“And how are *you* doing?”

Of course, I’ve been getting asked this question a lot lately.

We’re told, as caregivers, that we have to take care of ourselves:  eat right and sleep well; exercise and take care of our own medical needs; go out occasionally, take breaks, enjoy the occasional night out on the town.   This is not entirely for ourselves, of course.  The better shape we’re in, the better off we’ll be — the more strength we’ll have — to do our part in taking care of our sick loved one.

I also think that question is, often, an invitation to “dump” and tell war stories, pulled straight from the trenches of our battle against whatever ailment we’re helping our loved ones fight (edited for time and context, of course; other people have lives too, y’know!).  It lets people be helpful simply by listening; lending a genuine, sympathetic ear for five minutes can do wonders for someone; indeed, it can be life changing (I kid you not) for not only the caregiver but the one open enough to listen.

When I do “dump,” (and God, that sounds nastier than I intended), I try to keep it brief-ish (a nearly impossible task for me, as anyone who’s read this blog knows), but as I go about giving health updates, commiserating with friends and their now all-too familiar personal stories, and answering the question so often asked. I keep coming back to the same answer:

I’m fine. My life has been disrupted, and I’m not going to the gym, and working has been next to impossible, and I’m months late to a dentist appointment, etc, etc.

That shit’s all fixable. I’ll get my life back; I’ll figure out work; I’ll get my crown.  Might be tough, but it’s all eminently  doable. I’m lucky enough to have access to friends and coworkers who are willing to help me, and the drive to set that stuff right anyway.

What’s really sucks about all this — the truly horrible part of it all — is watching my mother suffer so.

It’s really not about her dying, and potentially dying very soon.  Intellectually, at least, I’m prepared for this.  This is  what happens to human beings.  They live for a certain period of time and then they die.  People, after all, are  biological organisms with inception and end dates; like every other living thing on the planet.

(this discounts that ancient clan of immortals who have been manipulating world affairs from their stygian lair beneath the Vatican for the past 3,000 years, but that almost goes without saying.  Almost).

What’s truly, truly  hard is watching her suffer. What’s overwhelmingly painful is seeing how quickly her life turned from something golden and wonderful to something wretched and filled with disease.  What really hurts is seeing the confusion in her face as she tries to figure out ways to get comfortable, or as she spends half an hour violently throwing up phlegm and the two tablespoons of ice cream she had for dinner, because it’s all her system could stomach, or be roused from her already troubled sleep because she’s not sure where she should have her body cremated and she can’t get it off her mind.

My mother moved to NYC at 62 years old and changed her life in ways I would never believed she was capable of when I myself moved to NYC over 20 years ago.  62 years old! Can you imagine? Would you be brave enough to do that now?! And lo and behold, not only did she move, but  she became a physical and social whirlwind!  She made wonderful friends; started going to art museums and the theater and eating international foods; she traveled to Europe and spent Christmas in Paris and started taking French lessons and cooking lessons; she went to roller derby in Brooklyn and began working on 5th Avenue and became a surrogate mother for any number of NYC “orphans,” who could talk to her in ways they could never talk to their own mothers.  She became one of my closest, dearest friends (and we were pretty tight to begin with), a woman whom I genuinely enjoyed spending copious amounts of time with, all after decades of forsaking everything for everyone but herself.  She came into her own when she moved here, the woman I always believed she could be.

And now, because of one bad habit and some genetic bad luck, she got hit with not just lung cancer but about half a dozen others that are rotting her body from the inside out.  She’s suffering every day, and it’s very likely it’s not gonna get any better.  She’s talking about her funeral (she doesn’t want one), and where she wants her ashes spread, and starting to realize that she might never get to go back to Europe and that it might be impossible for her to see the Christmas windows at Bergdorf-Goodman one last time.  She’s getting depressed and frustrated and there’s nothing I can do for her except make sure she takes her meds, rub her back while she dry heaves, and tuck her in every night and make sure she knows that I love her with all my heart, and that many, many other people do, too.

I’m not selfless enough to trade places with many people suffering physically, but if I could trade place with my mom right now, I would in a heartbeat. I’d take on the needle jabs, the pills, the nausea, the hospital stays, the fear — every last bit of it — if I knew she’d get another few years to enjoy all that she couldn’t for so long before she moved here.  If I knew it would spare her this terrible pain, and suffering, and fear.  In a single fucking heartbeat.

So me?  I’m fine.  I’ll always be fine.  My mom, though?  She could use a miracle right now.

Anyone have one to spare?

10 thoughts on ““And how are *you* doing?”

  1. Zan says:

    I’ve got tears in my eyes, Phil. I’ve no doubt that you would bear it all if you could. I wish so badly that the super-powered people we dream about actually existed and could step in with a “Og yawa gnikcuf recnac!” and come to the rescue. Rest assured that there are legions of people who wish they could bear your burden as well. I love you, man.

  2. Matthew Sutton says:

    I feel for you and your family at this time…. My father in August was diagnosed with prostate cancer and lymphoma (which had pressed on the nerves to his legs andered them fairly useless) The dr’s were fairly optimistic about treatment and he had started chemo and had been doing ok with it, but it had only been three treatments. Over the holiday weekend he succumbed to septic shock (the result of having basically no white blood cells to fight off bacteria) and passed quietly that Saturday after Thanksgiving…

    It was tough to see the active man that was my father stuck in a chair. It was tough to watch my Mom suffer missing her husband while he was in the hospital. But I’d take all of that on again for ten more mintues with him…

    I don’t personally know you, but your art has touched my life for a while– please know that you are both in my thoughts and prayers during this time of struggle.

    • Wow. Thank you, Matthew. And so, so very sorry to hear about your dad. Hoping you’re hanging in there…

      • Matthew Sutton says:

        Thanks Phil– it was so nice of you to take time out to respond. I’m doing ok– he was an awesome guy who didn’t want folks to grieve him but to celebrate him. There’s beena lot of laughter and fond memories amongst all the tears…

        As tough as it is for you and your mom, I’m thankful for you to have that time with her–all the ups and downs, good and bad days– every day, every moment. There is obviously much love in your family 🙂


  3. Brenda says:

    How I wish I had the chance to meet PAM! To gaze into the beautiful, lusciously lashed eyes, see the brilliant smile you describe and hear her laughter. Alas I have not been that fortunate…but I do know her amazing son and son in law, two generous souls, blessing her with your love and care. Thank you for including us in your journey as you share these precious moments. Navigating the new world that comes with this disease is horrifying and incredible at the same time. Priorities and our perspective instantaneously change. Having you so articulately share what many of us have felt, thought and cried over is a true gift to each of us. My heart goes out to all of you, and I am ready with an ear and a shoulder so that I may somehow return a bit of this gift. How I wish I had the chance to meet PAM!

  4. I’ve never been able to articulate these feelings this well when asked how I was doing over the last year and a half. You’re right, though: I don’t care that I’ve gained weight or that I’m living with my mother for the first time in 2 decades (when the first time was difficult enough without the added stress of her being sick! ha!) or that my finances are not where I envisioned them to be right now. All of this is, as you say, fixable. My mother got through the hysterectomy and bilateral mastectomies with flying colors & no sign of cancer and now within a week of finding out she got the all clear learned that she has a (benign) brain tumor that’s difficult to get to but growing too fast to just ignore. This woman needs a new hobby!

    For years, you’ve inspired me with your work as one of the few people who, in my view, has understood my favorite comic book character to her core in words and image and now, in addition to that, you’re inspiring me to become a better caregiver and I appreciate that. Thank you.

  5. David says:

    Prayers ascending, Phil. *HUGE* hugs!!!

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