Friday, July 6, 2012

A Different Kind of Visit

This past week my parents came into Orlando for their annual visit. They always stay with my partner and me and we take them shopping, to restaurants, to the beach, and we have a nice time.

This trip, however, was different.

A few weeks ago, my mother was diagnosed with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL), which took us all by surprise. My family isn't a family of illness. We've been lucky in that way. My mother has always been in good health. She's thin. She eats right. She exercises. But suddenly, she has leukemia, which is a scary word. Her leukemia was only found because of routine blood work. She wasn't sick or showing many symptoms. CLL is considered the "good cancer to get," which isn't very comforting. Who wants the good or the bad cancer?

Suddenly, my world seems to be filled with cancer words. You don't realize how many times you see the word cancer until that word means something to you. In an instant, everything has changed and my eyes seem to fall on the word many times a day. It is on billboards, bumper stickers, and products at the grocery store trying to help raise money. It is everywhere.

The last fews weeks have been filled with doctor appointments for her and phone calls for me. She's kept me up to date on all the blood work and tests. She's getting more information and working with a really good doctor in Houston where she lives. CLL is slow moving, but most people get it in their 70s. My mom is only 57. At this point, the doctor is working on getting her platelet count up, but chemo or a bone marrow transplant could be in her future.

I don't know what will happen. Survival statistics vary greatly and in the end, each case is different. I've read as much as I can about it. Some of it is helpful. Some of it is scary. The hardest part is just accepting that my healthy mother is sick with something that could kill her.

I haven't talked much about this with anyone outside my family, but writing is my way of dealing with events and situations. After spending a few days with my mom, I felt ready to write about it.

Before she got here, I went to the store to buy her a birthday card. Her birthday was on July 3rd while she was here in Orlando. Even the selection of birthday cards made me think of her leukemia. Most birthday cards for adults mention getting old and dying in some way. These are meant to be funny, but suddenly they didn't seem so funny. I selected a silly card with a dog on the front and left the store.

This visit felt different, but in the best way possible. I felt closer to my mom than I have in a long time. I was glad to see her so openly discussing her leukemia and her feelings about it. I felt she could trust me with whatever she needed to say. My mom and I are a lot a like and we both internalize things, which can cause even more stress. She wasn't doing that and I know that's not easy for her.

My mom is very strong. I've always admired her for what she's been able to do. When I was just a kid, she went to college for the first time. She had three young kids and did a four year bachelor's degree in nursing and got straight A's. I think of her every time I'm faced with a whining student who claims they don't have time to do an assignment.

In recent years, my dad and her moved from Indiana to Houston to be with my two sisters. They both had never lived outside of Indiana. This was a big move. It's been great to see them so happy and flourishing in their new lives.

Due to many of the changes they've made, I've often felt a little more out of the loop. My whole immediate family now lives very close to each other in a place I've never lived. I'm the odd one out. I don't get to see my parents nearly as much, which can make staying close more difficult.

On this visit, I could see changes in my mother. Changes that come from being faced with something like leukemia. She was more open. We talked about things we hadn't ever directly talked about before. I also got to share with both parents my gay community. My parents have always been supportive of me and my partner, but they've not had many opportunities to experience gay culture or events.

While they were here, I took them both to their first gay bar and first drag show at Parliament House. We had talked about doing this before and they've always been willing, but I think the timing was perfect. I wanted them to experience a place that has meant a lot to me. Parliament House is really one of the first gay places that has felt like home. They also got to meet a few of my friends who came along with us.

During the show, the emcee, Darcel Stevens, spoke to them, made some jokes, and gave them a shot a Hennessy, which we all shared. My mother and father don't really drink. They were very good sports and had an amazing time. I was thankful to Darcel and to Sassy Devine who both helped make their evening one to remember. I don't know for sure, but my mother's reaction and participation in the whole event was different than it might have been last year when they visited. She was easygoing about it all and had a good time.

There was something very special about sharing this moment with my mom at this particular time. A diagnosis like this one puts things into perspective. I don't know how long I have with my mom, but in reality, I don't know how long I have with anyone. I wanted her to see that side of my life.

I'm staying positive even though I'm scared. Right now, I'm just thankful for the time I had with both my parents this week.

-Stephen (Hopeful)