Sunday, August 25, 2013

Weighing the Ounce of Prevention

My mother was always one for sexy diagnoses. Told in her later years that she had a disorder called polycythemia vera, in which the number of one's red blood cells dramatically proliferates, she ran with the least likely consequence of the disorder: I've got leukemia, she proclaimed via telephone, before I'd had the chance even to voice a greeting. Her intonation was oddly upbeat as well as characteristically dramatic, and to understand that, you'd have to appreciate my mother's fascination with medicine as well as her longstanding hypochondria that sought justification whenever possible. The literature she'd foisted on me when I was under the age of twelve spoke to her preoccupations: Death Be Not Proud, for one, but also a daunting assemblage of concentration camp memoirs. Also: anorexia. Sexy. Right.

Her chances of developing leukemia were slim. But people with polycythemia vera are at a significant risk of suffering strokes. This outcome she ignored. In her worldview, leukemia was dramatic and terribly sad; stroke, not so much. Her doctor told her what she needed to do to avoid stroke. It was a simple, time-honored practice: to submit to having her blood drawn once per week. This would prevent the build-up of red blood cells that would predispose to stroke.

When I laid these truths out in front of her, she did what she was best at: she denied. She insisted that my facts were wrong. What's more, she spluttered, red-faced with irritation, There is no way I am going to sit in a room with other people all getting their blood drawn behind curtains. Like vampires. I didn't bother to correct her misapprehension about vampires. In the simile as properly applied, the patients weren't vampires, only the victims of same. But she was already worked up, and I had to pick my battles, as ever.

Look, Mom, I reasoned, vapors of exasperation wafting up and around the kitchen table to supplant the smoke that once hung there, You've always affirmed that what you feared most and wanted least was to end up a vegetable. Like your father. Remember? That's what a stroke might do to you. Having your blood drawn once a week is such a simple preventative measure.

She shook her head. Not going to happen, she did but didn't say.

And so it went. Of course she suffered a major stroke some months later, and within the year she'd died, her legs filled with hundreds of blood clots each. The doctor who opened them up to have a look must have grimaced before resigning himself to sewing them back up and telling us that saving her legs, thus her life, was a hopeless proposition.

During that final year I was so often tempted to shake her post-stroke self, this amalgam of stranger and mother, and shriek, I told you so! But it would have helped no one. In response she would have offered me a stroke-addled grin and winked, gestures that might equally have signified, Don't you think I know that? or If I smile loopily enough, maybe you'll bring me a vanilla milkshake?

The prevention that weighed an ounce in my hand weighed a pound in hers, and I've had to learn that nothing I might have said or done could have balanced the scale.


V-Grrrl @ Compost Studios said...

When I read these, I wonder what stories my children are storing to tell about me. I fear the loss of self-determination that aging brings to so many, and I wonder if I'll fight it like a balky child or whether I'll "Do the Right Thing."

alejna said...

"I've had to learn that nothing I might have said or done could have balanced the scale."

This must have been a very hard lesson to learn. How incredibly frustrating it must have been to try to convince her of something that she was unwilling to accept. It reminds me of the Cassandra Complex. (Admittedly, my own familiarity with that comes from the movie "12 Monkeys.")

This was such a poignant post, Sarah.

Christine said...

It's hard to watch others make decisions that may be harmful or misguided. It's harder still when your fears about those bad choices come to fruition.

Rima said...

Oh, Sarah! I love the way your write, and it always gives me pause.

frothpen said...

Oh, that must have been, must still be, so tough.