Being a professional means different things to different people.
It might mean seriously considering, without ridicule, the opinions of a co-worker or boss; maintaining a lifeless empirical decorum when your work is criticized by your manager; or speaking in only positive terms about the leadership structure of your company despite the internal fomenting of bad organizational tidies. Notwithstanding these differences, there is one universal element of being a professional that seems to be consistent: Being a professional means keeping one’s personal life away from work. Perhaps I’m not a professional because I’ve always failed at doing this.
My 83 year old, pain-in-the-arse-but-I-still-love-her-dearly Mom is starting radiation treatment for a form of cancer of her uterine lining. This on top of DVT, CPOD, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s (one good thing about Alzheimer’s is that we think she forgot about the recent death of her brother, God rest Marty’s soul). Yet she hasn’t lost her great sense of humor.
When we learned about the cancer, the initial course of action was to schedule a hysterectomy. With my Mom, you never know what kind of reaction you’ll get from any news – good or bad. In this instance, Mom grew a little pensive then turned to Dad and asked, “Charlie, we’re not planning on having any more children, are we?” It was a brief second or two – and an utter look of horror on the face of my 87 year old Dad – before Mom just broke out into a hearty Mom-laugh. Yes, she zapped us.
Several weeks ago, we went to the Bar Mitzvah of my second cousin in Morristown, NJ. It’s easier for Mom to get around in a wheelchair (forgot to mention that she also had one of her hips replaced about 8 months ago) so Mom was sitting in the back of the synagogue during the ceremony. When my cousin’s entrance into Jewish manhood was complete and it was time to head over to the reception, the entire family stopped to welcome Mom (my Mom and Dad are the matriarch and patriarch of clan Levy). One of my relatives grabbed Mom’s hand and spoke in a relatively loud but slow voice, “ANITA – WE’RE – SO – HAPPY – TO – SEE – YOU – AND – GLAD – YOU – COULD – MAKE – IT” to which my Mom replied, “I don’t remember who you are but I’m not deaf.”
My sister and I simply shook our heads and chuckled.
I joke with Mom that because of the radiation treatment she’ll have to go to “The House of the Recruiting Inferno” for a new hairstyle; she smiles and says that I have a beautiful head. When she sees me, she smiles and gushes, “It’s my Stevie.” Her response is the same for my sister and brother. I know who’s comforting whom.
There are relatively few moments when I’m not thinking of Mom; but where I used to see her smiling face, I now see fear. Parents aren’t supposed to show fear; they’re rocks…invincible…they laugh at danger.
But now the roles are reversed and it’s sobering to be the parent of a parent. There are many books about being a great parent but very little about being the parent of a parent. My Mom wrote notes to me as I was growing up; the one I remember the most was when she told me how proud she was to have me as a son because somehow I was “smart” enough to set the dinner table when I was around 3 years old. She sure had low expectations of “smart”!
Keeping a safe distance from my family pains isn’t easy for me anymore. I think it’s important for others to know that I’m feeling angst over my Mom’s declining health not because it affects my work but because it affects me. It’s not about sympathy but reality; it’s not about work performance but about what drives me. We talk about human resources but too often neglect to take into account the whole person.
If only my Mom knew how proud I am of her for all she has given me. Sure I’ve told her but I’m just not sure if she remembers…