An Abrupt Lesson on Effective Living: Showing Up

From its beginning, this blog has been about my pursuit of sartorial stealth and effective living. Comparatively speaking, the sartorial stuff is much easier and clearer to write about than the finer points of effective living, which encompasses pretty much everything outside the wardrobe.

As a middle-aged man returning home to an elderly mother who’s in the midst of a tumultuous stay in the hospital with a Whack a Mole set of medical issues, the pursuit of effective living presents a series of daunting and uncharted challenges. Put simply, it’s about showing up. Put more specifically, it’s about showing up in ways I’ve never had to show up before.

I arrived back in Cleveland on the evening of Saturday, November 19th. My brother Mark – an under-appreciated saint – drove his SUV from Cleveland to New York to spend my last night in my apartment with me, and then drive me, my stuff and my dogs back to Cleveland the following day. I arrived at my new temporary home at my mom’s house that night. After a Chipotle dinner with Mark, a hot shower and a good night’s sleep, the first thing I needed to do was to get to the hospital to visit mom, which I did the next morning.

Mom has been in the hospital for the entire two and a half weeks I’ve been home, including four trips to the Intensive Care Unit. What put mom in the hospital in the first place was a recurring pain between her chest and abdomen – a pain which apparently felt like a heart attack (and a pain whose cause has yet to be determined). She had been to the emergency room several times in September and October because of it. Each time, doctors could find nothing physically wrong, in spite of a leaky valve and atrial fibrillation (Afib), which she’s managed for years. All of her scans would come back clean, and she would be discharged.

But over the last month, this mysterious pain kept rearing its ugly head, ultimately landing her where she’s been for the past three or four weeks. In that time, with hopes of nabbing the source of this pain, she’s had her gall bladder removed, some cement put in a couple of her vertebrae, and fluid drained from the area surrounding one of her lungs. At one point, a lung collapsed, resulting in one of her visits to the I.C.U. That was on Thanksgiving. For much of that day, we thought we were going to lose her. But she rallied.

Her most recent stint in the I.C.U. was due to a drop in her blood pressure. If it’s not one thing, it’s another.

It’s very difficult to watch my mother experience so much pain and discomfort. I’m getting a cold, hard and fast lesson on how frustrating it is for her to lose any control over her life in a hospital bed. This is an experience that strips one of dignity, and watching it happen with my mother is breaking my heart. Piling onto that is my own crippling feeling of powerlessness, which is crushing.

Here’s the thing: My mother is a survivor. She has buried three husbands, cared for her own parents in their final days, and raised five children. As I’m fond of saying, Lynda raised five of us with no SUV, no bottled water, no Purell and no gun, and we all turned out fine.

She gave birth to me, fed me, wiped my ass, walked me to my first day of school, took care of me when I was sick, helped deal with dad when I got busted for driving without a license and for getting suspended in high school for drinking at a golf match. (Dad was frighteningly furious at times like that, and mom was a brilliant buffer.) From the day Helen Reddy’s iconic hymn from mother to child hit the airwaves in 1974, it’s been “You and Me Against the World.”

Yes, this is a confusing, stressful and upsetting time. But this is my mother, my queen. Being here for her is a privilege.

I have four older siblings, and three of them already live in town, making me somewhat late to the game on the ground. In this new normal, the best I can be is a worker among workers, being of service where and when I am needed. For the most part, that means taking care of the house and simply being with her in her hospital room. My siblings have their roles, as well. There is no room for ego here.

This is exactly where I need to be. And I am so grateful to be home so that I can show up for my mother.

21 comments

  1. Thank you for sharing these small insights into your life,in your usual down to earth style. As a long time reader of your blog I’ve come to appreciate the honesty and no nonsense approach to writing its content, be it anything sartorial or the many other topics covered. On a personal level, it’s admirable that you’ve “shown up ” ,as you put it,in your mother’s time of need. As any good,decent son and human being would rightly do. Wishing you strength and good luck in the times ahead, no matter how challenging.

  2. I went through this (though every situation is unique) with my Dad earlier this year. You have to take it one day at a time, sometimes one hour a time, sometimes one moment at a time. Dealing with an aging parent inevitably has you reflecting on their mortality and your own.

  3. It may seem trite to write this —- but there are those of us who care about your family’s and your circumstances.

    Wishing you all the very best.

  4. A beautiful tribute. When my mother had similar issues, it was her colon. They treated her for years for her heart but the problem was in her colon. Hope they checked that. Prayers are with you and your mom.

  5. Speaking from experience with the same thing, you are doing the hardest and most important thing. It will sear you, but you will never regret every effort. And P.S., you are going to be a big star with your writing. I can tell.

  6. i moved back in with my single mother when she contracted terminal brain cancer and was able to ensure that she could remain in her beloved home where she (thankfully) passed away. hands-down the most traumatic period of my life, but never regretted a single moment and am always thankful that i was there for her. throughout that time i was always minded by the poet john heath-stubbs’ credo to “counter despair with elegance, emptiness with a grace”. i wish your mother and your the best.

  7. I enjoy your blog since I started looking at it over the past few months. I’ve been especially interested in your move out of New York, since I never lived outside the five boroughs until I was 40. Trust me, there is life west of the Hudson. Even so, I don’t usually comment on blogs. This post does require a comment…

    There is a word in Yiddish that defines who you are: mensch. That is what you and your siblings are. Be well.

  8. Sorry to read about your mother’s ailment. I don’t know you, but for what it’s worth I sympathize and send you positive thoughts.

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