I want to share something that I don’t share often. A lot of people know that my mom doesn’t drive, but they don’t know why. This story is a huge part of my life. It was one of those defining events that shaped me as a person. So here goes…
Not too long after my sister was born (1991), my mom suffered from a stroke. That stroke led to the discovery of an AVM (arteriovenous malformation) in her brain. After the stroke, my mom had to go through speech therapy. Her speech went back to normal but her right hand/arm have never been the same (thank God she’s a lefty!).
Life continued after that. I was only 5 or 6 at the time my mom had a stroke so I obviously didn’t really understand what happened or what it all meant. But over the years I learned that this AVM was still in my mom’s brain. The same thing could happen again. Apparently, doctors told to my parents that the removal of this could cause loss of eyesight, which would mean that my mom might not be able to drive ever again, which would mean her life, as a stay-at-home mom who shuffled us everywhere and was at every single game, meet, etc., might change forever. So my parents decided to put off the surgery.
Fast forward to May 2003. I was 16-years old. I was in Disney World with my friend and her family to celebrate my friends 16th birthday. (Not too shabby, right?!) Little did I know, my trip was going to be cut short.
Earlier that year, my mom started getting more intense headaches which led to doctors’ visits and subsequently the decision to move forward with the surgery to remove the AVM from her brain. I don’t remember the exact timeline of things but I remember that my mom had some sort of test scheduled the Friday I was going to be in Florida. I remember asking my dad if I should stay home and he told me that it was just a test and to go. So I did.
A day or two later, I was walking around a park in Disney and my cell phone rang. Something didn’t feel right. My mom would NEVER call me in the middle of the day. I know that’s a weird thing to think, but I distinctly remember thinking it. And when I heard my dad’s voice on the other end of the phone when I picked it up, I knew something wasn’t right. He said, “Lauren, your mom is in the hospital. You have to get home.” Tears started pouring. I handed the phone to Emma’s mom and cried as arrangements were made to get a flight home. I cried the entire way. Those were by far the scariest hours of my life (and still are).
Meanwhile back home, my mom was transferred from a small local hospital to Stony Brook University Hospital where they determined that her brain was hemorrhaging. I don’t know how they got the bleeding to stop, but they did. She didn’t die. The hands of a higher power were at work, I guess. It was a relief to know she was alive but now what?
We all went home that night while my mom stayed in the hospital. I remember when I woke up the following morning I was actually pissed at myself for even being able to fall asleep. I had no idea what was going to happen to my mom yet I was able to close my eyes. I know that might sound weird but I couldn’t help but be mad at myself. Everything was happening so quickly that I guess all sorts of emotions were coming to a head.
A week or so later (I think) surgery was performed to remove the AVM from my mom’s brain. And then began the road to recovery. No one could tell us what to expect because the final results were unknown. Over the next couple of months, my mom was in and out of hospitals for rehabilitation. Me, my brother and sister spent more time driving to and from hospitals than we care to remember. But over the next few months, my mom started to recover.
The lasting changes include that she has no peripheral vision on her right side. That means when she walks in a new environment she is likely to bump into something because she can’t see what’s to her right. This has gotten her a couple of nasty looks from people who don’t realize she’s not being an asshole, she simply can’t see. Because of that, she can’t drive. She is also on a TON of medication to prevent seizures and once in a while (although it’s been a long time :knocks wood:) she has one. Her short term memory has good days and bad. And her speech and thought process isn’t as quick as your’s and mine. I assume the combination of the stroke, hemorrhaging, seizures and the fact that she has been on meds for almost 30 years contribute to all of it. But, considering what she’s been through, she’s absolutely perfect.
Once the dust settled from all of this, my family got used to our new normal. My brother went off to college that fall, I started my junior year of high school and my sister started 7th grade. My dad worked a lot of hours back then so I helped my mom when it came to driving. My sister’s Bat Mitzvah was coming up that following February and I remember driving to and from Hebrew School for her lessons. The good thing was I got a lot of driving experience.
Then came hit #2—almost exactly a year after my mom almost died, my dad moved out. My parents were separating. Bad timing, yes. But I guess there’s never good timing for something like that. And without going into too much detail on that (because that’s THEIR story, not mine), I’ll say this: my mom wasn’t happy.
So now it’s May 2004… my dad is moving out of the house, my brother just came back from his first year of college, my sister started acting out, and I was just there doing my thing. That year changed me in a lot of ways. I’d always been a responsible kid, but I ended up putting a lot of pressure on myself. My sister’s behavior was driving my parents crazy. Eric wasn’t around much. I had to help out with driving. I was the one who kept my shit together.
I became more serious and reserved. I don’t think I was too different on the outside, but on the inside I was just trying to be the good kid- the version of me that I thought I needed to be. I remember my parents made me go to therapy at one point. On my second appointment the therapist told my mom that I was handling things very well and he didn’t think therapy was necessary. He was right—I became really really good at handling shit (and I still am). But I believe it ran deeper than that. I think that subconsciously I felt the need to be an adult because nobody else around me seemed to be stepping up to the plate. It’s all about perspective and that’s how I saw it. I’m not saying it was the reality of everyone around me. But it was my reality at the time.
I think any child or teenager that witnesses a parent suffer from a severe illness or pass away gets a different perspective on life. You hear people say as their parents get older, they change. Their memory isn’t as good. They sometimes become more irritable. It’s hard to see your parent become a completely different person than they once were. And for kids, it’s hard to see your parent with a shaved head (they had to shave my mom’s head to do surgery), re-learning how to walk, struggling to find words to express themselves, and just not be the person they were a few months earlier. These things are difficult for an adult to comprehend, but even more difficult for a child or teenager.
But, and I hate to say it like this but its true, shit happens. Nobody’s life is perfect. Unfortunately everyone has to deal with hard stuff. Everything that happens in our lives shapes who we are. While sometimes painful, I think it’s important to reflect on the events of our past. It gives us an opportunity to learn lessons that may not have been so obvious the first time around and it can explain why we are the way we are (and maybe give us the push to change some of those things). It’s also important to remember that we don’t have to let our past determine our future. We may not be able to change our past, but we don’t have to let it define us.
I would like to end this on a very important note: I don’t blame ANYONE for the way these things affected me. I know that I put a lot of undue pressure on myself. And now, being a parent myself, I know that my parents were just doing the best they could at the time. I know that my parents, just like I am now, were trying to figure their shit out while being parents to 3 teenagers. I’m sure it wasn’t easy for them either.
My next post is going to be written by my sister, Heather. She is going to be sharing her experience during that same time period. As a quick preface, my sister is 4 years younger than me. At the time my mom got sick she was 12. My sister is a sharp cookie. She’s just coming into her own and discovering herself at the age of 28. Her journey is just beginning. Stay tuned…