There is a scene in one of my favorite movies, “Long Kiss Goodnight,” where Geena Davis, the star who has forgotten her identity as a feared assassin, is being tortured underwater to see if she really remembers all that she is capable of doing.
Her arms and legs bound to a torture wheel, she is slowly lowered into the depths of the frigid water and held there to see what she can handle. Under the physical and emotional duress, the alternate but necessary world she created for herself falls away and she remembers her fierceness. When the enemy pulls her up out of the water for a second time, her old self is present and unleashed with a fury.
I love action movies. Especially when the women are strong and fierce and multidimensional; the spy’s alternate character is a soft-spoken loving mother and wife.
Over the last few years I have lived an alternate life. No, I am not a spy. I went from being an independent retired journalist to grieving my sister Connie’s sudden death from swine flu in 2009, to becoming full-time caregiver for my beautiful mother who developed bone marrow cancer and was given a diagnosis of six months to live in 2012.
My mother is one of those fierce women. As she watched the chemotherapy drugs enter her body intravenously, she sat in the hospital at the Lacks Cancer Center and said “ hmmph, just because they say I’ve got cancer, doesn’t mean I’ve got cancer.”
I danced around her singing the refrain to Adele’s “Rumor Has It” while the nurses queried, who is that woman?
The chemotherapy was not a good fit for my mother. It weakened her immune system opening her up to that most vile of opportunistic viruses – shingles. The devastatingly painful virus, coupled with the bone marrow cancer, was so excruciating that for two months my mother was crying out “Jesus take me home,” as I treated the blisters covering her body with oral and ointment medicines. There is nothing so horribly soul-wrenching as hearing your mother crying in pain and not being able to bring her relief. After two months, when the virus subsided and she was well enough to renew chemotherapy treatments, she looked at me and said, “no more.” That was all I needed to hear. We stopped treatment and looked for alternatives with hospice.
This was the winter of 2012. When I was scheduled to have my second total knee replacement surgery. Doctors had already replaced my left knee in 2011 and I knew what to expect with this second surgery for my right knee. But doctors decided they wanted me to lose my extra 30 pounds of frustration weight at a time when I could barely walk, much less exercise it away.
In action hero movies, and in life, there is always another obstacle thrown in the mix to test your mettle. In some of those films the trials are over the top. Just when you think the movie is over, here comes another monster. While the sheroes usually use superhuman strength and a pretty amazing arsenal of weapons and firepower, the rest of us have to use what’s inside and surround ourselves with a community of superheroes.
I was blessed with an amazingly strong mother who gave her three daughters gifts of character, strength and integrity – emphasis on the grit. So I introduced us to unlimited fruit and vegetables and kale smoothies which prompted mama to politely decline my green liquid creations offered to her daily. “I’ll try it tomorrow,” she’d say.
I had prayer partners and swear partners and both were important to get us through. We had a wonderful team of in-home hospice care workers who sometimes worried more about me than mom as I dragged through the house with my bad knee, trying my best to keep her comfortable as she tried her best to hide her pain.
Many days were good, some were awesome and others amazingly bad. But we got through them with humor and laughter, prayer, healthy food and honesty. No more trying to protect the other from pain. I told her she could moan on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and I got Tuesday and the weekends to cry. Finally, by the summer of 2013, I’d lost enough weight for knee surgery and called a friend to care for my mom during my hospital stay.
But multiple complications following surgery and three hospital stays in less than two weeks left me unable to communicate Labor Day weekend. There were so many obstacles that one former acquaintance opined, “the universe has turned against you girl.”
I didn’t buy it. Just one more river to cross. A special community of friends rallied around us until my out-of-state sister Vanessa could arrive. I had reached my limit, admitted I was not superwoman and needed help. Vanessa, stayed and took care of me for a month which also allowed my mama to go into caregiver mode as well. Though she couldn’t do much, she missed hovering over her babies and she seemed to thrive. Eventually Vanessa brought mama home to Houston with her while I remained in Michigan and concentrated on getting well. Then I went South and could physically see cancer’s toll. Mama had lost 100 pounds. I called her my pocket mama. I decided to stay. I figured it would take a month to pack up my Michigan home and oh yeah, complete the rest of my training as a certified health coach. There were obstacles but I got it done. Then I found a light-filled two-bedroom townhouse and planned to find a writing job or some kind of communications job in Houston while caring for her. But after months of searching with no bites, I realized Spirit was showing me I was supposed to be here to just focus on mama. We had picnics in bed. We ate out often. Eventually movies and visitors no longer interested her. She was going inward. it was time to move the hospital bed into her room.
There is a peacefulness that comes with a life well lived but it still hurts when it ends. Mama was given six months to live. She took two years and 10 months because she was surrounded by love and light and all that life has to offer, including the obstacles, toil and trauma. I held mama’s hand as she passed while Vanessa was back at work ushering a new life into the world. Even after her death there were obstacles that tore at our emotions. We rose above them. When you are vulnerable, opportunistic germs emerge. While grieving mama’s passing, her old friend shingles came to visit me at the same time my health insurance was cut. Cue the music, another monster in the bushes, the movie is not over.
Depressed, overwhelmed, unable to write or sing and sometimes even pray, covered with blisters on the right side of my body, alone, in pain and unable to physically connect with my sister who brings new life into this world and can’t risk contamination, I cocooned and let the mean frigid waters of the last few years rush over me and I wept and I raged and I wept some more.
After 10 days I remembered who I am, whose I am and who I am meant to be. I remembered that God didn’t bring me this far to leave me. I remembered that after Connie’s sudden death in 2009, I vowed to become a health advocate. Despite all the health obstacles thrown my way since then, even while overwhelmed, I knew how to take the small steps that would lead to more steps to give me and others a strong and healthy mind, body and soul. I went to my computer and began this column.
I can feel myself rising out of the frigid waters. I’m back.