When The Roles Reverse And You're Taking Care Of Your Mom

by Harper Spero
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It was the first time I was faced with the realization that my mom was not going to be young forever.

My dad and I went to see her in the recovery room after having knee replacement surgery. It was a communal room so there were lots of people out of it with machines beeping all around. She was drugged up and her oxygen mask was slanted on her face. She bobbed her head up like a PEZ Dispenser to see what the doctor was saying.

“Relax mom, put your head down and close your eyes,” I said as I rubbed her forehead.

I thought of the countless nights she put me to sleep as a child rubbing my forehead and eyelids. Seeing her hooked up to machines, unable to move her body and completely out of it made my heart race.

My dad and I sat in the lobby of NYU waiting for confirmation that the surgery was successful. My dad’s phone rang.

“Hi Harry, Norine is out of surgery. It went amazing. She’s in recovery now.” My dad jumped out of his seat with a huge smile on his face. “You can come see her briefly, but then we should let her sleep for a few hours.”

My dad quickly opened up his arms for a hug and we both breathed a sigh of relief. We immediately rushed to the elevators to see her. She’s our glue, she holds our family together — we needed this surgery to go well.

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I couldn’t help but think about what her future would hold. I tried to push my thoughts of her in a hospital bed, years from now, out of my mind. My mom has spent the last 35 years taking care of me, especially as I live with a primary immunodeficiency. Here I was taking care of her.

My mom’s right knee had been a problem for as long as I can remember. In April 2018, she slipped and fell at the front door of our summer house. I watched it happen and couldn’t get to her fast enough to help. She crawled from the entryway to the couch and propped herself up to stand. It was clear this made her knee pain significantly worse. She sucked it up and came to Jazzfest in New Orleans, but she could barely walk a block. From that weekend forward, my dad and I insisted she get checked out and to make the surgery she’d been considering for years a priority.

She showed up to her doctor’s office a few weeks later with a list of all the dates she was “unable” to have surgery:

– Lori’s 60th Birthday Party: November 3rd

– Tara out of town November 9th – 12th – Hebrew Home Gala: November 11th – Thanksgiving

I was certain she was more concerned about having to be taken care of than actually going under the knife. I was surprisingly not afraid of her surgery, maybe because I’d been waiting so long for this day. I wanted her to be able to walk long distances, enjoy music festivals and come to the beach every weekend and not feel intimidated by the unevenness of the sand. She can’t climb the subway stairs. She avoids long walks in the neighborhood. Her knee has prevented her from living life in the walkable city she’s lived in her whole life.

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“Mom, get in as soon as possible – these things are all missable. We’ll have Thanksgiving the following week if we have to. Or skip it.”

My dad nods. He’s cautious about how much he talks to her about surgery – I know he’s thinking about it often, but doesn’t want to push her buttons. She likes doing things on her own terms, in her own time. She researched doctors and talked to several people who had the surgery to understand the process, recovery and importance of physical therapy. Sometimes I wondered if she was more fearful of the recovery than the actual surgery. She scheduled the surgery for November 17th. My dad emailed me a list of dates and times he couldn’t babysit her for the following month of recovery. I cleared my schedule for the first week and decided we’d figure it out from there.


As we walked to the elevator in their apartment building, my dad asked, “So, what’s one word that defines you?”

“I don’t know,” I responded.

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“Harry, I don’t like things like this on regular days, especially not today,” my mom said. He comes up with these kinds of questions to get your immediate answer basically to see how thoughtful you can be on the spot.

We continued walking from their apartment on 22nd to the hospital on 17th, and he kept asking, “C’mon, what’s your word?”

I knew I had to answer soon, otherwise he’d nudge me the whole time we were waiting for her to get out of surgery. As we waited in the pre-op room, he asked again. I told her she couldn’t go into surgery until she answered.

“Patient,” she responded.

“That’s correct, nobody is as patient as your mother,” he said turning to me.

“Dedicated,” I said.

“Uh-huh,” he said.

“What? Is that not good enough? What would you say for me?”

“No, it’s good. You’re dedicated,” he said with hesitance.

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His word was “happy.”

The doctor came in to remind us that this was a very routine surgery. He’d perform five more that day. I started to question if maybe I should have said passionate. Is that a more fitting word for me than dedicated? I guess they’re both good. My dad and I kissed her cheek, told her we loved her, and waved goodbye to her old knee.

While she was in the operating room, we walked around the neighborhood, ate a mediocre breakfast (dad had an omelet, I had French toast) and watched the clock. I had filled my backpack with a book, coloring book, and headphones to listen to podcasts I had in my queue. I didn’t do anything. I couldn’t concentrate on anything except getting the call from the doctor that everything went well.

As we paced around waiting for the call, my mind wandered: What if they called and said there were complications? What if she didn’t come out of this and was part of that 1% who didn’t make it? No, Harper, you can’t think like that – nobody is as strong as your mom. She’s doing great in there. And so, after five hours, we got the call from the doctor who said we could visit her briefly before letting her rest.

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After the recovery room, she was moved to a corner room with a massive flat-screen TV playing HGTV, a Murphy bed for a guest and spacious bathroom – she was more alert. My dad, aunt, cousins and I sat around with her. I thought back to the number of times she sat in hospital rooms with me. What questions did she ask? What did I want and what did I want to be left alone about? What did she do that was helpful? How did she know when to leave me alone?

I propped her pillows up because they kept falling low behind her. I took the blanket off her when the room started to get warm. I offered to go out to get her some food as I know, like me, she wouldn’t eat the hospital food. My dad had the hospital staff explain the full menu to get a platter of food for himself.

When the nurse rambled off the drugs she had given her, I quickly wrote it all down. I still have the mini notebook my mom used when I was in the hospital in 2012 of every drug I took when, and which nurse administered it. Before I left her that night, I cleared off the table to make sure everything within arm’s reach of her was organized. I told her I’d call her in the morning to see what she needed and not to hesitate to call me in the middle of the night.

“I’m serious. I’m a few blocks away. I’ll come anytime.”

When I was in high school, my mom was the Managing Director of a holistic health care center. The days after 9/11, the center became a homebase for first responders to come for relief and support. I volunteered there for days and when I left each day, I felt like there was more to be done.

This feeling quickly came back to me as I walked home from leaving my mom in the hospital. Was there more I could have done? Should I have bought her more food? Did she drink enough liquids? Should I have slept in the hospital with her? I didn’t feel like I’d done enough.

Prior to surgery, I knew I would be the one responsible for her. My dad isn’t intuitive. He hasn’t been the patient either. He needs clear direction, and she’s never asked for help before, so it’s hard for the two to align. He didn’t know how to handle anything in this situation as much as he aimed to be helpful.

Luckily she was only in the hospital one night, but recovery consisted of a lot of physical therapy. When her physical therapist came for the first time, he showed me a demonstration of an exercise she had to do with five pillows and an ice pack three times a day. I showed my dad afterwards, he took a picture of my demonstration, and yet the next morning my mom told me he couldn’t figure out which way the pillows went.

Friends and family members offered to come over and be with her when she was released from the hospital. She didn’t want it. She didn’t want to have to ask for things and feel waited on by them. She doesn’t want to be a burden.

We had a small Thanksgiving dinner with the same family members who came to the hospital. She remained in her lounge chair while I picked up a Whole Foods cooked turkey, made veggie sides, set the table and organized everything in my parents’ apartment. I wouldn’t let her provide me with direction. I asked her instead to trust me.

The next day she said, “Thanks for making everything so seamless yesterday.”

“Mom, stop thanking me. Get used to me helping.”

“You know how hard this is for me.”

My mom is patient. She’s also a patient right now. There’s nobody in the world I’d rather take care of than her. She taught me well.