One month ago, my mom had open heart surgery. I was completely unprepared for it. She was only slightly more prepared. Her heart, starting to wear out after decades of loving so hard and giving so much, has been a concern for a few years now. Last year she was given an official diagnosis: a leaky valve, an aneurysm, a hole in the wall. This surgery fixed all that, but recovery is long and arduous.
Overall, I’m not coping well with my parents’ aging. I spend hours fretting about their rural home, the long distance to the nearest hospital, the house full of stuff where they’ve lived in for 45 years. I worry about both of them, but right now, my powerhouse of a mother is at front of mind.
In the days following her surgery, I saw my mom at her most vulnerable – hooked up to a breathing apparatus, tubes pumping painkillers and nutrients into her veins, lying in bed unable to move, the tip of her 8-inch incision peeking out from the top of her hospital gown. After the tubes were removed and she could get around on her own, I accidentally saw her adult diapers as she rolled out of bed, dazed and looking for the bathroom. I can never unsee that.
Caring for an infirm and aging parent confronts and reinforces everything I’ve learned and practiced in yoga. I catch myself giving tiny cues to encourage proprioception in a septuagenarian who has long been disconnected from her body and is facing increasingly limited mobility along with a broken sternum and a healing heart. “Bum first, then swing your legs into the car, don’t step in… do one thing at a time… walk with your legs, don’t reach, it’s not going to get you there any faster…” I can thank yoga and the basic anatomy I’ve studied for even knowing what a sternum is when the doctor explains that he’ll have to break it to access her delicate organ. And through yoga, I’ve cultivated the patience and steadiness for slow walks, repeated conversations, and forgotten details.
This episode, for me, is also a crash course in adulting. Even though I’ve somehow reached my early 40s, all this time I haven’t really felt like an adult. While I’ve done some adult things like work, move across the country, navigate relationships, pay bills, and file my income taxes, I still feel like a recent university grad (and am even sort of proud of it). I’ve consciously chosen to not participate in common adult experiences like owning a home, raising children, driving a car to work, or buying appliances.
Now I am embarking on a new era of taking care of my mom, which out-adults all of this other stuff, making it feel trivial and manageable. I’m watching my mother slowly regress in front of my eyes.
I, in turn, have become dragon daughter, the generational inverse of the dragon moms who fight for their ill and diseased children. I’ve discovered this new aspect of myself, this person who coordinates doctor’s appointments, makes clear demands of nurses, argues with pharmacists, prints off calendars and tapes them to fridge doors to manage schedules. I am fierce, loyal and devoted, and more organized than I even thought was possible.
The challenge is to reconcile this new mom, who has shrunk from 5’8” to under 5’3” and can’t get across the room without her walker, with the mom of my childhood. The mom who ran into the ocean, purse and camera in hand, and pulled me out by one arm when I got caught by a wave on a family vacation in California. The mom who stepped in front of a cow charging at my brother and shocked everyone, including the cow. The mom who juggled her career as an educator with running a home and managing a mentally ill son. The mom who loaded the neighbourhood kids into the back of the Ford Ranchero for bottle drives and took a detour along winding bumpy back roads, kids and bottles rolling around in the box.
The other challenge is to not take my dragon daughter role too seriously. It would be nice to congratulate myself on my selflessness. But it’s not – I’m completely self-involved through all this. I am mourning the loss of the mom I used to know, even as I embrace this silly, hilarious, uncensored new mom. I am mourning my misspent youth. And I am bracing myself for my own descent into old age, even though I am still, comparatively, young. But I take note of my nagging back pain and creaking joints, the slow spread of my upper thighs, the texture of my skin, the creeping sensation that everything is starting to take a little longer, that I’m just a little slower.
I keep a constant mental checklist of do’s and don’ts so I don’t “end up” like my parents: exercise regularly, avoid painkillers, go to the doctor, read the New Yorker, reach forward and touch my toes every day until I can’t anymore, and then try harder. The truth, however, is that we’re all going to end up the same way in the same place.