Never too Old to Need our Parents
By Chrystal Rambarath
When my daughter was born, it seemed as if I had crossed over an invisible threshold, into the sacred hallows of parenthood. I did not just become a mother, I also became an adult in my parents eyes. In the almost six years since, my relationship with my parents grew around our shared love for my children. We have celebrated many of the children’s milestones together, even as we clashed about parenting practices. Although my parents have always been there for me, I believe that it was only after I became a parent myself that I started to understand them as adults, and as individuals.
Before I became a mother, thoughts about my parents’ mortality never quite crossed my mind. It was almost as though they were these larger than life characters in my life story, who would always be there to guide and support the ebbs and flows of my personal journey. Since having my children, I became closer to my parents and my concern for their health grew. My parents provided a sense of security. As a new parent, the dawning realization that my time with them was limited, was a sobering thought. As an adult I enjoyed my grandmother’s presence, but would my children be as fortunate?
In hindsight, it seems like these fears and anxieties were not unfounded. Rather, they seemed to be some strange foreshadowing on our lives. Not long after my son turned one and just before my daughter was three, my mother discovered a mass in her lung. When I first heard about it, I dismissed it - because, it had to be nothing, right?
After months of waiting, several tests and tests, doctors’ appointments, we finally got a concrete diagnosis. We were stunned, and numbed into the reality that my mother had lung cancer. I remember going with her to an oncologist and up to that point, I could not even comprehend the possibility of cancer. But the doctor, on the other hand, was talking with her about a brain MRI and the fear of it spreading into the brain. I also recall sitting in the room as my mom underwent her first brain MRI, wondering how this could be real. I will never forget the irony of being with her on another doctor’s visits and hearing her pulmonologist say to my mom, who suffers from chronic asthma and is a non-smoker, that her lungs were clear. That seemed surreal as we had just been told she had Stage III non small cell adenocarcinoma!
To say that the world stopped, and the bottom fell out of our safe zone would be an understatement. When we first heard the news, it more than consumed us. I was angry with my husband and the world for making me have to get on a plane back to our lives and jobs in the Washington, DC area. We did not know how much time we had with her and it felt that we must be nearer to her. Less than half a year later, we sold our home and I gave up a promising job in my chosen career path.
We moved to Florida in time for me to go to some of her chemotherapy treatments and radiation visits. We got to see the pain and suffering she endured in the immediate aftermath of her treatment. Seeing your parent writhe in pain while you are helpless is an excruciating experience.
The highs and lows seem regular. We celebrated her hair growing back. Just when we thought we had hit rock bottom we learned that her cancer had moved into her brain. She did not immediately tell us. I remember putting my kids to bed, and driving to her house in my nightgown to talk with my mom, brother and dad. I went home that night, and laid on my bed staring at the ceiling contemplating a world without my mother. I only ever felt this sense of loss and hopelessness when I lost my first child. I wondered what my dad’s life would be like. I remember thinking he was too young to be alone, but how and could we ever welcome his new wife if he had one? I was getting ahead of myself…
But the funny thing about being on down low is that you have to get up. And when it’s your loved one’s life on the line, you get up fighting. My mother - both my parents - had always advocated for me, and there comes a time when the child must be the parent’s champion. I voiced my dissatisfaction with her initial provider and found her a better oncologist attached to an academic medical research facility. Though we have had a few stumbles, my mom is still here.
Since my mother’s diagnoses, I’ve felt very angry, at everyone, and the fates. I often said if people reaped life’s rewards based on sheer effort, my mother would be one of the wealthiest. I was angry and sad that she has not traveled to all the places she dreamed of, or had seen or experienced all that she could. I wanted so much more for her.
However, my mother tries to live a selfless life. She has always been a provider. She shows her love by doing something for us - cooking, cleaning, putting others’ needs ahead of her own. In doing so she often missed the point of the moment. I have never been able to make her understand that on the day of my wedding, I was not concerned by whatever else she was attending to. I simply wanted her to be with me as I was dressed and prepared to leave my parent’s home for the last time as an unmarried woman. Even after her diagnosis, my mom still takes care of everyone, when all I want for her is to enjoy the moment. I know these are her ways of showing love and that we will miss it when she’s not with us. But what I want from her is to know her, to talk to her, and to spend time with her...
After leaving our life in DC behind, we settled one mile away from her home. I know that for many, living too near family could be difficult, and I am not immune to that. The recent political climate in the country has caused turmoil in many families. Where I used to be able to talk about big ideas, I find that I can no longer speak my mind and heart for fear of upsetting my mother. One of the perils of knowing your parents as adults is also the shocking realizations that they are not who you always assumed them to be. I now more clearly recognize both my parents’ biases and values and I don’t always agree. But, because of my mother’s illness, I cannot pursue those discussions. It is a disappointing and frustrating feeling to understand that sometimes you cannot reach your own parents. That you must reject some of their beliefs despite holding them up on pedestals your entire life, and knowing the clock is ticking, the only choice is to concede...
It is approaching three years since my mom received this devastating diagnosis. Though her pain and suffering is immense, and none of us can bear it for her, we carry our own pain and suffering too. We all deal with the grief and the worry, and lend our support in our way. Caring for my two young children, who command most of my waking hours, limits how much support I can offer my mom. There are many times when her doctor’s appointments occur when I have no other care for my children. It is truly a bitter irony to me that I cannot reciprocate all the care and attention my mom gave to me in her time of need.
I mollify myself by focusing on giving my mom experiences she thought she did not have time or money for prior to becoming sick. I’m helping her and my children build memories that my children can share with their children. It may not be what my mother wants at times, but I try to not let her drown in her worries and often distract her, even if it means teasing her or instigating a squabble.
Every quarter brings a new set of tests for my mom and bated, hopeful breaths for good news. We have been lucky so far and while we have it, we take it. It seems so unfair that after a lifetime of providing for us, that just as we are able to relate to and understand our parents, there is so little time. The only thing we can hope for is that we realize this and appreciate our parents earlier in our lives, so that we can enjoy them as the interesting, complex, whole people they are. We will never be too old to need our parents.
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