Falling Forward

As many of you know, I started a garden for my mother when she became handicapped as a result of lupus. Over the last month I've taken a hiatus to stay by her side through one medical catastrophe after another, but despite the circumstances I've spent more time gardening now than ever. Well, the plants have to go somewhere, right? Every time I dig up a plant from my mother's old garden and transplant it to my apartment complex, it's a new beginning that gives me hope and strength. After all, to garden is to have faith in the future.

Bromeliads awaiting transport to their new home
A Vriesea now blooms near the apartment office

Cold tolerant bromeliads and palms brighten up the laundry room

I planted the garden for a woman who wanted nothing more than to bring happiness to her world, and every time I see a neighbor marveling at the flower of a bromeliad or an emerging amaryllis bulb, I know that this garden is carrying out my mother's wish. Every plant that leaves my mother's old home is like a piece of my mother that I get to carry with me, and the love of life that she taught me since childhood is being passed along to every neighbor who stops to admire a plant they've never seen before. Their mundane laundry chores are brightened by the plants that would brighten my mother's day from her window. Whenever I visit, I can bring her a freshly plucked flower to enjoy just as I've always done.

The first time she fell this month, we were returning from a day of appointments at the Mayo Clinic. Already weak, she struggled to get out of the car and into the wheelchair when the smooth wheels slipped on the concrete and her top heavy body began to crumple towards the ground head first. Steroids have been keeping her alive, but they've also given her a figure that resembles a beanbag on chicken legs. The steroids and Lupus every nick, bump and scrape to become a potentially life threatening wound, so any attempt to assist her could do more harm than good.

Whatever the risks might have been, I instinctively lunged to break her fall. I couldn't have hoped to support the weight of her steroid enhanced figure, but I wanted to at least lessen the impact. Otherwise the fall would have certainly shattered her osteoporosis weakened skull, or at the very least caused a concussion. However bad it could have been, my assistance was still disastrous. My entire thumb went clear through her taut skin, puncturing through layers of fat and muscle like a hot knife through butter. With one hand wrapped around her and the other one hopelessly locked inside her leg, holding my foot out was all I could do to prevent her head from hitting the ground at full force.

I did everything I could to get her flat on her back, as there was no hope of safely pulling her off the ground without doing further damage. I looked down at my bloody shoe and then to an even bloodier face, and I inspected the deep puncture to her thigh. This was bad. I called 911 as I had done so many times before, and and followed her to the emergency room where I learned that in addition to the wounds on her thigh and arms, the concrete had scraped off part of her cornea. Once she returned home, everything was a struggle and her beloved sheltie became too much work. My aunt picked up the dog, and my mom said goodbye.

The first fall was nothing compared to the second one. I had become concerned after a bizarre phone call from my mother in which her conversation consisted of nothing more than four to five incoherent thoughts, and her voice sounded distant and unconnected to reality. Her confusion alone would have tipped us off, but when she completely forgot that she was talking on the phone and wandered away, my wife and I rushed to get our overnight supplies ready for another trip to the ER. I called 911 on the way to her house, and we arrived to see her incoherently chatting with the paramedics in the driveway from her powerchair. The EMT's were ready to leave, but asked the obligatory questions to make sure she was 'with it.' She couldn't really tell them the current year or her address, but she was convinced that she was fine. The paramedics left us with my confused mother, which frankly, left us confused.

After an exhausting hour of following my mom's powerchair around the house while she demonstrated how nothing in the house seemed to work, we were more than willing to run an errand for her so we could come up with a game plan. It was difficult to explain to her that the reason her phone wasn't working was because it was really a remote control all along, for example. So when I called her from Wal-Mart and didn't get an answer, I reasoned that she was probably just holding a remote control to her ear or something. We returned to the house with a gift of new socks and warm cookies, but when I opened the door they were quickly thrown to the ground as I dashed to my screaming mother across the house. My heart sank as I prepared myself for the most ghastly sight I had ever seen.

"Help! Help! I don't know! I don't know! Helllp! What's happening? I don't know! I don't know! Help!" On crumpled legs and a bloody carpet, she screamed like a wounded animal with wild and inhuman eyes darting back and forth around the room, and then to the imaginary animals in the woods whom she begged for help. Pinned between an impossibly heavy powerchair and a logjam of furniture for at least thirty minutes (possibly forty), her already excruciating cellulitis infected legs had swelled to a deep crimson and appeared to be on the verge of bursting open. A black blood blister on her left leg rapidly filled to the size of an overinflated water balloon. Imagine being pinned under a car, but then living to experience the full extent of pain for over half an hour without the welcome relief of unconsciousness or death.

My wife called 911 while I cradled my mom's head and tried to distract her, but it was hopeless. She was in so much pain that she couldn't even recognize me, her own son. The same paramedics from a couple of hours earlier worked her onto a stretcher while she continued to scream.

In the emergency room I tried to soothe her by telling her all about the blooms in the garden, and she then wistfully recalled her last hike with me several years back, emotionally describing the cypress trees covered in boughs of Guzmanias and Tillandsias. I stayed the night with her for much of the first week in the hospital and watched her wounds begin to heal. We learned that it was the cellulitus infection that caused her confusion and while the wounds were indeed clearing up enough that she was discharged to a nursing home, the confusion still seemed to worsen.

We had come to recognize her spells of delirium as 'looping.' She would repeat not only the same sentences over and over, but the thoughts as well. If repetitive thoughts have ever kept you awake at night, you'd recognize the concept. Just imagine yourself voicing out these thoughts in real life as if stuck in a loop. It's as if she's had a temporary loss of short term memory and forgets that we've already discussed the same topic merely seconds ago, so we end up having to explain the same thing again and again.

Her confusion would try our patience every now and then, but it was almost always endearing. One day I took her down to the nursing center's garden for some fresh air, and discovered a bright green tree frog on a dead leaf. You wouldn't see that kind of excitement if you gave a twelve year old girl a pony. We've had to explain the same things to her over and over again, but it was such a gift to see the joy in her eyes every time I brought up my wife, also known as her "daughter in love." Tears of happiness would well up each time she thought about "the most wonderful kind and compassionate" woman that I get to call my wife. Hey, I got teary eyed every time the conversation repeated too.

Every time we gave her a hug, or showed her one of my drawings she'd sit there with her mouth agape. "How did I get so lucky?" I brought her a plastic bag with sprigs of rosemary and oregano from her garden, and she'd inhale the contents in deep gasps as if she were drowning and savory aroma of herbs was keeping her alive. The nurses, doctors and housekeepers all received showers of genuine compliments each time they entered the room, and heartfelt thanks as they moved on to the next room. My mom seems to think that she's the one caring for her caregivers or something.

During a rare moment of clarity, my mom and I drew together.

Unfortunately, other times the confusion was downright terrifying. During a particularly haunting visit to the nursing home, she looped between a handful of actions. When we attempted to get close to her or touch something in the room, she would shout "Get back! For the love of God, I'm contagious and you're going to die! If you love me, save yourselves and get the hell out NOW!" Then she would randomly shout horrible obscenities. She would also begin to cry periodically, telling us about her horrible nightmare and how she couldn't tell if it was real or not.

I would reassure her "It was all just a nightmare, mom. Everything's fine."
Her face lit up.  "It was all a bad dream?"
"Exactly! You're safe now."
"I don't have lupus?"
I exchanged glances of utter heartbreak with my wife. "Uh... well..."
"You mean I can walk?" Her face was still beaming. "I still have a dog? I can still play guitar?"

We stood in stunned and bewildered silence before she moved on to cursing or hysteria again. We delicately tried to get her to drink some cranberry juice before we left, but it took a while to accomplish. We had a really hard time leaving her in that state.

One of the cards sent from a second grade class in Virginia. The teacher is part of the Nancy Asbell prayer group.

A future illustrator?

This uncharacteristic behavior was especially troubling since the confusion should have waned along with the infections. What else was wrong? The next day she went back to the ER with severe dehydration and a dangerous drop in blood pressure. If my wife and I could barely get her to drink, it must have been impossible for the staff of the nursing facility. The infections throughout her body had spread to her blood, leading to what they call sepsis. I watched her sleep in the tiny cramped ER room, and drew her eerily lit face with my colored pencils in the ten minutes before they moved her to the ICU. The pink lupus rash that normally went from the bridge of her nose to the sides of her face had turned purple and mottled.

"I love you so much" was softly repeated between her snores and spasms, and each time I heard the words they seemed as sure and constant as the tides. Her blood pressure eventually rose, and I finished my drawing. While she slept in the ICU I drew the Senetti (the uncompleted drawing is at the top of the page) that I was trialing for Costa Farms in her backyard. That way she could have a bit of the garden to enjoy after yet another brush with death.  While she winced and shuddered in pain, we both agreed that it was a wonderful day indeed.

This month has been heartbreaking to be sure, but even through the worst of it I've witnessed the kind of love that makes me wish there was a flag for humanity so that I could wave it from the rooftops. My mother's chronic illness has bedeviled her throughout my childhood and into my adult life, but that illness has made her into a more resilient and positive person. Getting to keep my mom after each brush with death has also made me much more thankful. 

You can take a disaster let it destroy your day, or you could choose to cherish every beautiful detail of that disaster; every kind thought, every trick of light and ever moment shared.  To put it in gardening terms: Don't let a shady situation ruin your garden, learn to embrace shade loving plants. You can't control the situation, so learn to love it.


  1. I don't know what to say. I'm sitting with you now, crying and feeling hopeful and grateful for all that life gives. I am wishing the best for you and your mom.

  2. You expressed so eloquently the life of a caregiver through not only your eyes but also the eyes of your mom. No question that this is a difficult journey for all yet there are blessings tied up in each step. Your mom did a great job in raising you and may you continue to pass that legacy along in your actions and your words. God Bless.

  3. This piece was beautifully written and had me in tears.

    Love is wonderful. Thank you for sharing the love between you and your mother, the love between your mother and your wife, and the love between you and your wife.

    The three of you are in my thoughts and prayers.


  4. An amazing testimony...the best is yet to be.

  5. Your story was the prayer that started my day. Your mother is indeed lucky to have such a wonderful, caring son and "daughter in love". My husband and I cared for his mother through her last days, and although it was a struggle and a heartbreak, what we remember most are those moments of pure love, laughter and understanding.

    Sending blessings and strength and love your way.


  6. Ah Steve you had me tearing up, laughing, and smiling. Sometimes all at the same time.

    The photos of you mothers garden plants around your apartment complex are beautiful, your fellow residents are very lucky.

  7. You will be so glad you took care of your mother. I miss mine so much! Hang in there and just love each other, may God richly bless you! Carol

  8. I have been wondering what you have been up to! You are a marvelous son and I love the description of your wife! Your mom seems like an amazing woman that touches lives everywhere, what an inspiration. Take care and blessings on all three of you!

  9. Steve,

    I am moved as well. You are an expressive, loving son. Your mother has much reason to be proud even if she can't express it as she would like. God bless all of you.

  10. My heart goes out to you Steve. I'm so sorry to hear of the ordeal you and your mother have been going through. You most definitely are a wonderful son and your outlook is amazing. I think it's great that you are placing many of your mother's plants around your apartment complex...spreading the joy and beauty of plants to all your neighbors. You are making a difference to the people closest to you. Prayers and best wishes to you and your mom.

  11. I'm amazed at the hardship you faced and handled it so gracefully and patiently.
    Truly you have endured the whole situation at the best anyone can possibly handle.
    And you really wrote truly from the heart and present it more than any gardener can bear.
    And close it with a beautiful statement that really calls for a deep reflection.
    Thank you for sharing and I hope that all will get better soon.

  12. Oh Steve. The tears won't stop. Bless her heart. I've missed her so. I know I am a better person because of your mom. Her grace notes, always encouraging, keep me thankful and grateful each day with chronic pain. My prayers are always with her. You are such a wonderful son! God Bless!

  13. My God bless you, Steve, and your Mom. I am truly amazed and humbled by her strength and courage and indomitable spirit. And you are truly an amazing and devoted son. I salute you. and your wife. Thank you - from another mother.

  14. Jeanne Lucas DamrowApril 9, 2012 at 8:27 AM

    Your mom and I were good friends in High school. We shared a love of the arts, love of music and love go God. We sang together in a high school talent show and we shared many years of laughter and friendship before this horrible disease came into her life.
    I wish I could have been there for her through all of this. I had no idea, (having only reconnected on Facebook), what she was going through until I read your blog. On this day her 50th birthday, may God reach down and heal her beautiful soul. May he be with you and strengthen you and your family. What an awesome son she has raised.

  15. Your mother had been giving art lessons to my daughter, Aleyna. We have been wondering what happened to her. I just found this blog, and my heart goes out to her, you and your wife. I think she is a wonderful lady, one of the most positive and happy people I have ever met. I hope she gets better soon. My daughter says to say she misses your mom, and that she is a good teacher.

  16. Great job Steve,

    I love the little "steve" it's so adorable and i amazed to see what you did with your garden. However, i feel sad to hear about your family, She is a strong women and she will surely survive it, I hope she will get well soon.

    ~Aansy Stone

  17. Thank you all for your kind words! She is in recovery mode right now at a rehab center and continues to amaze me with her strength and attitude. Even after all of the times she's rebounded from disaster, I'm truly blown away.


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