I Knew I Was an Adult When: The doctor gave me the news about my mom

Sep 27, 2015 at 8:25 p.m. ET
Image: Momentimages/Getty Images

Does your life have a soundtrack? Mine does. When I am feeling great and that anything is possible, my brain plays Katrina and the Waves, no iPod needed. “I'm walking on sunshine, whoa, oh / I’m walking on sunshine / And don't it feel good? Hey!” When depression hits and I think I’ll never feel like myself again, KT Tunstall’s song "Other Side of the World" plays in my head. “The fire fades away / Most of every day / Is full of tired excuses / But it's too hard to say.”

Sometimes my soundtrack plays for major events in my life. When I drove my first new car, a Toyota Tercel, off the used car lot, I heard the Cars singing “Let’s Go.” “She's driving away / With the dim lights on / And she's making a play / She can't go wrong / She never waits too long.”

And when the doctor in the emergency room told me he thought my mother had a brain tumor, I heard the '80s Canadian band The Pursuit of Happiness singing, “Cause I'm an adult now / I'm an adult now / I've got the problems of an adult / On my head and on my shoulders / I'm an adult now.”

I was only 23, barely out of college and I was living at home with my parents because my first real job didn’t pay enough to cover rent. My weekdays were spent working as an associate editor for a magazine then going out with my new boyfriend at night. My weekends were spent shopping with my high school girlfriends, then hitting the bars at Faneuil Hall in Boston. I had no worries – up until that point.

But one night, sometime after midnight, my sister came into my room and told me I needed to move my car. “There’s an ambulance coming for Mum, and we need to clear the driveway.” I went outside and pulled my car alongside the hedges that lined our yard just as the ambulance rounded the corner onto our street.

I followed the EMTs inside and sat down in the kitchen and watched as they carried my mother out on a stretcher. I couldn’t tell if she was conscious or not. My father said he was going to change out of his pajamas and go to the hospital. Still, I sat there. I was frozen, not comprehending what was going on.

But just as my father was leaving, I told him, “Wait. I will drive you.” It felt like a grown-up thing to do. On the way to the ER, I learned that my mother had had a seizure while she was sleeping and my father had called 911. My mother was never sick — not even head colds. We had no idea what could be wrong.

At the hospital, we had to wait until 6 a.m. before we were allowed to go in and see her. “Why don’t you go home and send your sister up?” she asked when she saw me. I knew she was suggesting that I go home and get some sleep — I was her baby, after all — but I teased her that I finally had proof my sister was her favorite and that she preferred her company to mine.

Before my mother could give her standard response, “I don’t have favorites,” the doctor came in. “Can I talk to you two outside?” You two? Who two? I was confused. The doctor was talking to my father and me. Why me? Wasn’t this going to be an adult conversation? Sure, I was feeling grown-up, accompanying my dad to the hospital, but I was still a kid.

Nevertheless, I followed the doctor and my father out into the hall like a good girl; my mother raised me to respect authority. “We believe she has a brain tumor. We’ll run some more tests and if there is a tumor we’ll want to operate immediately.”

Cue the music. The sound quality in my head was excellent. The volume deafening. I’m an adult now. My mother did indeed have a brain tumor and the doctors gave her a year to live. I was officially an adult. I had meetings with the neurosurgeon, errands to run for my father, my first real job to hold onto amid a family crisis, and death knocking on the front door of my childhood home.

Weeks later, the doctors changed my mother’s prognosis, and she lived cancer-free for 23 more years, minus a scary but manageable bout with melanoma. But my diagnosis didn’t change. I remained an adult. I got married, had children, became a vice president at work, bought a house and paid my mortgage. And I continued to worry about and care for my parents.

I yelled at the nurses when my father got an infection following his open heart surgery. I slept in the SICU following my mother’s heart surgery. I sat by her side in the ER when she fell and broke her nose, and found her a rehab when she broke her wrist. I eventually took over buying my parents’ groceries and paying their bills. I moved Dad into assisted living when he started to have memory issues, and I was the one who told my mother, 24 years after our first trip to the ER, that she had ovarian cancer and approximately three months to live.

There was no soundtrack playing that day. All I heard was the deafening responsibility of adulthood bearing down on me. I had hospice care to research, financial statements and healthcare proxies to sign, a funeral to plan. I was reminded in that moment that I was a full-fledged, never-going-back adult, and my days as a child were long gone.

But I was wrong. My mother lived for three months after her last diagnosis, and I sat by her side all but a handful of days during that time. As we faced her death, our roles shifted back and forth. Sometimes she was the child, reliving her early life, leaning on me for guidance and support, seeking comfort from me as she contemplated her death. And sometimes she was the mom — giving me advice for the future I would live without her, beaming with pride at the woman I had become and giving me comfort as I contemplated her death. I was an adult, no doubt, but I would always be her child.

And now, when I think of my mother, and our final months together, one of her favorite songs, “Edelweiss” from “The Sound of Music,” plays in my head, “Blossom of snow, may you bloom and grow / Bloom and grow forever.” Because that’s what life is all about, right? There are moments, years perhaps, where we feel the full weight of adulthood, but the child in us is never gone. We simply bloom and grow forever.