When Mom and I Went Through Treatments Together
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… It was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope…”
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities,
Even watching our wedding video, over 13 years later, I still feel a little sheepish hearing the speech my best man gave. It was entertaining, to be sure, but he also relished the opportunity to share with everyone in attendance – most notably my parents – some stories about my high school and college experiences.
Nothing outlandish, just typical “kids will be kids” references, but certainly none that, upon reflection, I’m particularly proud of. He’d finish each colloquial snippet with, “but I’m not going to talk about that right now…” causing my dad to remark at one point during the speech, “…but I would like to talk about that!”
The following day, my wife and I stopped by my parents’ home to say our goodbyes before we headed off to our honeymoon. It was then that my dad got the moment he wanted — to talk about things with me. Obviously, I was years past being grounded or otherwise punished, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
But there were no outward displays of disappointment; instead, whether intentional or not, my father gave me my first introduction to parenting when he told me with an ironic smile, “One day, when you have kids, you’ll be paid back.” I was 24 and on my way to Aruba with my dream bride and any reference to children was mostly lost on me at that point in my life.
I definitely understand what my dad meant now. Sure, my children are still youngins’ in elementary school and many years away from their own adolescent experiences. But even at their current age, I’m often reminded so much of myself when I was younger, fighting with my older brothers, never stopping to take a breath and thinking I had it all figured out at the tender age of 7 (or 5).
One of the less discussed thus underrated rewards of parenting are these a-ha! moments when you figure out why your parents made some of the decisions they did. Or perhaps you even reflect in awe on how they did much more with much less. Either way, you finally get it.
And that’s a beautiful avenue to bond further with your parents; you all are part of the same club now. For me, anyway, I feel like starting a family has made the relationship I have with my parents stronger and richer on many different levels.
I still remember the day my mom told me she had ovarian cancer. It was a devastating moment, but the truth is she’d already prepared me for that news. She knew before all of us did – including her doctors.
Ovarian cancer took her mom and oldest sister, both before I was even born. She recalled the red flags that signaled their diagnosis, including the pain and swelling of the abdomen and feet. It feels like it was just yesterday — my mom sitting on our couch, taking off her shoes, her sock fitted snug over her enlarged foot as she described the various reasons how she knew something was wrong.
Deep down I feared she was right. I wore my skeptical hat and mixed in a heavy dose of positive thoughts, the former to give me hope and the latter to (hopefully) provide her comfort.
In the summer of 2011, my mom underwent a hysterectomy – a near four-hour surgery – in attempt to remove the cancer from her body. Three days in the ICU and over a week in the hospital was spent recovering from this invasive procedure.
In truth, my mom never fully recovered.
Over the following three years there were good days sprinkled in with several rounds of chemotherapy treatments, ER visits, additional surgeries, hospital stays and prolonged rehabilitations – in short, Frances Mary Basile Wentink never got close to returning to the same quality of life she had pre-summer of 2011.
Each time my mom had chemo, it was broken into six different treatments, three weeks apart. Throughout this process – she had three separate chemo rounds – my own IVIG therapy for my multiple sclerosis would sometimes coincide with hers. In fact, on some days, we’d both be spending our mornings at our own infusion suite — at the same time — sitting back, watching the medicine drip, drip, drip as the clock slowly ticked, ticked, ticked.
Chemotherapy battles cancer in an effort to keep that person alive; in my situation, the IVIG infusions I receive are used to try and slow the progression of my MS. I would never compare the strength my mom mustered after each of her chemo treatment, the awful pain she endured, the damage to her mind and body, versus any of the milder side effects I might face after my treatment.
But that didn’t stop my mom from comparing them. I’d feel embarrassed whenever she did; my automatic reaction would be to remind her how much harder chemo was than IVIG. But slowly, I started to understand what she truly meant.
For both of us, sitting in that chair, dreaming of the moment that needle comes out and you can go home… unsure of what your future might hold or, short-term, how many more treatments will there be? Truth is, that can be a lonely world. Very lonely. I joke with my wife that I feel like I’m off on my own island sometimes during the week I have IVIG.
But suddenly my mom and I were able to share similar stories. I learned I get my uncooperative, catch-them-if-you-can veins from her. Or sometimes after a treatment, I let my pride sparkle just a little too bright, and I fall into a mindset of – I don’t want anyone to view me as weak – and I end up doing too much, too soon. So I shouldn’t have been surprised that I found myself on the phone with my mom after one of her chemo treatments, chiding her for vacuuming around the house. As I pleaded with her to rest and stop pushing herself so hard, it was almost as if I was hearing an echo in our house, of my wife pleading with me to rest after my treatment.
It truly was the best of times and the worst of times. Never had I felt so close to my mom. I was a parent like her, applying so many of those lessons she had taught me as a boy. Realizing many of those same fears and worries she had for us. And we both had so many stories to share about our own health experiences and treatments.
But there was also a dark cloud that never went away. It brought guilt about not appreciating her more when I was growing up. And persistent sadness that one day soon she would be leaving us. Even on the brightest of days, I still felt the black cloud hovering nearby.
I hope my mom cherished those final three years. They were difficult on her. But with the struggles came three more birthdays with her grandchildren, three more Christmas mornings opening presents with her family, and countless opportunities for all of us to tell her how much we loved her, talk about our family or even just share silly stories about our day (and with our kiddos, there are a lot of those kinds of stories!).
Another silver lining I discovered by having MS — I loved that my mom and I could connect and share stories about our treatments, the elaborate schedule of doctor’s appointments and medical tests we both dreaded throughout the month… and, of course, the considerable amount of daily meds that we never got vacation from. I’d counsel her on the importance to listening to her doctors — the good and the bad — but it wasn’t just coming from her son, it was coming from somebody that felt a lot of the same feelings, worries and concerns that she had, too.
Much like the magical world of parenting, our lives had come full circle. But unlike with parenting, no quantum leap into the future was required for me before I finally could understand and relate. We both got it, and I dream that was as special for her as it was for me.
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