful “hey look at me” bravado when Vines and Instagrams were non-ironic 8mm cameras. She’s the middle of three children, with an older sister and younger brother. As a little girl she rode horses in the vacant lot next to her parents’ house, got in to trouble with the neighbor girl, and generally was something of a ham.
As she got older she worked in banks, was a regular fixture in the Swallows Day Parade (anyone who has watched old Bugs Bunny cartoons has likely heard him sing “When the Swallows come back to Capistrano”), and even briefly dated a cop from a well-known cop show of its day.
But this is all pretext to the history of my mother that really gets interesting: When I was born. Okay, no that’s not true, but it is the part I’m more directly familiar with.
First and certainly foremost, she’s had to deal with me as a son, which hasn’t been without its tribulations. I certainly didn’t make as easy as I could have, and in hindsight will spend a good deal of my life trying to make amends for some of those things.
For 10 years, she was a band mom for the high school my sister and I attended. She stayed up all night long to keep the teenage hormonal shenanigans to a minimum, and in her most legendary and talked about moment, ran down one of the track stars who had gotten a hot dog and soda while in his band uniform. She hurdled kids, slalomed fences, and ultimately grabbed him the the collar. But don’t let that fool you, she was also well-loved by the students. So much so that when a reunion was held 5 years ago, not only was she invited, she attended and a hit at the party.
She offered to take her ex-husband (my father) in when he was on his death bed, despite a fairly brutal and protracted divorce. That’s more than most people I know would do, but she also did it while she was battling breast cancer and not only would have been forgiven for, but been expected to be a bit more selfish with her time and resources.
But that’s not mom.
I feel like I’m drifting all over the map right now, but that’s the problem with talking about mom,and possibly why it has taken me so long to write this post. The woman is a moving target. Perhaps it’s best to focus on a microcosm of her life; her life since being diagnosed with breast cancer.
Mom was lucky. About as lucky as a person who hears the words, “You have cancer” can be. The tumor was caught early, and it was not aggressive.
While she was going through radiation treatment she was warned that she should try to exercise more to keep her strength up. Now keep in mind, this is a woman who has gotten up at 4:30am every day for the last 20 years to walk upwards of 10 miles a day just for the heck of it. But still, she took the advice to heart, and while in radiation treatment, signed up for her first charity walk. She figured walking 40 miles in 2 days would force her to train harder and keep her motivated.
I don’t think any of us were prepared for what that motivation would do to her, although we probably should have. As mom put it in a speech she gave a few years later, “I’m not a doctor. The cure for cancer isn’t something I can fashion with my hands, so I’m going to use my feet.” She was a woman possessed with a will to raise awareness and fight back against the disease that had tried to sneak into her body and corrupt her from the inside out.
She walked that 40 miles, having received a clean bill of health from her oncologist. She then signed up for her first 3 day walk, with a team called “Cliff’s Crew.” She then contacted the American Cancer Society and started a 24 hour Relay For Life in our home town. And she’s continued to walk every year.
The story could end there and she’d come across as dedicated and altruistic, but again that wouldn’t be mom would it?
Four years ago, on the Avon 2 Day walk she had a sharp pain in her knee, 6 miles in. It buckled her leg underneath her. She was carried back to medical where she was told she couldn’t walk the rest of the event and that she should see her doctor immediately. She begged and pleaded with them to give her crutches so she could finish the 32 miles she hadn’t done yet. They refused and she was sent home.
She had only a couple of months to figure out what was wrong so she could make the walk with Cliff’s Crew for that year’s 3 Day event in San Diego. A gel injection into the meniscus was prescribed and she set out to walk another 60 miles.
On day one, by the time we reached lunch, she was at the back of the pack, dripping with sweat and tears, leaning against a cane with what seemed like the weight of four bodies. I sat her down against a short wall and fetched lunch. She gnawed at a simple sandwich without much interest, her wet and glazed eyes focused on her knee. The color was gone from her face. In all honesty, I was genuinely scared. We talked for 20 minutes on that wall. I argued the value of living to fight another day. She just kept saying, “I can do it.” As the lunch area slowly cleared out, and the crew started the motions of breaking down the lunch pavilion, we sat there on that wall, debating. Increasingly alone in the dwindling column of walkers, a decision had to be reached.
As I remember it, and it’s up for the debate of personal perception, I remember mom saying, “I need to do this.”
I remember answering back, “I will be here for you whatever you decide, but I need you to stop before you can never walk again.” I remember her welling up, and her bottom lip trembling. I hugged her and I felt her sobbing against me. I remember it vividly because it is one of less than a handful of times I’ve ever seen my mother cry. Her walk day was over.
But notice I said walk day? Clearly still in pain, she got up and started walking the 20 miles of day two. She didn’t finish it, but she did finish day 3. I don’t know how, but she finished it.
It wasn’t until after the walk that I learned exactly how big a feat this had been.
The gel injection was meant to “beef up” a weak or thin meniscus, but it turns out that mom simply no longer HAD a meniscus. She had been rubbing bone on bone through the entire walk. The gel, without a meniscus to inject IN to, had simply dispersed around her knee, and within a couple of weeks was no longer a going concern.
She walked to pre-op with 3 trays of homemade cookies. One for the pre-op team, one for the surgical team, and one for the post-op care. When her surgeon had warned her that she would likely need it replaced again in 10 years from the amount of wear she was going to be putting on it, her response was, “Then we’ll replace it again.”
So with a new knee she began training again.
She found her back and hips hurt some, but what would you expect from torquing your back to compensate for walking bone-on-bone?
At some point during that next year of training, while at one of her early morning pleasure walks she suffered a minor stroke. She got to the hospital within a couple of hours, and fortunately it was a hospital that had a stroke center. For a second time, she was quite lucky. By the end of the day, she showed no symptoms of having recently suffered a stroke other than her memory was a little spotty and her general mental agility was a bit slower. One thing she had not slowed down on was her desire to walk. By the evening of her first night in the hospital she was already begging the doctors to let her walk around the stroke ward. Doctors generally hold activity that would raise one’s blood pressure with disdain in the stroke ward, so they forbid it. By the morning though, they had relented under her onslaught and the MRI’s inability to find the stroke. It was something of a surreal picture, this solitary woman holding her I.V. stand and walking around the stroke ward, while every other patient is being kept as immobile as possible. In the end it took four MRIs to find the crafty little bugger, and while very small, it was very real. The cause was never really locked down, but within our family, we feel it was her feverish addiction to landing planes on her tablet.
She was cleared to train once again, and once again she was up and walking. She did the 3 Day that year, but had trouble with her back and her hips. By the end of the year it was getting difficult to stand up from a seated position. So the next year she went back to her surgeon, perhaps there was something wrong with the knee?
I should mention that during this time, the physical therapist she was seeing in the hospital for her knee replacement got cancer. She called mom to walk her through it. Through the good and the rough, mom was always available. That’s mom. In a hospital full of support, the caregiver calls the woman who intrinsically gives care.
As it turned out the knee was holding up. her hips on the other hand, had simply evaporated. Quite literally. One hip socket was so degraded that it was supported more by the muscle she’d developed from decades of walking daily than by bone. Keep in mind, we’re talking about a woman in her late 60’s at this point, I can only hope to have her muscle mass at that age. And one hip was bad enough, but both hips needed surgery. So she had to limit her training until they were done.
She had the hips scheduled to be replaced 11 weeks apart, the last done 7 weeks before the 3 Day. (It could be 7 weeks apart, 11 weeks before, the hospital visits all start running together year after year) So it was back to the hospital two more times, back to the now recovering therapist, and back to the eager smiles and anxious stomachs of the pre-op team, the surgical team, and the post-op care team. She didn’t disappoint. The night before each of the surgeries she stayed up making cookies and toffee for them, and she was downright draconian in her desire to see those treats eaten.
She walked the 3 Day that year on a well-worn artificial knee, and two freshly minted artificial hips. However, all was not well. We lost a member of our 3 Day team to breast cancer that year, a woman mom had helped usher through the waters of breast cancer, and for whom mom had developed a special maternal affection. And on top of that, mom’s artificial knee gave her quite a bit of pain.
Again to the surgeon. And again to surgery. And again to the friends in this hospital that had become a home away from home. A full-service staycation that was only partly covered by insurance, and had the odd initiation ceremony of taking a joint out of your body with each visit. This time she was in because she had tweaked one of the components of her artificial knee so much in trying to compensate for her missing hip sockets the year before that it was out of alignment. The part needed to be replaced.
By this point she was simply known as “Diane with the cookies,” to the pre-op and surgical teams. This time it was the duty of my sister and I to make sure those cookies were properly delivered and eaten. She was no less draconian in her generosity, she had simply learned to delegate. And so, in her seventieth year she walked the 3 Day again, in a brand new shirt emblazoned with the picture of the teammate we lost the year before. This time on two of last year’s model hips, and an even older model knee with some shiny new parts.
Of course you can guess she was not content to just walk the 3 Day. Along the route she helped carry a woman who couldn’t make it down one of the hills, stopped to helped a woman along the route who was suffering heart arrhythmia get transportation back to base camp, and slowed down her pace significantly to make sure a teammate who was struggling this year wasn’t walking alone.
And now, at 71, we start our first training walks of 2015.
That’s who mom is in a microcosm. I’m not venturing in to the tangental facts that while all this is going on she also works full time as a nanny to my two rather precocious nephews, helps her best friend – the little girl next door she used to get in trouble with when she was a hammy blonde – run a theater tour of England every January, and helps care for her even MORE tenacious mother, my 94 year old grandmother.
I don’t think I’ll ever be able to live up to the example of my mother, for the reasons above and the reasons we simply don’t have time to cover, but I’ll do my best. I’ll tell her I love her every time I see her. I’ll smile proudly when she’s not looking, and even get a bit misty from time to time. I’ll try to do the quiet and little things for her without drawing attention to them, the way she’s done my whole life.
I’d love to say I’ll be as great as she is someday, but it seems she’s always two steps ahead.
Happy birthday Mom, I love you.