The Motherhood Lesson I Couldn't Learn Until My Own Mom Got Sick

An adult daughter shares the story of caring for her independent, aging mother — and learns a critical lesson.

elderly woman sitting on bed Gladskikh Tatiana / Shutterstock

"Pancreas" and "mother" are two words I never wanted to hear in the same sentence.

Or phone calls that lead with  "I’m okay, don’t worry," followed by Mom stumbling on a treacherously up-ended manhole cover, or falling on the pavement after a delivery man accidentally rammed his electric scooter into her left heel.

Her overarching desire not to be a burden on me almost did her in on one stormy night.


After enjoying a lovely Shabbat dinner with my family, the wind whipped Mom’s umbrella inside out just as she started crossing the four-lane street on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The violent gust threw her to the ground in the middle of 86th Street.

I peered out of my fifteenth-story window to see if she had gotten on the crosstown bus or was still standing in the pouring rain. That’s when I saw her lying in the middle of the road as cars and buses sped by in both directions.

Fortunately, by the time I got to the sidewalk, two people had already rescued her. Hours later, after a swift ambulance ride to the emergency room at Mt. Sinai Hospital, I asked her why she hadn’t asked the doorman to help her hail a taxi. "I didn’t want to bother Juan, besides it was raining really hard, I didn’t want him to get wet."  


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From an early age, my mom assumed the role of a self-sufficient helper.

She had to be independent in many ways because she is a CODA — a Child of Deaf Parents. With both of her parents unable to hear, she was the ears of the family. This put her in many situations with responsibilities that were often well beyond her age.

One of her tasks was to answer the phone, which meant that, at 10 years old, she was the first to receive the news of her maternal grandmother’s death. It also meant she had to be the one to tell her mother the tragic news. Mom grew up very quickly. 


During the last nine years of my father’s life, he endured five strokes. Each time, he heroically fought to regain his mobility and speech while never losing his optimism.

My mother was the quintessential caregiver, always pushing him to improve while focusing on making each day stimulating and fulfilling for her beloved Charlie.

In between speech therapy, physical therapy, aqua therapy, and scores of doctor appointments, she planned different outings and activities in Central Park, took him to museums, and enrolled in adaptive sports outings for people with aphasia.

Dad needed 24/7 caregivers to assist with his daily acts of living such as going to the washroom, showering, and getting in and out of his bed. Yet, through it all, Mom was undeniably his emotional caregiver and north star.


I was the VP of the Charlie pep squad, seeing and speaking to my parents frequently throughout the week. Sometimes I spoke to Mom a couple of times a day to bolster her spirits. Often, I’d ask if she was also going to see the doctor, dentist, or podiatrist, yet she always brushed it off, saying she didn’t have time to go to another appointment. "Daddy’s schedule keeps us busy all week long!"  

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When Dad died, Mom entered into a new phase of life.

Now she had to figure out who she was on her own. To learn how to live fully and figure out what made her heart sing, even though the love of her life was no longer by her side.


After being married to the same man for 59 years, she wasn’t interested in dating an octogenarian boyfriend who might become ill and die. Getting married in the 1950s, the thought of having Viagra sex with a new guy was simply out of her comfort zone.

Instead, we decided it was in her best interest to pursue platonic female friendships. So, I took on "Project Jan-Mom" with gusto, relishing my role as a social directress, therapist, life coach, and definite pain in the ass.

I scoured my gym, synagogue, Zabars, Fairway, and Trader Joe's in search of 70-ish-year-old women that could do fun, friend sh*t with my mom. Slowly her dance card filled with water aerobics, bridge games, museum exhibits, and lectures, which passed the time as some new friendships started to blossom. When she had no one to join her, Mom boldly decided to take herself out to the movies.

And then, in the summer of 2020, a grandbaby burst into our lives, making me a grandmother and her a great-grandmother. Mom and I made weekly forays to Brooklyn to visit Charlotte. We loved holding her and, as she got older, singing songs, coloring, and playing with her.  


Then things started to happen as they do when someone has made another lap around the Sun 80-plus times.

Suddenly, it was time for me to recalibrate the repertoire moving from positive breezy mother-daughter phone calls to insisting on more vigilance in getting on top of Mom’s symptoms and setbacks. When her internist told her she needed to see an endocrinologist in two weeks, Mom tearfully reported that the next available appointment was in 8 months' time. That was the turning point. 

"You know Jan-Mom when your mother got older, you treated her like royalty," I told her one afternoon. "And she let you. Why won’t you let me do the same thing for you? Just let me make the doctors’ appointments and let’s see how it goes." She begrudgingly agreed. 

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When I was a young girl, my mother affectionately called me Sarah Bernhardt, because I tended to be rather theatrical. I was ready to harness my inner diva to support my mother’s health and well-being.

It started innocuously when I called the nephrologist’s office.

After disclosing my mother’s name, date of birth, social security, and primary and secondary insurance information, I launched into my performance. I started by stammering and fake crying, playing the deceased brother and recently widowed-mother cards. I mean, Dad did die six years ago, that’s kind of recent in the grand scheme of things.

It worked every time.

Mom and I sauntered into doctor appointments within 72 hours of my compelling performance. These emergency specialists’ appointments necessitated more urgent tests and consultations.


My plan was working like a dream, until Mom opened Pandora's box — AKA Google — to discover that, according to the Internet, third-stage kidney disease would undoubtedly cause her premature death and spinal stenosis would immobilize her with crushing pain for the rest of her life.

And that’s when my faux-crying, Academy-Award-winning performance became a hot mess as I started genuinely sobbing and fighting to get the words out.

And that was when I realized that, in addition to mothering my beloved mother, it was time to also start mothering myself.


Fortunately, after months of frenzied appointments, a gifted acupuncturist and physical therapist are giving my mother considerable relief.

I told my mom she was being a badass with all these treatments.

"Why are you being fresh with me?" she said.

And that’s when I once again became a 12-year-old to my mom. 

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Lisa Honig Buksbaum is the author of SOARING into Strength: Love Transcends Pain, a social entrepreneur, and a Positive Psychology thought leader.