Yesterday was the 4 week mark since my mom’s brain surgery and I have been eager to share an update on how she is doing. Over the last month, we have taken small steps, celebrated milestones, and now I feel like mom is finally at a place where she can put this behind her and move forward as a stronger person. This experience has been able to give her perspective on how fragile life is and how important it is to have a loving family and good friends to support you.
The day of her surgery felt like the longest day of my entire life. We needed to be at the hospital at 5am. Her surgery was scheduled for 7:30am. Obviously, because I’m scared and nervous and because I don’t sleep (ever), I stayed up late talking to mom about life, friends, God, family, the future, and everything else that runs through your head the night before your mom is having brain surgery. I tossed and turned for a while, finally just got up at 3am, and watched TV.
The next morning, we arrived at the hospital, got checked in, and surprisingly, mom was in a really great mood. She seemed to have finally accepted that it was either brain surgery or death. Her good spirit made it a lot easier for my sister and me to stay strong. My sister, always the parent, made sure we had all of the paperwork, asked all the right questions, and reminded mom that the nurses had a job to do when mom started telling a few too many personal stories to the random people that come in to check blood pressure or adjust the bed. [For those of you that know my mom, she has never been short on a story to tell.]
I, however, made inappropriate jokes, asked the nurses to break the rules a few times because, clearly, we were the exception, and cried big fat sloppy tears more than a few times. [Although my sister, as tough as she is, cried a little too as we watched mom roll away to the operating room. I’m not sure she would admit it, but she totally did.]
Once we got to the waiting room, we commandeered the kids table that was in a room off by itself and, because we love puzzles, dumped a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle out on the kids table and got to work. The surgery was supposed to take 4 hours so we challenged ourselves to see if we could get it done in time. [We got it done in 3.]
The nurse was really good about calling us every hour to let us know how she was doing and then, during her 3rd check-in, the nurse let us know that the aneurysm was much harder to get to than expected and that she would let us know more when she could. Well, we didn’t hear from her anymore. After 6 hours, the big fat sloppy tears started again. My sister, again, always the parent, took charge, found someone to call the operating room and they quickly called us back with an update.
Turns out, the base of the aneurysm was much larger and harder to get to than the scans showed and it took 2 clips to take care of it (they had only planned for 1). They also had to cut into her jaw muscle and saw away a bit of sinus bone in order to access it.
As though this experience wasn’t stressful enough for everyone involved, the hospital let us know (after a lot of questioning and bugging the crap out of anyone who would listen) that they were not going to have any beds available in ICU and that she would remain in the recovery room for the next 24 hours. Once we finally got in to see her in recovery (at about 5pm), she was not happy to see us. Her exact words were, “Ugh. I don’t want to talk.” And then she turned away from us.
One of the most confusing things that I remember about that day was the overwhelming combination of emotions that I experienced. I have a really good friend who kept asking me what I needed and what she could do to help me. While everyone else was asking about mom, she thought of me. But, even though I am usually always very aware of what I need in a situation, her question left me dumbfounded. My brain didn’t know what to do with all of the fear, anxiety, lack of control, sadness, relief, and appreciation. Add total exhaustion to it and I am surprised I was able to form sentences.
But, as time passed, mom got stronger. At first, my sister and I got really nervous that the recovery was going to be the bigger challenge. Because the surgery was more involved than mom had expected, her pain level was higher than she had anticipated. And, while I love my mother and I think she is incredibly strong and brave, she is not the greatest at being uncomfortable. She is also not a big fan of pain medication. You can see how these 2 things don’t pair very well.
However, mom surprised us again and, after she came back from her angiogram (which was 100% clear with no signs of aneurysm), she was back to her old self again. She was smiling, telling too many personal stories to all the nurses, and even talked a little smack about some of the hospital staff. It was refreshing.
Once we got her home, I took over nursing duties for a few days. My mom amazed me from the beginning. She had typical struggles and ups and downs but, overall, she has been a champ. In fact, the biggest problem I had to deal with was crowd control. She had so many friends and neighbors dropping by to check on her, bringing tons of food and flowers, and mostly just wanting to let her know they were thinking about her. Most of them didn’t even want to come in the house. They would just stand at the front door and refuse to come in. The sincerity and generosity of people is amazing to me. And it makes me feel great to know that my mom is so loved by so many.
It took me a while to convince my mother to let me share pictures of her during her recovery. I finally talked her in to letting me share 2 pictures. Here, exactly 1 week after surgery, I had to force her to let me take this picture. I don’t think she realizes how incredibly badass this picture is. I also don’t think she realizes how cool her grandsons are going to think she is when they get older.
This next picture is almost 3 weeks after surgery. I am still amazed at how insane it is that, after major brain surgery, in just 3 weeks, her incision can go from where it was to this! She looks incredible.
She doesn’t know how brave she is. I’m okay with that. I do hope, however, that this has made her realize how loved she is.
My mother isn’t perfect. I don’t think she ever tried to be. And, now that I am an adult, I really enjoy giving her a hard time about how she is obviously responsible for everything that is wrong with me today. I mean, who do you think taught me how to shop my feelings away?? But, for all that it is worth, she is also responsible for a good chunk of the things that, I think, are pretty amazing about me too.
Back in the 80’s, long before there was real data about children’s mental health or how kids cope through divorce (I was the only kid in my class for nearly 4 years who had divorced parents), my mom knew how important it was to help my sister and me cope. Even with all of the stigma, the lack of resources, and the naysayers, my mom took me to a counselor. He wasn’t a great counselor and I can’t even say that I remember all that much about him. However, the actual process of knowing that there was a safe space where it was okay to be emotional and it was okay to get angry set me on a path for learning how to properly cope with various situations. My mom knew I needed that.
She also had enough insight into who I was as a person to know that I probably also needed some “out-of-the-box” strategies as well. She talked to teachers and school counselors and, together, they helped me discover a love for creative writing. It started with poems and short stories as a child and turned into journaling and blogging as an adult. Writing has been there for me through every struggle in my life all because my mom cared enough to put her struggles aside and pay attention to the needs of her children. For that, I am forever grateful.
And now, because I learned early that counseling helps, I strive every day to be the counselor who puts their client first, who helps families who are struggling, and who empowers kids to think “outside-the-box” and figure out what works for them. I love knowing that I am helping others find their safe space to be who they are.
Throughout my life, my mother has been able to transform into the role that I needed her to play. As I grew up and went through the typical (and sometimes terrible) developmental stages that all girls go through, my mom managed to be a caregiver, a regulator, a complete embarrassment, a soft shoulder to cry on, a warm body to snuggle up to, an enemy to battle, a distant observer, a confidant and secret-keeper, a friend, and now, a fellow mother who can offer support and guidance.
Tomorrow, however, both of our roles will shift. Tomorrow, my mother, the forever-teacher who makes me giggle because she still tries to turn vacations into learning experiences, is having brain surgery.
Recently, doctors discovered that she has an aneurysm that is sitting on her optic nerve. It has caused some pretty drastic vision impairment (which is, fortunately, how they discovered it).
A few days from now, my sister and I become the caregivers. We will now be the worriers, the hand-holders, and the supporters- like she has been for us for our entire lives. I am doing my best to maintain my composure. I have researched the surgery and the surgeon more times than I care to admit. I have tried to help my mother stay positive, encouraged her to talk about fears, and I try to keep reminding her (and myself) to take one step at a time.
As a counselor, this should be easy for me. But as a mother and a daughter, I am freaking out inside. So, I would like to make a request for anyone who reads this… please pray for her. Please think about her. Please send positive vibes and good thoughts to Asheville, NC. Please post comments and send well wishes because my mother, forever the extrovert, would love it. And she needs all the encouragement and strength that she can get right now. And I might just need a little bit of it too.