My Mother's Keeper

Life with a Traumatic Brain Injury Survivor
by Rebecca Richardson

It's 7 a.m. and the phone by my bedside is ringing. There is no need to look at the caller Id. Almost two years of daily phone calls tells me exactly who will be on the other line.

“Good morning mother,” I say.

“Good morning my daughter.  Are you coming over today?”

As I wipe the sleep from my eyes I mentally review what day it is and reply “Not yet, our days are Monday and Thursday. I was just there yesterday so I'll be back again in two days.” 

“Oh. Ok.” she says, not disguising the disappointment in her voice. As usual, our conversation ends as quickly as it began.   I hang up my phone, knowing in a few hours I will be repeating this conversation once more.

Forty-five years, ago my mother was a sixteen year old girl. At 4'10” and under 100 pounds, she was a tiny spitfire with brains and beauty. She was an only child and the world was indeed her oyster. She had given birth to my older sister at the age of 15 and despite things not working out with the dad, a different young man stepped up and married her, promising to give her the life that she and my sister deserved.

When my sister was only a few months old, the course of my mother’s life and everyone in my family would change drastically. Even though I would not be born for another seven years and my other two siblings years later, our paths were already set on a hot summer day in 1969.

That July day, my mother joined her husband for a ride on his new motorcycle. They were going to visit my Grandmother to show off their new toy. Proudly, my mom rode with her arms around his waist, helmet on her head and her beautiful long hair, whipping in the wind. As the light turned green, they proceeded on their way; but a woman coming from the opposite direction in a hurry, ran through the red light. Her car smashed into the motorcycle. My mother was instantly thrown in the air, careering down to the pavement below. Her helmet cracked and her brain shaken, like dice inside her skull. 

Though she died at the scene, my mother was brought back to life and she spent six weeks in a coma. When she emerged from her coma, she was literally reborn. She was an infant in a young woman's body, having to relearn everything from scratch-- eating, walking, talking, all things we all take for granted became challenges for her brain to master as it struggled to heal. From Sweet 16 to Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) survivor, my mother’s life would never be the same.

Her husband divorced her and my grandparents had no choice but to take custody of my sister and raise her themselves. Years later, my mom met and impulsively run away with a carnival barker—my father-- and I  and my younger brother were the product of this marriage. By the time I was two, we were living with and being raised by my grandparents. In fact, I did not see my dad again until I was an adult. And twelve years thereafter, another impulsive act by mom would bring my youngest sister into the fold.  She would again run away with yet another man and as a result, there was another child for my grandparents to raise.

Life with mom was challenging to say the least. Being in a home with a grown-up who could never grow up was always confusing. As a child, I did not understand mom’s differences and as a young adult, I resented them and disliked her immensely. Much of my youth was spent in a state of perpetual anger and sadness. I wanted a mom, someone I could talk too and confide in. I wanted a mother who would tell me no and punish me for my wrongs. I wanted someone to hold my hand when a boy made me cry, someone who would help me get ready for the school dance. 

           My mother was none of these things. She was, and still is,  Peter Pan-- stuck in

Never, Never Land, forever sixteen in her mind. She used to be a typical teenager—nice one day and then  impulsive, selfish, catty and jealous the next. Her head injury and subsequent mental illness made her prone to fanatical thinking and my mother took to religion like a fish to water. You would never see her without a Bible in one hand, a tambourine in the other. She was always prepared to pray for your soul and ask God to forgive your sins.

I was immensely embarrassed by her. I never wanted to invite friends over and hated being out in public with her. I always feared what would come out of her mouth and who she would pray over next.

I do not write about this for pity nor to make anyone feel sad. It's just simply the way things were—the way things are. Our grandparents showered us with love and showed us kindness and compassion.

There are many who had it worse than my siblings and me, and I will never be ungrateful for being given the life I have. This is the reality of what it has been like to grow up with a parent with a TBI who had the title of “mother” but did not have the ability or capacity to live up to that role.

Now, years later, our relationship is quite different. Today, I am her guardian and advocate. She lives 20 minutes away from me, over the bridge in Peoria IL. She is a resident in a home that specializes in long term care for people with TBI and mental illness. As she has aged, my mother’s short term memory deficits have grown more severe. Her cognitive abilities are slowly slipping away. She cannot remember what she had for breakfast and often calls me 10 minutes after we've hung up. Her short term memory continues to decline and eventually Alzheimer's will move in and settle itself into what's left.

Coming to terms with my reality wasn't easy. I had to accept that I would never have moments with a mother the way other women would. Our roles have always and would always be, in some way, reversed. I would always have to watch her, protect her; especially from herself. When I finally let go, when I finally accepted the reality of my life, of hers; I found a freedom I had never had before.

         Instead of hanging on to a life of “if only's” I am free to live a life of “why not”.

Letting go of my pain, of my anger; letting go of my resentments and sadness, has been liberating. I have finally been able to see my mom in a different way-- to see her for the miracle she truly is. To survive something so horrific, to literally be dead and to be given a second chance is a gift. I now understand that we cannot change the life we are born into, but we can change the attitude we take in viewing it.

Today, I am my mother's keeper. I am her companion, her daughter and friend. Maya Angelou said, “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.” I was never in control of the life I was born into but I was always in control of how I chose to react to it.

I have a tattoo on my forearm that reads, “Cracked, Not Broken.” It is how I choose to see my life, and her life-- fragments, pieces, held together by super glue and bits of string. Yet here we are, she and I, two people who bear scars yet still find reasons each day to smile. So long as you choose to seek out your joy, to find your happiness, you'll never be reduced. It took a long time to learn this but I'm so very glad that finally, I did.