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The Year My Mom Got Sick

Opinion | March 7, 2016

It has been one year, two months, and five days since the day I thought I lost her. One year and two months since she was able to tell me over the phone in her wispy, cracking voice not to worry. A year since I flew back to Korea to see her out of the hospital for the first time.

One year, two months, and five days ago, my mother had a cerebral infarction. My little brother and my mom had been living in Thailand at the time, a place we had made a home of ten years ago, away from our birthplace of Korea. When my mom stepped off the treadmill and fainted, foam bubbling down her chin, my fourteen-year-old brother was the one to find her and get help from the security guards in his broken Thai. My dad arrived in a haze three days later to transport them back to Korea, after he had gotten back from his flight to some other part of the world as a Korean Air purser. By then, the unbelievable weight of watching your mother be put on life support for a few scary hours had settled heavily on my brother Danny’s shoulders. By then, my guilt from not being where I was needed most had squeezed its way into my lungs, reminding me with every breath you should be there, not here, you should be there.

The year my mom got sick was the year I learned that physical health and mental health have a clear, undeniable, and inevitable relationship that is often overlooked. When I went home for spring break, two months after my mom had fainted, I realized how much had really changed in my family. The first morning after I arrived at home, I woke up to the sound of the door clicking closed as my brother left for school. The house was quiet, everyone still deep in sleep. In the stillness of that house, I came to the realization that in those three days when Danny had been utterly alone with my mom in Thailand, he had been forced to grow up. He filled the space my mom couldn’t fill anymore by becoming his own guardian. Before, as a middle schooler, he would have woken up the whole house, asked my mom for breakfast and my dad to drive him to school. But he wasn’t allowed to be 14 anymore.

It was painful for me to watch my little brother become an adult in a matter of months, but the one I was really worried about was my mom. I had been so preoccupied with her physical health improving that I had forgotten to account for the toll it would take on her mentally. She was not well. In her mind, she had been an artist, a teacher, a mother trying her best, young and beautiful. Now, she was no longer any of those things. Her unstable hands and blurry vision prevented her from continuing her quilting career. The sudden move to Korea for healthcare had made her abandon her students in Thailand. She had gained weight having to lie in a hospital bed for so long. Most importantly, my brother didn’t rely on her anymore, didn’t ask her for help in doing homework or getting to school—in her mind, she was losing her role as a mother.

When I realized all that was going through her head, after many conversations towards the end of spring break, I was more terrified of leaving my family again to go back to school than I had been when I had first gotten to Korea. Her brain would heal. It could be monitored through scans, and doctors were figuring out what medication to give her. But I didn’t know how I could help her heal, as a person. As my mother. As someone who had lost her sense of self. I had never seen her so hopeless and unlike the mother I knew, and I was lost.

Naturally, I spent so much time and energy worrying about my mom and dad and brother, and how they might be coping with this, that I never even thought about how my own well-being was affected. After I got back to Tufts, I spent every day calculating the time difference between here and there so I could call my family for an update at the earliest possible moment. And if they didn’t pick up at what I thought was a reasonable time, I worried about the reasons why they weren’t picking up. Were they at the emergency room with her, unable to answer their phone? Was she crying alone somewhere? What was going through her head? I still went to class and had dinner with my friends every day, but it was the first time since I had gotten to college that I felt a formidable barrier between my friends and me.

The year my mom got sick was the year I forgot how to smile at strangers. Instead, I mastered the art of small talk so that I could keep myself from burdening all of my friends with the devastation I knew they couldn’t help me with. A question mark floated over my head, permanent and invisible, asking every moment of the day if my mom was going to make it. I was struck by the impermanence that permeated my life. You never think that your parents won’t be there for you, not when you are 19 and going to college 6,896 miles away from home, and especially not when you are 14 and sleeping one bedroom away from them, like my brother. But there she was, my beautiful, invincible mother, having spent four hours on life support and on a long road to recovery, battling so much more than just her physical symptoms.

Now I know that even though my mom didn’t die, I still suffered a loss. Through introspection, talking to people about it, and seeking help at the Tufts Counseling and Mental Health Services, I realized I was grieving the loss of a lifestyle, of a certainty in my family relationships, and a sense of everyday normalcy. And to be honest, I didn’t think that my feelings of grief and loss deserved care and healing. My mom was the one who was sick, and my immediate family members were the ones who had to take care of her every day. I was over here unable to do anything to help, and going about my day without any literal interruptions like having to go visit her in the hospital or take time out to help her shower. I thought I had it the easiest, and that I had nothing to complain about. It is so easy to fall into those patterns of thought when it actually happens to you.

Still now, I don’t really feel present on campus. I don’t feel that I can really be here, when so much of my mind and the people I care about are so far away. I also don’t really talk about my mom, not even to the people I’m closest with. A conversation with one of my friends the other week revealed to me that perhaps the reason for that is that this is something that’s on my mind all the time. It’s a chronic thing, not something that comes and goes or can be fixed by anyone any time soon. There are no solutions, no quick fixes—it’s just something I’m going to have to learn to deal with every day, and I’m learning to. I have no answers for how to heal my mom, or my dad, or my grandparents, or anyone who has been touched by my mom. And I absolutely have no answers for how to heal myself. But now, I know that I need to take care of me as much as I need to take care of others, and I am taking steps towards that.

When someone you love gets sick, and is suffering, it is so easy to forget about taking care of yourself. The connection between physical health and mental health is clear and important; the relationships between the person who gets sick and the people who love them are just as meaningful, too. Tangible and diagnosable or not, mental health difficulties are real, and it is so important to recognize the many manifestations of illness—physical, mental, and emotional, relational—so that you can take care of others, but also you, wholly.