I’m not usually one to put my feelings out in the open, but I feel like life is all about embracing changes and growth, and I’ve certainly experienced a ton of that over the last year. So, my hope in sharing this, as I write and think back on everything, is that I will gain a new perspective and hopefully connect with someone else that has gone through something similar. Even just to find some peace by putting my feelings down.
So here we go.
Just prior to where I’m at now, it’s important to note, I was a BUSY girl. Being in my last semester at NAU before receiving my Bachelors in Elementary Education, I stretched pretty thin. I was working about 30 hours a week, student teaching 5 days a week, completing assignments, working out, and somehow maintaining somewhat of a social life.
If you know me, you’d agree that I’ve always been someone that can take on numerous jobs and tasks at once without breaking, all while still being able to catch my Warriors’ playoff games. But what and who am I when I’m not busy or consumed with all of that ‘stuff’? Who am I without being overworked, overtired, in a relationship or out with friends? Who am I if I’m not the strong one? If I can’t lighten the mood for others in times of despair… especially when I can’t even find a way to shake my own mood? Well, I was about to find out.
Throughout my life, I always felt like my greatest luck was my health and the health of my loved ones (ironic now, huh? Given that all we’ve heard about for months is how quickly one’s immune system can be compromised).
That was until June 2019.
Before I walk you all through what happened in June, I’d like to share a little about my mom, Deon, and my childhood.
I was born and raised in a small city called Millbrae, just south of San Francisco. Growing up, my mom was always around. She ran a daycare out of our house from when I was 3 months old, until I was in 3rd grade. Almost 10 years of always having kids to play with and a mom to show me how to do everything from puzzles, cooking, play make-believe, homework, dress-up; you name it, we did it! Even while she ran the daycare, and up until we moved, I don’t remember her missing an important school function, activity, play, or performance.
Once my mom stopped running the daycare, she became more involved with our school and would substitute administrative positions, so she was around a lot. Throughout my school years at St. Dunstan (yes, I went to a private Catholic School, wearing the plaid jumper and all), my mom helped out with everything from in-class activities, chaperoned field trips, and running the school fundraisers. Do you remember those? Christmas around the world? Well, my mom was the right-hand to the main fundraiser guy so she would collect and keep track of all that paperwork and always knew who was going to win the sick prizes (it was always the popular kids, huh?) But I just thought it was cool to have her there for pep rallies and know who was winning.
My dad typically made our lunches; probably because he would stay up later. She insisted she had made enough food during the day that my dad could be in charge of lunches. But, if we ever forgot it at home, mom was only a phone call away. Come to think of it, if me or my sister ever forgot anything, mom was always there… she really was a rockstar. I think the only mark against her was her inability to be a morning person. I would wake up and get myself and sister ready for school and we usually carpooled with friends or would walk. Then, after school, her or my dad would take us to softball, track, baseball, cheerleading, basketball, dance, swimming, tennis? Seriously, I think we played every sport besides soccer. My dad has played on a softball team for as long as I can remember so my mom is also a saint for letting him have those late-night weekday games and bringing us along to his tournaments on the weekends.
Without a doubt, both my parents were always there for every important moment in my life, big and small. I feel very fortunate to have had the childhood I did.
We made a big change as a family in the summer of 2003, when we packed up our entire lives, left all the friends I had, and moved to Southern California. My dad had always been blessed to live with his family close, but my mom’s parents and sister lived down south, and they felt we would have a better opportunity as a family if we moved.
The one thing that didn’t change was my mom’s occupation. She immediately started working with the local school district and began substitute administrative positions, a lot of times placing her at my high school. This may have been “embarrassing” for a teenager, but I knew no one. This was a brand-new school with kids that went to middle school together and already built their friendships. I was the new kid, even though everyone was new to high school. I needed my mom as a familiar face, and there she was, as much as she could be.
I definitely gave her a run for her money, though, because I was nothing like the sweet and innocent, plaid skirt wearing, rule-obeying, goody two-shoes daughter she had raised. I rebelled, even coming to a point where my mom wrote me a letter asking for “her daughter back” as she believed I was abducted from aliens. I really was out of sorts, but it was very difficult, as you can imagine, going from an uptight catholic school with the same friends, to a giant public high school. I was just doing what I could to try and fit in.
I got away with way more than a teenager should, but my parents didn’t have experience, as I was the oldest. My poor, poor mother. Especially considering it didn’t end with me. My sister introduced a whole other level of unfamiliarity, and my parents had to make the very unnerving decision to send her to rehab. I’m sure that was gut-wrenching as a parent, but we were resilient. We pushed my sister, and together, as a family, we made it through what was, then, the most difficult time of our lives. We still had our ups-and-downs throughout my high school years, my dad lost his job, so my mom had to pick up a second job to get our family by. (SAINT DEON!!!!) The list could go on and on about what my mom has sacrificed for this family but I’m sure you get the picture.
So, let’s jump to Tuesday, June 25th 2019. That morning, my dad drove my mom to her scheduled gallbladder surgery at a fairly new, local hospital, which is only about 15 minutes from our house in Murrieta, CA. Typically, for a surgery, she would have to be taken to our main hospital that’s about an hour away, but luckily, or so we thought, the new hospital was able to have surgery privileges, making it much more convenient.
This surgery is only supposed to take about an hour and a half. We were told my mom would go in, they would put her under, make a small incision, remove the gallbladder, sew her back up, and done. We understood there would be risks and possible complications, as there can be with anything that involves surgery, but for the most part, we felt at ease.
Unfortunately, for my mom, this time, it wasn’t routine. She went in for surgery at 8:00am. I was in the Bay Area caring for my uncle, who was just about 3 months away from a heart transplant. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was a preface to what was going to be my full year of caretaking, instead of just spending two months with him.
Around 12:30pm, I texted my dad wondering how everything went. He responded pretty quickly, telling me her surgery went longer than expected; she didn’t come out until around 10:30. He told me they had trouble waking her up, but not to be alarmed – he would keep me posted. I asked if he had any idea why she wouldn’t be waking up as easily – apparently the doctors told him it could just be a side effect of the anesthesia and that some patients just take longer than others to come out of it. No biggie… sounded reasonable, so I remained calm and went on with my day. A few hours later, my dad sent a text chain to myself and the family stating my mom was still not alert and that they were sending her in for some testing. Apparently, this was a little too long for someone to still be acting the way she was.
She could barely speak, open her eyes, or move. She was showing signs of “lethargy” and “incoherence”, so they just wanted to be sure nothing else was going on. This was not a fast process. She was also still at the hospital that only held surgery privileges. Given the circumstances, however, they were able to perform a CT-scan and x-ray. They came back negative for bleeding, which could’ve shown signs of a stroke. Her blood tests came back with a high white blood cell count – that accounted for the lethargy and pointed to a possible infection.
So here we are, the night of a simple procedure, and my mom’s-post surgery update from the doctors comes back as “uncomplicated” with a “nick in the liver that stopped bleeding on its own” and “postoperative lethargy/delirium” most likely accompanied by “an infection” which they treated with antibiotics. Ok, again, reasonable and sounds like they are getting it figured out. No need to freak out… right?
Well, she spent the following 3 days of surgery being transported by ambulance to our main hospital an hour away; she was seen by numerous doctors and nurses, passing along the same story of “postoperative delirium” treating her for an “infection.” My mom was laying in a bed, unable to speak, unable to write, unable to eat solid foods, answering “Hawaii” when asked where she was.
My mom was not my mom. (takes a deep breath and tries to remain calm). That Friday, she was seen by a Neurologist. My dad recorded this visit, not to be sneaky, but to make it easier to explain, and thank God, because at one point, the licensed neurologist stated he did not see any signs of “god forbid, a stroke.” That night, 3 nights after the surgery, is when they finally found the time to perform the MRI; the following morning, we finally had a diagnosis.
Saturday, June 29th, 2019. Deon Erikson has suffered 4 strokes: 2 right ischemic cerebellar strokes, both massive 5.5cm and 3.9cm, and 2 smaller, one left thalamus 1.6cm and 1 right thalamus 1.0cm. (jaw drops) My mom went in for surgery on Tuesday. It took them 4 days to find this out. Remember what Doctor Dumbf*%$ said just the night before, “god forbid a stroke.” Excuse my language, but I always felt like that was the only appropriate name for him. Needless to say, I lost it. All week I kept as calm as I could. I talk to my mom every day. I call her when I buy something new or find a good deal at the grocery store. She is my best friend, so I was having a hard time knowing I wasn’t physically there for her. The only thing keeping me calm was knowing she was in good hands with my dad and my aunt.
I remember sitting on the stairs of my uncle’s house, uncontrollably crying. My poor aunt tried to keep it together for me, reminding me this was a good thing, finally having answers and starting to treat my mom the way she needed. My dad was with her every day and he would ask if I wanted to see pictures of her, but I would ask him, kindly, not to send anything. I couldn’t bear to see her in that state. I live in a more ‘out of sight, out of mind’, mentality. If I couldn’t be there to help her, I didn’t want to see the pain she was in.
So, I sat there on the stairs trying to collect myself so I could pass the news to my uncle, who was anxiously waiting upstairs to hear if I had any, hopefully good, news. I tried to take the diagnosis as a good thing… we finally had answers, right? We finally knew what happened. But what we didn’t know was when the strokes occurred. These questions persisted until around October/November when we received detailed notes from the surgery. While looking at these notes, the doctor was said to have “nicked the liver” around 10 minutes into surgery. At this time, my mom’s oxygen levels desaturated; the “endotracheal tube was mispositioned,” the “oxygen machine malfunctioned” and the doctors “hand-bagged patient oxygen for 20 minutes.” Now, if you remember at the beginning, I mentioned that the surgeon came out of my mom’s surgery stating everything was “uncomplicated.”
What the actual hell was going on?! All anyone in our family felt was frustration and helplessness. My mom would spend the next several months trying to regain normalcy from a routine surgery that typically has zero (or minimal) complications. But someone is to blame. Someone messed up and misplaced that ETT tube and didn’t pay attention to the machines malfunctioning. Someone gave me back a mom who is not the same as she was when we put her in their hands. We were crushed and wanted, excuse me, still want, answers.
Sunday June 30th, 2019, my mom was transferred to a rehab facility, which was even farther away from our house. Originally, my family was driving about 40 minutes to visit her in the hospital for that week. Now she would be in this new rehab facility for the next two weeks, about an hour away if there’s no traffic. She was relearning how to walk, eat, write, speak, use the restroom, and anything else that was taken away from her. Slowly but surely, I was getting updates saying, “Mom took four steps today,” “Mom ate a full dinner,” “Mom talked to me and I understood more than five words!” This was our new normal. These updates are similar to the ones you get from a new mom teaching her baby how to walk, and talk, and eat solid foods.
But we had to take it in stride and remember that every accomplishment would lead to more and more.
We were all focused on getting her home and back to normal… to her pre-surgery self, as soon as possible. I was able to drive down to SoCal on July 4th and the feeling I had, walking into my parents’ house, without my mom being there was very eerie. She was never away. Unless my parents were on vacation, she was always home. It just wasn’t right.
When I went to visit her at the rehab center, it’s safe to say I was taken aback by all of it. But the look on her face reminded me to be strong; I had to show her we were all there to support her in every capacity – we were ready to fight.
After 14 days of rehab, she finally walked out… that’s right – she walked out, albeit assisted, we took the win.
Once she was home, she needed a walker for assistance, but she marched right up our stairs the first day, with my dad as a spot behind her. She is a fighter and she’d be damned if she couldn’t sleep in her own bed after almost a month of being gone.
As you could imagine, there were big adjustments to be made to the house, to ensure it was as accommodating as possible; we removed the rugs, mats, and installed handrails everywhere.
Mid-July is when my dad called asking if I would be able, and willing, to move home to care for my mom once he returned to work. My parents both work for the school district, and the care, compassion and help they received from their schools was overwhelming. My dad was granted paid leave but he did have to use a fair amount of sick and vacation time. So, once that ran out, he would need to return to work.
Without hesitation, I said yes, of course. This left me with about a month to figure everything out. My lease wasn’t up until the end of October so I would need to get out of it. I spent all of August making arrangements, seeing my friends as much as possible, and visiting all of my favorite places in Arizona, because I wasn’t sure when I would be able to move back.
Was I mad? Yes, but not at my mom. I was mad at the fact that this was now my life.
Why did the doctors have to be so careless? Why did my mom sit in her hospital bed for four days without an MRI? Why did a neurologist come in and say there was no possible way she had suffered a stroke when really, she suffered four? Did they know what trauma and pain and suffering they had placed on our family? I had a hard time feeling anything but anger for a long time, but on the surface, I had to pretend like I knew everything would work out; like my mom was going to be good as new, and this would just be a chapter in our book we would try not to remember.
“You’ve been through a lot and you can get through this, Sam,” I tell myself. But really, behind those curtains, I am scared. I am terrified, sad, and feel helpless. And what about my siblings? Are they okay? They don’t have their mom either… am I the mom now? How do I do that? Life was changed forever.
On September 1st, I drove a U-Haul from Phoenix, AZ to Murrieta, CA. I left this city as soon as I graduated high school and wouldn’t have moved back if you paid me. But, for family, I’m sure we all would do just about anything.
For the next three months, I drove my mom to and from physical therapy and speech therapy. I would prepare meals, walk her up and down the stairs, help her take meds on time, paint her nails, and help her with speech homework. After those three months, things eased up a bit. I was able to get a part time job, and travel back to Arizona a few times, but other than that, I was pretty much a homebody.
For seven months, though, since the strokes, I felt like I was hiding. I was hiding my feelings. I was hiding behind alcohol, and sarcasm, and probably a lot of other bad habits so I didn’t have to deal with what life was handing me. Sure, I can recognize a snide comment or that extra glass of wine isn’t going to give me the spark I’m desperate for, but honestly, I didn’t know how to fix it, or maybe the path looked too daunting to even try. Maybe I was continuing to live a life on pause as I stayed with my parents and cared for my mom. At 30, being a post-grad, I didn’t envision being single and living at home with my parents.
I was seriously considering teaching abroad because it felt like it would be the ideal time to adventure outside of my comfort zone, explore the world a bit. But then the pandemic hit, which I can say was a blessing for me personally, because moving to a new country would’ve just been another band-aid.
Just goes to show you how much we don’t have control of the universe’s plans, and it looks like it’ll continue to kick my ass until I get back on track.
So now, here we are. Almost a year post-surgery/post-strokes. I know I should be so grateful to still have my mom; to see, talk to and spend time with… and please don’t get the wrong idea – I am grateful, but I’ve also held onto a sense of unease that is hard to shake. I felt like my life had been taken from me when I knew that my mom’s life is the one that got flipped upside down. I feel guilty even writing this; so much so that tears were falling from my eyes with every tap onto the keyboard when I first started. That feeling has shifted a bit now.
But I’m living a human experience; an experience no human would ever choose or think they would have to go through, but what we can choose, is how we move forward from it.
On May 1st, my mom celebrated her 56th birthday. While I wasn’t home with her to celebrate, I FaceTimed and she answered the phone herself, talking to me in her silly, now higher pitched voice; I understood every word she said. She told me about how she only had one of her favorite German chocolate cupcakes, while winking and telling me, after my dad left the room, that she really had two. Sneaky mom!
This is her now. She is silly, goofy, sometimes clumsy, sitting in her chair, reading her book, happy and content. She still goes to speech therapy once a week, is still learning how to regain her voice and speech, but really, my mom is everything. I don’t know how she managed to stay so strong through it all.
So, mom –
You are everything I hope to be when I have children. You are determined, feisty, strong-willed, hard-headed, beautiful, and amazing. I am who I am today because of you. I promise to always do everything in my power to keep you happy and motivated to keep going. I will always strive to make you proud because no matter what, it will never compare to how proud I am of you. Thank you for making me; I am forever indebted. I love you.
Happy Mother’s Day!