2012년 12월 20일 목요일

Aging and Ailing

My mother has never been quite well since I was about 13.  That’s when she had cervical cancer at the age of 46.  Good news was that it was detected early and that she kicked it.  But it had its price.  Her treatment did not include chemotherapy but the radiation 30 years ago messed up her intestines and she never had one day free of some sort of gastrointestinal trouble since then.  The unfortunate hernia surgery about 19 years ago, which got so complicated as to require two more operations within months, did not help.  She had to be hospitalized numberless times in the past twenty years for many intestinal problems including strangulation.  Her surgery record also includes three hip replacements and two broken elbow surgeries—all of which she had after her mid-60s.  Then there was breast cancer 6 years ago.  It’s very rare to have two primary cancers, but she did, with other big and small illnesses and operations in between.  In my family we’re only glad that the tumor was small enough to let her dodge the ordeal of chemotherapy once again.  We just can’t imagine how, or whether, she could have withstood the chemo with her screwed up insides.

Two weeks ago, she suffered the worst case of intestinal strangulation she had so far.  Although she was dispatched to the OR for an emergency operation, a severe case of peritonitis caused by ruptured bowels threatened her life.  The doctors saved her; but since she went to the OR in an almost septic condition, she did not recover lucidity until days after she came out of the ICU.  I never knew that septic shock was such a serious thing.  She would open her eyes but I could see her mind was elsewhere, while her body was suffering with a dozen tubes attached.  What little she uttered was incoherent or incomprehensible.  It took over ten days for her to recover a modicum of lucidity that enabled a simplest conversation, a pretense of bodily coordination that enabled the slowest bathroom trips.  Today, however, she went in for another operation because her suture wasn’t healing properly for prolonged infection.  This second operation didn’t solve the problem for good, though.  The doctors say that they still need to watch how the infected area will heal.  At this point, we can only hope that she will manage to keep up strength, that her immune system will fight out the infection effectively with the aid of medication. 

When your parent is ill on an almost regular basis for an extended period of time—I don’t mean weeks or months, but years and decades—your prolonged worry and trepidation and, to be honest, the inevitably accompanying sense of exhaustion, irritation, and guilt, turn into a hard knot of these affects that eventually overrides your entire relationship with that parent.  Unfortunately such is how I am with my mother, I am sad to confess.  This, however, I never thought about deeply or consciously when I was healthy.  Helping Mother with anything, helping her go in and out of the hospital, listening to her endless complaints about symptoms and doctors and foods, were what my siblings and I thought we just had to do.  Ever since I graduated high school, Mother was someone I needed to watch out for, rather than someone who looked after me.  Since I was a teenager, I didn’t have much that I needed her help with anyway, and Mother always demanded our assistance.  My sister and I always did whatever chores she assigned us, and they weren’t few.  She never told us to do our homework; instead she told us to run the vacuum, do the dishes, mop the floor, or take out the laundry, etc.  We still go over to my parents’ house every weekend and do the housework—cooking, grocery shopping, and sometimes cleaning: we’ve been doing it since we each came back from our studies abroad over 12 years ago.  Mother preferred it to hiring help around the house.  So we the two Ph.D.’s would break our backs in the kitchen every Saturday and/or Sunday, while Mother nagged away as if we were clumsy teenagers.  It's not Alzheimer's for sure, but in her slightly clouded judgment she didn't seem to notice that her daughters were middle-aged women.  This nagging frequently becomes quite unbearable, for it is a mixture of angry outbursts and whiny complaints at everything we say and do, irrational and endlessly repetitive.  Even though we know that this is not so much about us as about her tough lot in general, it certainly is misdirected at us and it is we as easy targets who have to take the bullets.  These bullets hurt too, and very often we need to have our emotional shutters down to minimize our emotional injuries, which in turn will increase her anger and frustration at our lack of response.  Still, we deal with it—we’re young (relatively speaking, that is) and she is aged and weak.  But what about Mother’s emotional care?  What about so-called maternal love that everybody is so religiously talking about?  This must sound horrible.  I have never expressed how I feel about my mother this nakedly.  I’m sure she loves her children, but my siblings and I haven’t felt it in a very long time.  When my youngest brother got married two and a half years ago, she didn’t feel like going to his wedding.  This was inexplicable, for she wasn’t afflicted with any discernible disease or symptoms at the time.  In contrast, Father had had heart surgery only a few days before but hurried out of the hospital lest he miss the wedding of his youngest child.  Sickness can change people.  I remember her being fun, bright and warm once—but that was a long time ago indeed.  Formerly cold and stern Father mellowed down to become the emotional caregiver in our clan, whereas Mother’s long history of various health problems turned her into a near stranger, whose foremost concern is her own physical comfort.  This is understandable in a sense, but I’ve been feeling more conflicted about this in the last year or so.  I often wondered what exactly she thought about my illness.

After my diagnosis, I had fretted so much about how to break the terrible news to my aged parents.  When I finally told them, it was Father, not Mother, who even in devastation kept comforting me, calling me for information, and reassuring me.  She didn’t say much, if she was worried or curious.  While Father called me almost every day to check in on me, Mother must have been content with his report.  As I couldn’t eat much, Father constantly worried about how I was managing at home and wanted to take me out for a good meal whenever I felt like going out.  Friends came over to cook and eat with me whenever possible—especially Jooyoung and Nari came every week, I’m eternally grateful—and even some male friends came over with food.  But my own mother never asked me how and what I ate every single day alone in my own apartment.  Once she packed up some food for me to take home from their house, and it was just that once.  Sure, she was in and out of the hospital with her own problems but she wasn’t constantly bedridden.  Yet, she never came to see me at my home or at the hospital even when I had surgery.  Never once did she ask me whether I had a mastectomy or a lumpectomy.  Later she gave me about a thousand dollars and told me she was sorry she couldn’t do much else.  I didn’t need her money; and even this I know she did at Father’s urging.  I would have felt more loved, had I seen her wringing hands over my hair loss or worrying over my scarred body or something like that.  As I recovered from surgery and began the radiation therapy in April, I gradually gained strength and was able to go out with less difficulty.  Even before my radiation therapy was over, I was once again going over to my parents’ house every weekend to cook and shop grocery.  Father was uncomfortable about it but too glad to see me function almost normally again.  Mother didn’t seem to remember that my health had been seriously jeopardized recently—if she did, she never mentioned it.  She never showed how she felt about me laboring in her kitchen again.  Her fault-finding with my perpetually sub-professional cooking was quick to return, though.

All this, however, is by no means to speak ill of my mother or to cry over not getting enough love from her.  My 76-year-old mother does not pamper my 43-year-old self: what a big deal.  It is more about the sorrow and frustration of losing one’s loved parent over to age and illnesses.  No longer a child, you don’t expect mommy to hold your hand through a crisis.  But what about a mother who doesn’t expressly worry over a daughter’s cancer?  She raised five children and did much for her husband who had his slew of medical problems.  Perhaps she used up her ability to care for others.  When your mother acts like a third party about a potentially fatal disease of her child, you realize she is spent.  I feel awful for her.  What great pain it must have been that makes her forget the suffering of her own flesh and blood.  During the chemotherapy, the loneliness of pain was sometimes unspeakable.  I often felt that without Mother’s love a single person in sickness really had nothing and no one.  I do have very caring Father, but Mother’s emotional distance, or should I say absence, made me incredibly lonely.  How ironic—I dreaded breaking my parents' heart but on the other hand I was at a loss with Mother’s extreme undemonstrativeness.  Don’t other mothers usually make a huge deal and cry about such things?  Was my mother so blase because she too had it and therefore considered it old news?  Or was it because she firmly believed that I’d beat it just as she did?  I don’t know if I’ll ever figure her out.  I have no heart to accuse her of not caring enough or to confront her inability to understand me.  What terrifies me, though, is whether I will turn out to be like her in old age.  I look like her, and my body is much like hers.  Her history of two cancers kept me in fear of inheriting the tendency, and voila!: we have breast cancer in common.  There is nothing more terrifying than losing oneself in aging and ailing.  Will I too become so sick and so emotionally incapacitated in age?  I don’t know if I’ll live to become “old” even, but it’s a chilling thought.  How sad is it that a daughter should shudder at the idea of resembling her mother? 

Everybody says I still need to be careful and spare myself, and I know that.  But there can be no question when it concerns your own mother.  I go to the hospital almost every day, wait for hours on end in the ER or in front of the OR, look after father in her absence, ready to spend nights in her hospital room with a bedpan if need be.  She will not tell me to go home and take care of myself.  But it's not like I'm killing myself for her.  I do these things along with my sister, my brothers, and my father.  At the same time we all try and have fun, enjoy our lives in whichever way and whenever possible.  And as my friend Sheri says, we try not to feel guilty.  Yet I hope Mother will recover; she must recover, for her own sake, for father’s sake, and for the sake of me and my siblings too.  For, even though a mother’s endless, unconditional love is largely a myth, an emotionally absent and constantly ailing mother must be incomparably better than no mother at all. 

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