In praise of toughness

November 18, 2007

My dad’s surgery has been rescheduled for Thursday, December 6. So…onward.

I’ve been thinking about this post for the last several days, sure that my words won’t do the situation and the person involved any real justice. But I keep coming back to the fact that I have to try, that maybe my effort will somehow explain to me and to you what I consider one of my life’s great and mysterious truths.

My mom is one tough woman. You might not know it to look at her anymore. You might be fooled by the shakiness in her hands — a post chemotherapy side effect — or you might focus on her humped back — an osteoporosis and quite probably, multiple myeloma side effect. You could see her need to nap most afternoons as some kind of concession or defeat. And true, she appears that one stiff gust of wind could knock her down. Her body seems spindly to me these days and even her face has thinned somewhat alarmingly.

But here’s where you would discover the difference between external and internal strength. My mom was not supposed to be alive today, at least according to the first oncologist she saw, the foolish ass who wrote her off as having no more than six months. But ah, he gave her a gift too, with his brusque and fatalistic attitude. He made her mad. He made her determined. And with the help of a new and significantly better oncologist, she lived. Hell, she thrived. She resumed her life — her laundry, her house-keeping, her fondness for scouring down antiques, her love of her grandchildren. In short, my mom had toughness reserves completely unrealized by her first oncologist. And probably, to some extent, by her very own family.

So now she comes to this new point of life crisis — where my dad needs major and dangerous heart surgery and where she, herself, is struggling against the cancer coming back full force and more recently, a debilitating and disfiguring condition in her jaw. No one would fault her for flagging just a bit or for giving up all together. But somehow, she isn’t giving up. Instead, she talks longingly of spring when my dad will feel better in his recovery and when her cancer will be under better control. I suspect that she knows, on some level, that neither of these things may come to pass. Chance is a good thing, though, and that’s what she’s banking on. She’s putting one foot in front of the other and getting through each day so that she can do the same the next day.

After I took her to the oncologist on Thursday, she wanted me to take her grocery shopping. She could have given me her list, and I would have gladly done this for her. But no, she wanted to go grocery shopping. So she propped her tired body on the cart and went up and down the aisles picking out everything she wanted. Then we went back to her home and put the groceries away — just so, because my mom has impeccable organization skills (something she apparently did not pass on to her daughter, but anyway). Then she took me to lunch. So like the many many times we’ve done before. Sure there are differences: we make sure we have her handicapped placard to minimize her need to walk far, and it takes her longer to chew and swallow because of her jaw condition (though she’d be the first to tell you that she’s always been a slow eater). But she’s still my mom, still has the same acerbic wit, the same interest in all-things-me that only a mother can offer, the same kind heart and spirit, the same stories she has always shared.

So often in this process I focus on what my mom — and frankly, by extension, I — have lost. But she’s still my mom. And she’s tougher than I think I’ll ever be.

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2 Responses to “In praise of toughness”

  1. Liz said

    i laughed when i read “my mom has impeccable organization skills(something she apparently did not pass on to her daughter” because i did not get any of the domestic skills that my mom has. i know what is going on in her and your dad’s life is NOT funny at all i just have found myself in conversations lately about not getting some of the skills that my mom has. i think too i have found that the generation that your parents and my mom is from is a very hard working keep going and going probably some lessons learned from the great depression years. i know often times i call my mom the duracell bunny…..i hope that this week you can get some rest and have some really great family times together.

  2. kate whitman said

    Wow. People can be so amazingly resilient. What a gift you have had to have these extra years with her, and to learn more about how amazing she truly is. There is much reason for thanksgiving.
    Life is so odd – we are confronted with sorrow gift wrapped with threads of the amazing. Your mom is an inspiration for all of us.
    May you have moments of joy this Thanksgiving.
    Love,
    Kate

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