I was placed for adoption at birth into a family that couldn’t bear children. My mother was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis at the young age of 21. She was still able to become pregnant, but had two miscarriages due to the complications from the disease. The second pregnancy was so risky that doctors feared for her life should she become pregnant again, and begged her to consider surgery. While she did so, she and my father were devastated that they couldn’t have biological children. They soon applied to become adoptive parents.
In 1969, they “only” had to wait 3 years for their healthy baby boy, my brother. They immediately applied to adopt a second child, and in 1973, I joined them. Being raised by a mom who was very often sick had it’s challenges. Yet, like everything else in life, describing my mother as “ill” only paints a small part of the picture of what was my childhood.
I have a few friends who struggle with substantial health issues, and at times, I’ll hear from them things like, “I feel so sorry for my children, having a mom who’s sick all the time!” In the moment, I know that they feel guilty, need to vent, and wish they could feel better. Yet, I still sometimes wonder if they know that their illnesses don’t define them. It may be a part of how their kids talk about their childhood, but it won’t be everything. For one friend in particular I’m sure that her sense of humor, her love and advocacy for all living things, and her infinite acceptance of her kids’ feelings would rate higher on the list of characteristics than her chronic pain. With my mother, there were many ways I would define and describe her beyond simply “ill.”
For me, what I remember most profoundly about my mother having M.S., besides the quantity of chores that fell on my shoulders, was a growing sensitivity to others who struggled, whether with physical or emotional illnesses. Sure, at times I was embarrassed by her. She would stumble or fall, lose control of her bladder, not be able to see, and I was selfishly inconvenienced by it all. Developmentally, it made sense, but I still wish I had more grace and acceptance, even then. However, now that I’m an adult and my mother is 70, my role has shifted to helping shape my kids’ experience of one of their grandmothers.
My kids are my role models. They are curious and ask (sometimes embarrassing) questions. About 2 years ago, when my son was four, he asked a gentleman at my mom’s home who had lost his legs where he lost them and if he looked for them “really, really hard.” Oh my! Yet they also just accept, and love deeply. My daughter is quick to engage Grandma in a game of “peek-a-boo” with a stuffed animal.
My son is quick to whip out the camera and take pictures of nature to show Grandma “because nature is cool.”
Among all they’ve learned is that sometimes visits are for the person they’re visiting, and not necessarily for them. While that may seem obvious to us grown-ups reading this, for kids it’s a bit like asking them to explain the Theory of Relativity. Yet, teaching our kids anything about compassion is a worthy venture, and in their little lives, those opportunities are ready-made. They know how much joy their simple presence brings her, and so the big decision is what craft or activity to pack up and share with Grandma this week.