Monday, November 30, 2009

A Walk With Mom

For those who don't think your life can change in an instant, I've got news for you. It can. It does. On May 1st, 2009, the life the my mom knew, the "mom" that her family knew, and the course of the rest of all of our lives changed forever. In literally one heart beat she was transformed from an active, independent 81 year-old to a totally dependent person lost inside of her own brain and body.

Many of you know my mom. For years she worked the "Penguin" booths at the Rock 'n' Roll Expos. She sold shirts and books and made sure that everyone who passed by knew who "the Penguin" was. She was not only my best salesperson, but the best PR agent I've ever had.

She was also a competitive athlete who - to be honest - did not get the "penguin" philosophy. She was a 4-time national senior Olympian who was training for her 5th senior games when her heart trouble started. She collapsed at the end of her last track workout before the games and they discovered a heart blockage. That led eventually to open-heart surgery, a blood clot to the brain and the "lethal" stroke that didn't quite kill her.

For 48 hours she had one foot in life and one in death. We didn't know, and I believe she didn't know whether life - whatever that meant - was worth it following this severe a stroke. As I sat with her in the neuro-intensive care unit after her surgery it was clear that was a debate going on at a level that I could not understand. The Priest called it a sacred conversation with God. I don't know what it was, but it was a very scary place to be.

At one point my mom raised her left hand, the only part of her body over which she had ANY control, and waived at me. I knew that meant she had decided to stay on this side.

The last 7 months have been excruciating. Day by day she has had to learn how to do the things that she, and we, took for granted. I've watched her struggle to learn to raise her arms, struggle to get her right foot to move on command, struggle to find a word the expressed what she was feeling.

I've been lucky to be there for much of her physical therapy. Rather than treating her as an 81 year-old woman who had a stroke, we treated her as an athlete who had suffered a brain injury. Her age was never an issue. We never made accommodations for her age. Success, for her, was not going to be going home, sitting in a wheelchair, and watching the soap operas. Success, for her, was going to be competing again.

This past Saturday I walked with my mom, holding the walker with one hand and helping keep her stable with the other, as she walked one quarter of a mile. Nothing I have ever done comes close to what that felt like. She yelled at me for "not doing it right", she yelled at herself when she lost her balance, she yelled at her right foot when it didn't obey immediately, and she walked.

Her journey is no where close to over. She talks all the time but her words are still jumbled. She has a long way to go before she can even walk with the walker unassisted. But, from waiving one hand to walking hand-in-hand for a quarter mile is already a victory.

Your life can change in an instant. But, it's what you do next that matters most. And if you're like my mom you will grab misfortune by the throat and wrestle it into submission.

Waddle on, mom.


Erin said...

John, I'm so sorry. My dad had a debilitating (supposed to be fatal) stroke and while he was fortunate his language skills remained intact, everything else was a tremendous struggle. Congratulations to your mom in her perserverence - it is a hard thing to learn to redo so many things taken for granted. Your family is in my thoughts.

Sandy Lawlyes (Hoth) said...

I had no idea. I always wonder how my mother would be had she lived, perhaps with something that would be physically life-altering. I assume that she would have gotten through it, but I guess that's just me wishing she were here. I'll be praying for strength for her and your family.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your kind thoughts. I remember your mom, Sandy. I'm sure she would have been courageous.

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