Around this same time last year, I returned from a trip to England, Ireland, and Scotland. When I got back home, I shared with you one of the more emotional blogs I had ever written up until that point – “Momma’s Boy”
I talked about the diagnosis that my Mother is facing (Stage IV Cirrhosis), as well as the impact it has on me moving forward. I highly recommend you take a look at it before continuing to read this one. It’s almost a foreword of sorts, and I promise you the context will add impact to this entry.
So here I am one year later. Back in London again. Currently sitting on the rooftop of a 5-star hotel in the super-hip Shoreditch neighborhood, enjoying a dry gin martini with a lemon twist. There’s a perfect, calm weather with a comfortable energy surrounding me. This city is unlike any other. Unfortunately this is all muted for me right now.
My mother is fighting another health battle.
This scenario has proven to be more immediate, more intense, and more painful to be around. Needless to say, the last 3 weeks for me have been a whirlwind of emotions. Without question, I have never experienced a time in my life when I’ve felt more unsettled.
A small handful of people know what has been going on, but I am sharing this with you now as a source of therapy and to provide a sense of release. Maybe you’re also in the midst of a tough, sad moment in your life and this will create a bit of relatability.
So here we go-
After my family and I went on a breathtaking Alaskan cruise back in mid-May, my Mother fell while getting into the Uber to return to the airport. She was in noticeable pain and it took a couple minutes for her to get up, but it didn’t appear to be a devastating fall.
It turns out it was.
I visited Charlotte a few weeks after the fall. My Mom was still going into her part-time job, but it was evident when I saw her that her back pain and range of motion had worsened. She was walking gingerly, grimacing during every step, and consistently taking pain medications and using an ice pack. She scheduled some physical therapy, and if the pain didn’t alleviate after that then she would have no choice but to get an MRI.
Two weeks after this visit to Charlotte, I get a call from her husband Charlie. He sounded monotone, but with a hint of unease. He explained to me that she had to be taken into the emergency room the night before because she reached the point of having essentially no mobility due to such chronic, excruciating pain that had spread across her back and down her legs. He ultimately had to carry her to the car. That MRI came sooner than expected.
Her spine was fractured.
A compression fracture. In two places.
As soon as I heard this, it instantly set off alarm bells and list of questions in my mind.
Immediate surgery to fix the fracture was being considered by the ER doctors, as it was clearly putting pressure on the nerve roots in her spine which could lead to further, more severe complications. However, the totality of the situation was still pending more information and there were other tests (blood tests, neurological tests, etc.) that they needed to run.
The next day goes by.
Yep, there’s more to it.
My Mother also had an infection in her blood, inside and around her spinal column, and in the muscle groups surrounding her hips. This ruled out immediate surgery to fix the fracture. She is extremely
fortunate that a team of highly-experienced specialists came in for a second opinion to fully understand everything going on in her body, otherwise the initial reaction to surgically fix the fracture could have proven fatal with an ongoing infection like hers.
[Advice: If possible, never receive surgery in the ER unless it’s 100% absolutely necessary. Always get a specialist, or team of specialists, to come take a second look.]
Everything went from bad to worse. A fracture is one thing, but now they had to get the infection under control which was the more significant, and prompt, task at hand. Infections can be a very tricky thing to deal with. Understanding its origin/cause, type, location, progression, movement, and resistance can present a myriad of things to consider.
My anxiety reached a level of intensity for me that I’ve never experienced before. I was also physically far away, which exacerbated everything. And it was proving difficult for Charlie to transmit the complete and accurate level of detailed information from the hospital that was going to keep me at ease. (bless him, but he’s in his late 70’s)
I made the easy decision to be on-call to fly to Charlotte should anything shift. Although the whole situation was a bit muddled in my mind, it seemed as though the circumstance had a pathway to resolution via my conversations with Charlie.
The next day arrives.
Her spinal specialist/orthopedic surgeon decided that she must get surgery immediately to alleviate the compression (stenosis) in her spine, otherwise it would inevitably lead to serious nerve damage, neurological dysfunction, loss of motor skills, and paralysis.
Additionally, the surgeon needed to remove a spinal epidural abscess (a pocket of infection) and clean out other peripheral infection within her spine in order for it to become controllable and prevent the risk of spreading. Fixing the fracture would need to wait, as putting rods and foreign objects in the body is inherently dangerous with an ongoing infection.
Here’s another caveat-
This surgery included possible complications such as paralysis, neurological damage, sepsis, and the risk of the infection intensifying.
Let that sink in.
I flew to Charlotte immediately. My brother drove down from Durham as well.
When we arrived to the hospital and I saw my Mother, I was devastated. She had been on morphine for days, in-and-out of consciousness, and couldn’t piece together 3 words. She looked frail and had a very pale hue to her. Every so often she would yell in excruciating pain as it shot through her body. The spinal compression was clearly impacting her nerve roots, and the infection was also enhancing the pain throughout the muscle groups in her back and surrounding her hips. I wanted every bit of it to be transferred to me. Let me go through this, not her.
I held her hand, kissed her on the forehead, and told her I loved her. I helped her sip water from a straw, helped lift her up and slide a bed pan under her when she needed it, and tried to remain as composed as I could when talking to her (even though she likely had no idea what I was saying). Deep down, I was crumbling inside.
Reality set in for me at that very instant.
My role in life moving forward was to now be her caretaker in addition to being her son.
This is also the moment that I went to the hospital bathroom, shut the door, and fell to the ground sobbing. I couldn’t let my Mother see me cry, I needed to appear strong for her.
Her very sharp, experienced surgeon came in and explained everything to us and spelled out the aforementioned risks involved with the surgery. He was honest, direct, but also concerned. He said verbatim, “If everything goes well here…she’s also going to need a little luck from upstairs to kick this infection over the next several months. That’s before we can even worry about the fracture. At best, she has a long road ahead.”
The surgery was scheduled for the next day.
When we went back to my Mom’s house that evening, I was mentally and emotionally drained. I trudged straight to the bed and didn’t move until the next morning. I was nervous. Anxious. Helpless.
I ran through different outcomes and scenarios in my mind. There was no way around it. There was an immense lump in my stomach and a giant weight on my heart. I was scared shitless.
This is the only parent I have left.
The next morning came, and surgery was a couple hours away. My Mom was awake, but not really. She was there, but also wasn’t. I was simply hoping that this first step would work out, even though the tension was blanketing me.
Off she went to the operating room.
Two hours rolled by, and I’m sitting in her empty hospital room and staring out the open door…eagerly awaiting her return. The surgeon comes back, pulls his mask down, and said the best fucking thing I’ve ever heard-
“Your Mom did great. She worked me pretty good, but we managed to fix the compression and clean out some infection within her spine. More importantly, we avoided any nerve damage. So we should be okay there.”
Thank you. So damn much.
He talked about the pathway forward regarding the infection and the fracture that was still present. But at that point, I was able to shed off a great deal of worry. I could tell that my brother was able to breathe a sigh of relief as well.
The next morning came and the physical therapists eventually arrived…just to see how my Mom was doing less than 24 hours from surgery. Needless to say, she couldn’t move on her own. And they could barely lift her an inch without her screaming in exceptional pain. It was brutal to witness.
The physical therapists made it clear that it was going to take her about a month just to be able to use a walker under her own power.
Her infectious disease doctor seemed confident that the worse part of the infection had been removed, and that they had a solid approach moving forward to hopefully flush out the rest of the infection over the next few months.
Yep. Her surgeon was absolutely right. She has a long road ahead.
After spending 2 weeks in the hospital, she was transferred to a rehabilitation center which she was been at for the last week or so. The first few days she didn’t want to talk to me on the phone. She’s been frustrated with her initial progress, and I’m sure at times very scared.
Over the last 3 weeks-
I’ve cried a couple dozen times. A lot of the time it just hits me all of a sudden.
I’ve punched and smacked a few walls.
I’ve fallen to the ground of a hospital bathroom, crying. Twice.
I’ve prayed to whatever spirit, energy, or God that may exist out there. Hoping for some luck.
I’ve abused alcohol, amongst other things, as a form of escapism.
I’ve stared-off into space repeatedly, with general numbness.
I’ve had anxiety last for hours or even days at a time.
I’ve been short, somewhat detached, or disengaged with people.
It’s inevitable that as we get older we’re going to witness our parents decline physically. You want them to last forever, but unfortunately that’s just not the way life is set up. And when you only have one of them remaining, the gravity of their presence seems to weigh a lot more.
I don’t know what will transpire over the coming days, weeks, or even months. She still has a serious infection that needs to leave her body, and there’s still a fracture in her spine. But I’m now starting to embrace this sadness that I feel. It’s a necessary emotion that I have to process.
It’s her battle to fight.
I have to accept that.
My Mom has been through mountains of shit. So. Many. Times. I have full confidence that she will be able to come out strong at the other end of this.
Fortunately I’m flying direct to Charlotte tomorrow to see her again. I’m ecstatic just to be able to look at her face, to witness the physical progress she’s made, and to simply be next to her and let her know that I love her.
After all, I’m a Momma’s Boy.