Copyrighted by Lorna Tedder. Originally published in Third Degree of Freedom.
I’m sick. It happened in the usual way. I let myself get run down, caught a bug—and now it’s squashed me.
On the third day, I lie on the sofa, unable to lift my head without a sudden rush of nausea and hardly feeling the effects of the last three doses of medicine. That’s when I begin a little time traveling.
…There I am, seven years old again and quiet as a mouse in Grandma’s big farm house. I love my grandma with all my little heart, and although she always has too much work to do to play with me, my visits are normally a real treat for both of us. Not this time, though. This time, I have been left to take care of Grandma after one of her chemotherapy treatments. I am both fascinated and horrified that the strongest woman I know suffers through her daily chores without a complaint, even though she keeps a vomit pan tucked under her arm and in spite of the tufts of brown hair that remain on the recliner’s head rest long after her mid-day rest….
I come back to the present, still seeing the ravages of cancer through seven-year-old eyes and thinking of friends now suffering the same. For 30 years of medical advances, some things have not changed. I wonder how Grandma had managed at all, except by sheer willpower, to be such a pillar of strength, and I feel guilty for what a simple bug had done to me.
In hindsight, it wasn’t so much that I’d been tasked to “take care” of Grandma as I had nowhere else to go. April was planting season on the farm, and the days ranged from sunrise until long after dark for both my parents. After school and on weekends, I stayed with Grandma while Granddaddy and my parents worked the fields. I had never been a boisterous child, but with Grandma so sick and Mama so sad, I was quieter still.
…And then I am back in time again, secretly watching Mama cry in the kitchen. She has one child in college, one child a high school senior, and one in the first grade, and all of us needing her attention. Then there is Grandma’s housekeeping to be done as well as her own, and the cooking for both families….
It must have been incredibly hard for her, refusing to cry and being the pillar of strength for everyone else. It must have torn her apart that she had to work day and night when she needed every last moment with her dying mother. I can still remember hearing her, the strongest woman I knew, keening in the kitchen when she thought she was alone.
It wasn’t until recently that I came to understand.
…I am back in time again, back to two years ago. I can look at my father and see the life draining away. I can look at him and see what is coming, what I—the strongest woman I know—won’t be able to stop. But, like Mama, what choice do I have? I have two children in elementary school, a busy husband, an unfinished novel, and a hectic job as a contract negotiator for the Defense Department. I can’t be everywhere at once, and I refuse to admit that being the pillar of strength has worn thin. So I juggle and rush and sign the contract for Lot 14 of the AMRAAM missile program the day my father is rushed into surgery. The ink is still wet on the contract when I squeal into the parking lot of the medical center….
I spent the next six weeks between the ICU waiting room and my office, kicking myself for the time I didn’t spend with my kids, for the time I was away from work, for not being at Daddy’s side every minute.
When I return to work and Daddy is a little better, a concerned boss takes me aside and frets over me. “I know you invoked the Family and Medical Leave Act and that your dad’s been critically ill,” he says, “but you’ve burned up all your vacation time and it’s starting to hinder your chances of getting promoted.”
So be it, I tell him.
I don’t think I’d realized until then that I had made a choice and that I couldn’t have it all. I could look myself in the mirror without regret. I had been by Daddy’s side and that’s where I had needed to be. And somehow after my boss’ comments, my career didn’t taste quite so sweet.
I never felt the same about my job after that.
The “big boss” at work catches up with me a few days later while I grab a quick bite to eat instead of taking a decent lunch hour. I ask to change offices, to go somewhere where I can be productive and not be on the road three weeks out of four. I need to put my career second, for a change. Too many times, I’ve put it ahead of my health, my kids. I explain that I need to be present for my growing girls and available for my declining parents. My husband’s more interested in my career than me being home, but I don’t tell my boss that. I don’t tell him, either, that I’ve become disillusioned with my career and that I’m making money but not a difference. They won’t let me make a difference. I have to follow petty policy, live within rules no one remembers making or why.
“You don’t have to do this,” my boss tells me. “I know you think you’re being the dutiful daughter, but you’re taking this obligation to family a little too far. Your kids will grow up with or without you, and your parents’ health will fail with or without you.”
He was right, I concede as I lie here on the sofa, too nauseated to move. My kids will grow up with or without me, but I don’t want to miss a moment. And my parents’ health will fail whether I’m at their bedsides or not, but I couldn’t look myself in the mirror knowing I wasn’t there when they really needed me.
Just now, my kids come into the room where I lie, eyes closed, and cover me with a blanket before tiptoeing quietly away.
My husband is watching TV and doesn’t seem to notice how sick I am, and I wonder if he even cares.
But the girls do. They worry about me, because I’m the strongest woman they know.
I smile to myself. Without a doubt, if I should look to the future, my girls—all grown up—will be there for me. They know the importance of family, of being there.
I will have taught them by example.