Stress Builds

A story on my mom’s experience in losing my dad to cancer.

Photo by Tiago Bandeira on Unsplash

In many of my most recent articles, I share that my dad was diagnosed with stage four cancer and fought for his life for two years until his passing in 2021. In my stories, however, I neglected my mom’s own experience of losing my dad.

Early in 2019, before my dad’s diagnosis, my family was preparing for my mom’s rotator cuff surgery. For example, such as when my brothers would visit and help my mom, or when I would be around to lend a hand. My mom experienced a work injury the year before and had been placed on disability after that. Because of a few issues with her job’s insurance system, her surgery was delayed for various months.

Because my spring break from college would overlap with the first week of my mom’s surgery, my dad planned to still work during that time period since I would be around to help at home.

The Sunday night my dad was taken to the hospital, my parents and I had gone to the beach that early morning for a long walk. That evening my parents drove me back to the university home where I stayed, just like every other weekend before. However, my mom had the feeling that there was something wrong before this day.

On Thursday night, my dad had woken up in panic from having trouble breathing, a headache, and a lot of tingling on the left side of his body. My mom wanted my brothers to take my dad to the hospital, but my dad refused. My mom told my brothers and me later that day what happened. Each of us spoke to my dad to convince him to at least go to urgent care, but he still refused.

Eventually, he promised to go Friday after work. He was starting to feel weakness on the left side of his body. When the day came, however, he didn’t go.

That Sunday morning, after the long walk, my mom was walking behind my dad as he limped back to the car. Since I had gone for a run and beat them to the car way beforehand, I didn’t know my dad had been limping until I watched them from above in the parking structure. He was having trouble moving his left leg. My mom and I wanted to help him get to the car and call an ambulance, or my brothers, but he refused the help.

That evening after my parents drove me back, my dad lost mobility in his left arm, which was the arm he used to drive. He struggled using his right arm to drive back and unfortunately, his vision started to become blurry.

My mom in a panic called my brother to come to find them. But when my dad refused, she asked him to meet them at home. My dad somehow managed to get himself and my mom back home safely. My brother rushed my dad to the hospital. By the time they called my dad from the waiting room to take him to his hospital room, he was completely paralyzed on his left side.

My dad was hospitalized for an entire week until he regained mobility on his left side and was able to stand. While at the hospital, my mom didn’t have a car or a way of transportation to go anywhere outside the hospital. She would eat my dad’s leftovers, whatever snacks she could get from the small cafe downstairs, or the food my brothers would take her in the evening.

Because my dad developed a fear of staying alone in his hospital room, she would only leave to buy a snack and quickly come back. At night the nurses and hospital staff would wake up my mom whenever they had to administer medication to my dad or draw his blood. The hospital didn’t have extra beds, so she slept the best she could on a recliner chair. She would often wake up stiff and in pain on her injured arm.

My mom stayed with him every night except for the very last night when she asked me to stay. Her surgery was in five days, and she wanted to get some rest before her big day.

I was on spring break those first few days after my mom’s surgery to help care for them at home. After that, however, my parents were on their own because they didn’t want me to take leave from school or for my brothers to ask for time off from work. The family argument settled in that my brothers and I would continue with our lives as normal and only help whenever we could.

The days after I left, my mom would help lift my dad out of bed when he had to go to the restroom, bring him water or food when needed, and give him his medications. She struggled to learn how to use only her left arm to do every day, small tasks. Helping my dad up and cooking would cause her lots of pain and discomfort in her arm.

My mom couldn’t dress on her own. So my dad would help her the best he could put her left arm through the one sleeve her post-surgical shirts had. Although he could now move his left side, it was still pretty weak. She wouldn’t be able to sleep either due to the pain and inability to lay in a comfortable position. Therefore, she often felt tired.

Eventually, my godmother came from Mexico to stay with my parents for a month until she started a new job contract. My mom no longer had to do the house chores or care for herself and my dad on her own, but my dad’s condition did begin to worsen after he started his radiation treatment and immunotherapy.

My dad stopped eating solid foods, would drink little water, and spent most of his day sleeping. From worry that he wouldn’t make it through the summer, my mom became anxious and somewhat depressed.

After my godmother left, my mom’s friend stayed with my parents for some time as well. However, because she wasn’t family, my mom felt embarrassed to ask her friend to help my dad whenever he had to use the restroom or needed to walk around at night to calm his nerves. Although these things would hurt my mom’s arm and cause her pain, she preferred to do them instead of asking for help.

A few weeks after my mom’s friend left, I graduated from college and moved in with my parents to help them. My dad’s cancer was under control by this point and my mom’s shoulder was recovering well.

Three months later, my mom went back to working full-time until the COVID-19 pandemic hit. My mom was laid off for another six months after that.

The fear of my dad getting COVID was stressful, and this placed a lot of strain on us as a family. My mom and I tried limiting going to the store and restricting family visits. We were used to having our family over and being able to take my dad to the hospital whenever he felt really ill. Now we needed to find a new way to manage the physical limitations placed on us, and also handle the change in the amount of emotional support we felt that we were receiving.

It was evident that my dad was stressed about the situation too. He would often get into a fight with my mom for the smallest of things. Because my brothers couldn’t visit, my dad began to feel more lonely and would often ask my mom multiple times throughout the day to be with him. My mom became overwhelmed by this push and pull.

The largest strain placed on my mom was the months she started working full-time leading to what eventually was my dad’s death. I was earning my master’s degree at the time and working a remote, part-time job. My mom and I had agreed that I would care for my dad once she left for work at 5 am in the morning and that she would take over after arriving from home around 6 pm when I was in class or needed to do a bit of work.

This meant that sometimes my mom would stay up the entire night whenever my dad couldn’t sleep from his pain, anxiety, or hallucinations. There were times when she would forget to eat after arriving from work. Such as when my dad was having a bad day and needed extra attention, or didn’t when he didn’t want her to leave him alone, even for a few minutes.

If we had to take him to the emergency room, she would go and stay with him in the emergency room until they would move him to a hospital room. This meant not being able to drink water or eat for hours because of the rules placed due to COVID, or sometimes needing to sleep on a stool if we had taken him late at night.

As my dad’s condition worsened, my dad would sometimes call my mom when she was at work to ask when she was coming home. There were times when he would ask her to stay at home from work as well. Or if my dad was having an emergency, my mom would come back from work to be able to see him in the emergency room.

Photo by Claire Kelly on Unsplash

My mom had lost her dad from cancer over thirty years prior. Because she didn’t have American citizenship or residency at the time, she couldn’t see her dad before he passed. There wasn’t much she could do for him other than sending a little bit of money and prayers. Seeing my dad suffer from so much pain, my mom related to what her mom had gone through. This placed another emotional layer on the already distressing situation.

After my dad’s passing, my mom felt lost in the world. She didn’t know how to start her life over, and the accumulation of chronic stress from the two years my dad fought against cancer took a toll on her.

Aside from grief and depression, she has been experiencing multiple urinary, pulmonary, and gastrointestinal infections. She becomes sick often and now also suffers from insomnia. She eventually began to develop chronic pain in her back and legs. And the number of issues she faces has only been increasing.

I have been with my mom for a little after a year since my dad passed to be a source of support. However, because I will be starting a doctoral program, I will soon need to leave. This worries her because she knows she’ll feel more lonely than she already does without my dad.

I helped her find a therapist a few months back, and we have found a few different doctors that seem promising to help her. My brothers have created more space in their schedules to be able to see her more often as well.

My mom’s story as she recovers from losing my dad is still in progress, and I can’t say if it’ll end with a happy ending. But I wanted to share her story, to demonstrate that even in the most tragic of times, we need to care for ourselves. Even if we feel good or “okay” during that time of chaos, things like stress, lack of rest, and anxiety build and take a toll on the body.

If you’re going through a difficult moment in life, I suggest having yourself checked out regularly by a medical professional (or holistic practitioner, if that’s more of your belief), and finding a way to carve at least a few minutes for yourself every day. These things, although may seem small or negligible at the moment, are important. Sometimes they could even have a finger between life or death. The body can only take so much until it begins to “fall apart.”

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Rose Mejia

Rose Mejia

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Striving to be a holistic psychologist & writer. Interested in reading more? Sign-up for my newsletter: https://mailchi.mp/fec9b5b8e4fb/anchor-light-n