Thursday, November 22, is Thanksgiving in the U.S. It is also the 30th anniversary of the surgery I had for what was then thought to be severe ulcerative colitis. It was a difficult time for me, but one for which I will be thankful for on Thanksgiving and really every day. Yes, I got my health back as a result of the surgery, but that wasn’t the best part.
The most important part, the silver lining, was that I got to know my Mom, and it started a close relationship that lasted for the rest of her life and that I will feel grateful for for the rest of mine.
Mom was the sweetest woman on the planet. My friends adored her. Our house was always open to hoards of kids. We lived near the beach, and it was convenient for everybody to just hang at our house. But it was more than that. For years dozens of teens used our house as their home away from home. There was always room, always plenty to eat, always a welcome. No one was ever turned away, and the answer to “can So-And-So stay the night” (or “the weekend” or in some cases “the summer”) was always “sure.”
But we weren’t close, Mom and I. I was Daddy’s girl from the start. Mom, well, I loved her. I even liked her, mostly. It’s just that there wasn’t a whole lot about Mom to make me respect her. She was completely helpless, you see. Hopelessly so. I can’t stand that and never have been able to deal with dependent people. And “helpless”? That was Mom in a nutshell.
She didn’t drive. She didn’t shop without Dad. She didn’t go for a walk alone. She didn’t try to take control of family problems and help figure out how to solve them. She waited for my dad to get home to reprimand, make a decision, to blow her nose, or so it seemed. She was utterly and totally dependent upon my Dad. It was incredibly annoying to this girl growing up in the late sixties and seventies during one of the strongest pushes for equal rights for women. My friends’ mothers were out protesting the Vietnam War. Mine didn’t even vote. They burned their bras; Mom ironed hers. They voiced their opinions ever more loudly. Mom looked to Dad to indicate which way was up.
After I left home and became more self-sufficient, my irritation at Mom’s inability to do anything without Dad’s help, grew.
So when Mom announced, just weeks before I was to have radical, difficult surgery, that she was going to come to help, well, I panicked. She was going to help me? Yeah right. Her announcement sent me into apoplexy. It was the worse possible news heaped on a whole ream of really shitty news. Who the hell was going to help her?
I lived with my roommate, Keily, and my 120 lb. alcoholic German Shepherd, Goliath, in a tiny Washington, DC, townhouse, in a not terribly safe area. I was sure that Mom would get mugged — she’d make an easy target. I feared that she would let the dog out and they would both die. I drove a battered and temperamental VW Bug with a stick shift that Mom didn’t know how to use. And of course, I wasn’t going to be able to help her because I was going to be recovering from having my guts totally ripped open and reorganized.
I couldn’t believe she would do this to me.
At the same time I couldn’t hurt her feelings and tell her that I didn’t want her. Nope. I could never have done that. Not if my life depended on it. Which of course, it might.
But once she dropped that bomb, I stopped worrying about the surgery, about the recovery, about everything except how I would take care of my caretaker. Thankfully, my brother Fred came to help too. He could drive my car; he could help with Mom for the week he took off from work. My roommate, Keily, was a star, too. (That’s a whole different story.) But Mom came for what was a very long recovery, 2-1/2 months, so felt like I’d be pretty much on my own in taking care of her.
It wasn’t long after she arrived before I realized that Mom without Dad was a different person. Dad loved the caretaker role, and she was happy to let him play it. Without Dad, Mom had opinions on stuff, could make decisions and could give savvy and sage advice. I decided quickly that maybe she and I were related after all.
And as soon as we got to the hospital, I was incredibly glad she was there. I was admitted and headed up to my room, sending Mom and Fred to get settled in their hotel. It was about dinnertime, which didn’t matter to me; I’d been on a clear liquid diet for about a week. And while I was starving, I knew I couldn’t eat. I had my instructions from my doctor:
(1) Do not eat; (2) Continue taking your medicines just like you are now; (3) Show up to the hospital. (Always pay attention to the details when your guts are on the line.)
Now Hopkins is one of the best hospitals in the country and it was also one of only two places in the country where the operation I was to have could be performed. The surgery was brand, spankin’ new – just a smidge beyond experimental. It was dangerous. It was highly specialized. My doctors were to take out my large intestine, rearrange what was left of my plumbing so that things worked normally, and close me up. Two surgeries were involved – they had to give me a colostomy (ewwww – a bag) in between the two surgeries while my innards healed. Only 100 of these surgeries had been done in the world. I was my surgeon’s 7th. I was scared shitless which is saying a whole lot for a girl with bowel trouble.
But when I got to the hospital, everything went wrong. They tried to insist I eat; they tried to give me the wrong medicine; they forgot about me and left me hanging out in my room where I fell asleep for several hours before someone wondered who I was. The grand finale came when two nurses wheeled in an EKG machine, hooked me up and turned it on – and the machine started smoking. The nurses, trying valiantly not to laugh, had to quickly unplug it and get it out of there.
I called her at her hotel in a complete panic, hysterical.
“I am not going to have this surgery. What kind of a hospital is this? They can’t even get an EKG machine to work. It was smoking Mom, SMOKING!!!! I’m not. I’m not. I’m not.”
How is it that Moms know just how to calm down the most hysterical daughter? I was and she did. And she didn’t need Dad one little bit. Yup, she calmed me down, and then, I heard later, called the nurses’ desk and chewed them out royally. I’m pretty sure that was the first time she’d ever chewed anyone out. But she wasn’t going to let anybody or anything upset her daughter or get in the way of the surgery that her daughter desperately needed. And whatever she said worked. Nothing else got screwed up. They paid attention to her daughter.
In fact, Helpless Mom became SuperMom. She corralled doctors when they didn’t come in a timely manner, she sweet-talked most of the nurses and they seemed to come around more and more often as they laughed and joked with Mom. She was on a first name basis with all the residents and interns, knew if they were married, where they were from. They got a little bit of mothering whenever they came into the room, and she charmed the lot of them.
She was always full of laughter, encouragement and fun. Except when her sixth sense told her that I was feeling sorry for myself; then she’d tell me to stop sniveling. Sometimes I needed that.
Back at home, she was great too. She found the grocery store and walked to and from, lugging bags of food. She fed me and Keily, gave beer to the dog, helped me get upstairs and downstairs. Helped me do many things that were totally disgusting. She helped me be independent again. We laughed our way through Christmas together and then my birthday in January. We laughed for two months, barely coming up for air. We talked a whole lot, too, about everything. We became fast friends.
There is one incident though, that made me realize that I’d never really known her before. Could this crazy woman really be my Mom?
We’d driven my VW to Baltimore for a pre-surgical checkup before the 2nd surgery, scheduled for the 9th of February. It was late January, and there were several inches of snow on the ground. On the way back home, the VW died in the center lane of a busy highway. I managed to coast to the side of the road, where the bug sighed once and died. Shit. I was still not at my best, and the promise of a long snowy walk was not a pleasant one for either Mom or I.
But a blue Honda Civic two-door driven by a big burly guy pulled up along the roadside next to us. He rolled down the window and asked if we needed a lift. I was about to explain that my car had just died and would he please call a tow truck, when, well, Mom jumped into the back seat! I stood there with my mouth flapping. Because I could hear her voice from my childhood talking in the back of my head:
NEVER EVER UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES GET INTO A CAR WITH A STRANGE MAN.
THEY ARE ALL RAPISTS
But there she was, the woman who taught me never, ever, to get into a car with a rapist — she was in the back seat of a stranger/potential rapist’s car. WTF????? What the hell was she doing?
I didn’t know what else to do, so I got into the front seat. And there on the floor was something else that shocked me: A teddy bear with a green t-shirt that said “I’m Going To Steal Your Love.”
“Wonderful,” I thought, “a rapist with a sense of humor.”
As it turned out, the guy wasn’t a rapist — really! He took us to a reputable garage where they agreed to tow and fix my damn car.
But the adventure wasn’t over yet — we still needed to get home. The hotel across from the garage had a shuttle bus that went to BWI Airport. From there, we were told, there was another shuttle bus that could get us back to DC. It sounded perfect.
Perfect except for the fact that we had hardly any money left The shuttle to DC only took cash. No credit cards. No beads. No chickens. Cash. Shit.
We didn’t have enough for the fare, and couldn’t have come up with any more money. But that didn’t stop Mom.
She walked up to the shuttle driver and chatted her up.
“Do you think you can let us both on for $16.50?”
“Sorry M’am, the adult fare is $10.”
“What’s the child’s fee? I mean, after all, she’s my little girl.”
The driver let us both on, shaking her head and smiling at Mom. Feeling like she’d done a good deed (she had).
Mom was there for my second operation, and then she headed home with Dad who had come up for it. When he arrived, Mom didn’t just let Dad do everything as she always had before. She showed him around — showed him her turf. She had realized that she really liked feeling in charge, and doing things on her own, for herself and for me.
For the rest of Mom’s life, she and I had a whole different relationship. I had always loved her, always liked her. But her care for me, and her resourcefulness and sense of duty and just plain fun let me develop a respect for her I’d never had.
I’ve always felt lucky in a way to have had these health problems. Because they gave me my Mom. I would never have known her, never have laughed with her so very much. I wouldn’t have heard the stories of her life, told with love and humor, the way she did everything.
So on Thanksgiving, I will raise a special toast to Mom, my SuperMom.