|No matter how old you are, sometimes you still want your mom to come to the rescue.|
About this time last year, I came up with what I thought was an extraordinary realization.
It was a revelation that lasted but a few months. Soon I found that all the insight in the world did not matter. We are mother and daughter. Always have been. Always will be.
My mother, the nurse, knew that I was ill. Something wasn’t working right; she saw it in my walk.
Get to a doctor, she said, and I agreed. I just wanted to make the 275-mile journey from Mt. Horeb,Wis., back to Des Moines.
Mom, it’s me. I’m in the hospital, but don’t worry. I’ll call you back later after my spinal tap.
“Do you want me to come down?” my mother asked when I finally reached her.
“Do you want me to come down?” she repeated.
“Do you want me to come down?” she asked again. She could be there by the next day.
Yes, I said. Please.
My health has always been a strange bond between my mother and me. In a family full of six children, me in the middle duo, it was about the only way to get the rare one-on-one with Mom.
There were the leg braces as a small child and the shopping trips to get corrective shoes. There was the back brace as an adolescent, which meant trips to Milwaukee for a specialist and years of doctor appointments. Those meant time off from school, afternoons at the mall, lunch in a nice restaurant or hot fudge sundaes at the ice cream parlor.
When she was on her way to Des Moines, I knew I had made the correct choice. Overnight, my health had worsened. I had been diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a potentially crippling neurological disorder. The previous day, I was able to walk into the doctor’s office. Now, 24 hours later, I could barely walk at all.
Guillain-Barre is a weird thing. Who it attacks and what it attacks are random. Out-of-control antibodies attack the coating on the nerve endings instead of a virus that is already in your system, something as minor as a flu bug.
The effect is, essentially, the short-circuiting of the central nervous system. Any nerve or muscle in your body is a target, from the ability to blink to the ability to breathe. Which ones are hit is merely luck of the draw. Although the prognosis is generally optimistic, what abilities patients may recover and when are equally a mystery.
My mom knew of the diagnosis from my phone call --my doctors had figured as much when they saw me walk into the office. Ironically, that day at work, a co-worker of my mom’s had returned a pamphlet on Guillain-Barre that she had borrowed from my mother’s files. It had just been there at the hospital for future reference. My mother needed it sooner than she thought.
I don’t remember much of the first weeks I was ill. I just know my mother was there. She slept in the bed beside me and did everything a sick person would need, everything you use a call button for to summon a nurse.
She walked me to the bathroom, clinging to me as I shuffled along in baby steps. She opened the food containers that my bumbling hands couldn’t manage and filled out menus for the next day’s meals because I could not write. She quietly ducked out of my room to give me privacy when my boyfriend or friends came by or it was time for my doctor to ask me personal questions.
She watered my flowers and complained on the rare days we didn’t get any. Yes, we. “Aw, nobody sent us flowers today,” my mom would joke.
She watched my health slip and was there when I was at my worst. My friends were supportive and my boyfriend was a rock, yet it was my mother who was the glue. She was the one who saw me at my worst. She saw things none of the rest did.
She was there when we couldn’t make the trip to the bathroom anymore and she had to lift me off the bed onto the commode. This is a woman of 64; I am nearly 6 feet tall. Her strength still amazes me.
Yet, there was always the mother-daughter thing underneath all of this. In addition to the Guillain-Barre, my doctors were searching for the virus that triggered it. My liver was not functioning properly, so there was a barrage of tests. One particular type of hepatitis test came back positive.
Whatever, I thought, more pills.
"What have you been doing?" my mother inquired.
Turns out this form of hepatitis can be sexually transmitted. My mom the nurse knew this; I didn’t. The scowl of disapproval from her is one I’ll never forget, even after someone came in 10 minutes later to say she read the test wrong and I didn’t actually have that ailment.
That didn’t matter; the damage was done.
Because my mother saw me in much worse shape than anyone else, I’m grateful she’s the one who was there when things began to turn around. One day, I took a nap and when I awoke I realized I was sick of my room. Except for, literally, lame attempts at walking down the hall, I really hadn’t been outside of it in two weeks.
Yet all of a sudden there was a wheelchair in my room and I wanted to get out. It was as if I were a small child asking a parent if I could see where they worked. I could get a sense of the happiness my mom got just from giving me a tour of the hospital. I wanted to get out of bed and sit in a chair; this was also a breakthrough that my mom was more than happy to accommodate. Little things, but big things.
She went to Wal-Mart to buy me the sweat pants I would need for my move to the rehab unit. Together we made the move upstairs and saw my new room.
Who will I call to take me to the bathroom? I asked. That’s what they pay the nurses for, Mom said. What if I need something in the middle of the night? I asked. Use your call button, Mom said.
At age 35, I was terrified at the thought of my mother not being there. And after the first day of physical and occupational therapies, she knew my days were full without her and it was time for her to go back home to Wisconsin.
I could have been a child left at the kindergarten door. I could have been a Girl Scout on my way to camp. I could have been a college student dropped off at the dormitory. I may as well have been for the way it hit me that I was on my own, without my mother.
The whole point of rehabilitation is to teach you independence. They just never specify from what.
A month later, I was out of the hospital and walking with a cane. My mom returned to spend a week with me, and it’s a trip I still kind of feel guilty about six months later.
I wasn’t the toddler who needed my mother anymore. I was a teenager hell-bent on proving my independence.
She arrived just at the time it was becoming conceivable that I would recover and be able to take care of myself. A pity she had to go through that with me twice in one lifetime.
Somewhat surly, I didn’t really say much at home. That had nothing to do with her; in six weeks in the hospital I had made a lifetime’s worth of small talk and I just felt like keeping to myself.
"Sorry," I replied.
She left one day to go to the casino. I took my car and drove around the neighborhood. Days before, I had discovered that my hands and feet worked well enough to drive and I just wanted to get out of the house alone.
The difference in age is this, however. I realized my rudeness in about a weekend. When you actually are a teenager, it takes about a decade.
But a few years before my mother was this age, she gave birth to a daughter who would grow up to need her just as much at 35 as she did at 5. She is my mother and I am her daughter, regardless of age.
(This post first appeared as an article in the Des Moines Register in May 1997.)