How to cope as an adult when your parents get sick

“Yo Momma’s so stupid, she got hit by a parked car.”

My date was firing off “yo mama” jokes in a kind attempt to stop me from hysterically crying into my flaming margarita.

I don’t normally cry on second dates, but tonight was different. I had just caught a glimpse of a girl’s American flag bodysuit. This patriotic piece triggered an ugly cry as it hit me like fireworks that tomorrow was the fourth of July. My mom’s 70th birthday. She would be spending it in a hospital bed across the country.

I felt powerless—like I was six years old all over again and my dad sat me down to tell me:

“Gabriella, I have bad news and good news. The bad news is your mom has cancer. The good news is that she’ll be out of the house for a while, so we can finally get that monkey!”

All I heard was “monkey” which was a dream at the height of monkey mania in 1997. I obviously never got my own Marcel, and from that moment on my mom seemed to always be sick.

When I was nine, my mother underwent a 17-hour operation that cured her cancer. In the years that followed, there would be highs and lows in her health. Highs, like the time my mom drove into New York City from Connecticut solo because my dad was being “an old fart” who didn’t want to party on a Saturday night. My mom lived it up taking a picture at the top of the Empire State building, smiling so big with arms stretched out, like she was the star of her own TV show. I have that picture on my fridge like a proud daughter.

Then there were the lows. No one talks about the side effects when you cheat death. Your immune system is much weaker. And in the case of my mother, she lost her stomach to cancer and lives with an ileostomy and a pouch. She has to empty this pouch more frequently than most have to go to the bathroom. In the past 22 years that my mother has been cancer-free, she has been a slave to this pouch, needing to be near a restroom at all times. This makes activities most would call a dream, such as traveling the world, lounging by the pool, or going out to eat with friends, a nightmare for my mother.

This situation — along with the chemical imbalance my mother must be facing, missing the organ where endorphins are created — has riddled her with anxiety, depression, and pain since her fight with cancer. I can’t tell you how many times my dad and I have checked my mother into a rehabilitation center because another doctor thought an addictive prescription like Oxycodone or Lorazepam would cure my mother’s newly developed mental issues, when it only made them worse. Which is why my mother was in the hospital last fourth of July. She was detoxing from Lorazepam and also gaining weight, because her body was having a hard time absorbing food.

I wish I were in a place with my life where I could afford to be by my mother’s side the whole time she was in the hospital. I wish I could put her in a guest house by the poolside mansion my mother wished I’d have one day. “Yeah, right, Mom, you’re going right into the old folks’ home!” I’d scoff as the selfish, bratty teenager I was at the time, who thought my mom was invincible (she beat cancer after all).

“She’s so weak now, don’t fight with her this trip, okay?” My dad warned me when I went to visit her last month. And he was right. My bold Italian mother who used to stand on my bed to yell at me about cleaning my room now doesn’t have the energy to raise her voice or do any of the things she used to do. She stares at walls now, and it breaks my heart.

I’m a very public no-filter person, but this is the one thing I haven’t opened up about yet. My mother used to be the star of my Instagram stories. Giving me unsolicited dating advice like, “You don’t have a boyfriend because you don’t wear push-up bras!” and reminiscing about her carefree hippie days. “I was on grass!” That fire is gone. When friends ask about my mom, or for her hot take on the 30 dates I went on in 30 days, I don’t have an answer for them.

“You’re not my mom!” I cried into the phone at summer camp, when I talked to my mom on her birthday 22 years ago. She had just undergone that 17-hour operation and her voice sounded soft, gentle, and warped. That’s how my mom feels to me now. Not herself. I wish I had the answer for what to do when your parents aren’t getting better. When I was younger, while my mom was always sick, she always bounced back. Now I’m not sure she will.

I don’t have the answers. All I can say is if you can call your mom, call her. Call your dad. Tell them you love them. Make the most out of every minute you have with them. Because sometimes our parents don’t get better. Part of growing up is accepting that, staying strong, and finally buying that pet monkey.

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