A shorter version of this essay appears in Newsweek
This past November was my official last day of work. I made the difficult choice of leaving a great job, with supportive management and amazing co-workers voluntarily. The decision was not an easy one to make and honestly I am inundated with a range of emotions with respect to my decision - from being freaked out that I am not 'working' and will never find another job to at peace with wearing exercise pants daily. I was at the proverbial crossroads of life, where my son is in college and wants complete autonomy, and my mother, who now needs more of me, while not wanting to admit it.
There may be a time in life where life's challenges force you to make dramatic changes, even when you may not be ready. Caring for an aging parent with an aggressive illness is why I made this choice and is at the heart of my decision.
Never in my wildest dreams and certainly not a year ago, would I have imagined leaving a job, where I had security and flexibility. Once my father passed away and Covid-19 became rampant, it was as if the decision was made for me. As I said to my son and husband one night at the dinner table “I need to resign from work, to take care of my mother full time. I want to take care of her because I love her more than life itself.”
Many may not agree and think it's irresponsible to walk away from a great job and are quick to point out that I'm almost past my prime earning years. I am literally at the age where I can up the ante - you know that magical time where I am allowed to increase the percentage of contributions towards - gulp - retirement. While I know that what fiscally responsible folks say is true, for me, it boils down to this...there are more important things than money. Besides, they don't know my mom.
My mother, a tour-de-force, is the epitome of everything good in this world. Only petite in stature, she remains larger than life. And, in my humble opinion, continues to live life with gusto, incredible humor, fierce determination and above everything else, awe-inspiring grace. I am constantly amazed by her sheer fortitude and upbeat attitude. I think it is only natural for me to do everything in my power to keep her living her life.
Three short years ago my mother was diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer. When you hear those words, you might think death sentence. I remember as if it were yesterday, when she relayed what the non-empathetic Gastroenterologist said. He told her the tumor was inoperable and to "get your affairs in order". Thankfully she didn't listen, and is where this story begins.
After getting a second opinion and being connected with a rock star oncology team, my mom, a recipient of life saving surgery, is a testament of not accepting "no" for an answer. As she says "I'm not going anywhere". Her smart, good-looking and IMO god-like oncology surgeon performed the complicated Whipple surgery. In surgery terms, it is considered the holy grail of procedures - disconnecting and reconnecting the entire digestive system. The procedure itself could have been my mother's demise, as it is serious with many risks . From start to finish, the surgery lasted well over 9 hours, and it was done laparoscopically. During her hospital stay, she would walk the hallways with tubes coming out of almost every orifice, including the dreaded NG tube, which protruded from her nose. Once on her feet, she would walk up and down the hallways proudly, say hello to fellow oncology patients in their rooms, their family and staff saying “how do you do” or a simple “hello” as if there was an unspoken understanding of what each were going through. One day, a patient said to me with a quivering voice “your mother is my hero, if she can do it, so can I”. I replied “She’s mine too” with the same unsteady delivery. After 11 days in the hospital, she Rocked the Whipple.
Her aggressive chemotherapy, radiation schedule along with umpteen trips for lab work, she was never discouraged. An unfortunate side effect of chemo is weaker bones and in the middle of the night, she tripped, broke her ankle, required an additional surgery and was given a new set of hurdles to overcome - to not bear weight on her ankle for 6 weeks. You should have seen the orthopedic surgeon's face when she showed up at the OR with a green ribbon around her ankle "It is March 17th, and need a little luck" she said "besides, I want to make sure you know which ankle it is" with a smile. While her ankle was mending, her Chemo protocol continued. She could be seen hopping on one leg from a wheelchair to a recliner and back into the wheelchair. My mom would scoot up and down the hall, dragging the IV pole with her. Not only was it a masterful aerobic feat, it personifies who she is. She does what needs to be done, makes the best of the situation, all without complaint! I wish I had taken photos of her at one of the last chemo appointments, as she "pole danced" with the Chemo/IV “partner” and her newly healed ankle. When her treatments ended, we celebrated with poop emoji cupcakes and a 'sage-ing' ritual at the house amongst family and friends.
For well over 2 years, she remained cancer free, until a lump on her neck revealed what any cancer survivor fears. Burrowed in a lymph node and sitting on top of where nerves bundle together, her cancer returned. My heart sank, and can only imagine what went through her mind. Thankfully, her doctors were encouraged by catching it early, and prescribed another course of chemo, which, in turn, significantly shrunk the tumor, followed by radiation treatments. I am convinced her entire oncology team are her personal
cheerleaders, and we would be lost without them. For anyone who has been diagnosed with the unimaginable and experience set-backs, my mother is an example of conquering the impossible, of remaining hopeful and to not give up when things appear bleak. While her life may not look like it did 3 years ago, she remains tenacious, hopeful and continues defying the odds. Frankly, I'd like to keep it that way.
Before I was ready to leave my job, I wrote out a list of questions. I put it away for a week, and reread it right before I gave notice. At that juncture I was ready to be CCG, Chief Caregiver to the most resilient person I know.
Will I miss having a life outside of the home?
Why can't I do both - work and take care of my mom?
I tried that, and have had to leave work suddenly and for extended periods of time as well as asking a colleague to cover for me, repeatedly. As much as I love working, I didn't want to be the one who always asks.
Will I feel like I am putting extra pressure on my husband, who is CFO or our family or as I prefer to call him CFW (Chief Financial Worrier)
Absolutely - do you know my husband?
Do I love my mom?
Without question - More than Life
Is anything more important than her well being?
Besides my husband and son, no one else is more important than she is.
By leaving your job, and taking care of your mom, do you think it is the right thing for you to do?
YES, YES, YES!
Can you afford to do this?
Yes, although my salary isn’t ginormous, it has afforded us some of the many extras we've enjoyed. With Covid still here, there are no extras. I realize how fortunate I am, not only to have my mother in my life, but to also have the means to hit pause.
Will you have regrets of leaving your job?
Of course, however if I didn't, I would always regret not being there for my mother, so No. Additionally, now that Covid is so rampant, the choice was made for me. I am not willing to hire someone to come in a few days a week, who could potentially bring Covid into her home. Additionally, if I were exposed at work, and then exposed her, the guilt would be insurmountable.
And the last question, which is most important, and pales in comparison to all the questions above.
Is your mother worth more than your salary?
Without question, YES. This is non-negotiable.
While I have had some ups and downs since giving notice, knowing that I am her CCG by providing assistance, it allows my mom to focus on herself. If I had any doubts before, all I have to do is look over at her, see her hazel eyes look to me with adoration, love, and gratitude. It is more than enough. Our time together is a gift and an undeniable privilege. For the first time since I can remember, I've been able to spend copious amounts of time with my mom, without competing for her attention. Susan, as she is known, has taken life's hiccups in stride, and moves on undeterred. She continues to lead by example and I learn from her. Every. Single. Day. When I grow up, I want to be just like her!