By James Croxon
I often tell people I grew up between a hospital and a military base. My father retired from the Air Force a few years ago and my mother spent her life as a nurse. Unlike my father, Mom never really retired. She just doesn’t get paid anymore.
Mom is the only nurse in the family. She’s the de facto person for all medical issues. In practice this means she’s permanently on call, answering questions about every illness, soreness or general boo-boo. She’s also the assumed go-to person to handle any death in the family- logistics, grief counseling, hospice arrangements. She’s cool under pressure and has correctly questioned diagnoses from physicians on more than one occasion.
In 2004 I joined the Air Force. Military life was familiar to me but moving thousands of miles away was new and uncomfortable. Knowing my mother was a phone call away made moving and starting a family of my own easier. I called her when my first son wouldn’t stop crying, when my second son was hospitalized with RSV, and when I cut off my fingertip in the kitchen. She was always there.
In 2010, I called Mom to complain about another medical issue. Like always, she joked that I only called her for medical advice. She sounded tired, less like herself. She answered my questions, told me she loved me and then told me she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, as if she was telling me it was getting cold outside.
Flooded with emotion I asked questions, drug out every detail. When? How? What happens next? Only, I couldn’t call and ask Mom her advice this time. She was the one who needed care, and I was 1,500 miles away.
The logistics of living far from one’s parents is often overlooked until it poses a problem. For a number of reasons I was not able to come home to be with my mother when she had cancer treatment. I couldn’t be there when she had brain surgery shortly after. She never complained. She maintained that it was no big deal, but the helplessness of life shamed me.
Due to her illness, I forced myself to change how I interacted with her. I called to ask about her, sent photos more often, used my vacation time to return home. I used technology like Skype to see her and let her see her grandsons.
It’s not perfect, but it’s life. I can’t be with my mother as often as I’d like and help as she ages. However, I’ve joined her support system, made up of my siblings and family, and now we are more connected than we have been in years. Of no surprise to anyone, Mom beat cancer almost effortlessly. If she is ill again the family, me included, will rally behind her. But for now, the nurse is back on call.