I can almost pinpoint the moment I decided to take a leave of absence from my job. The date isn’t stuck in my mind, but the feeling I had in that moment is.
The leave is temporary. There will be a new Talking TV podcast on “Arrow,” “The Flash” and reader questions next week, and I’ll be on Twitter here and there as well, but this will be my last post for about two months.
Every year for the past five years, I’ve had the honor of serving on the jury of the Peabody Awards. It’s intensely rewarding but also a sizable commitment of time and mental energy.
As it happens, about five years ago, my mother was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease, a progressive and fatal neurological and physical disorder. On June 1, HBO will air a documentary, “The Lion’s Mouth Opens”; it’s about a woman’s decision to get tested and find out whether she inherited the disease from her father. I haven't been able to watch it yet, but I'm glad it exists. HD isn't that well known and I hope this film helps raise awareness, and I plan to watch the documentary this summer.
Dealing with all the normal ups and downs life has thrown at me -- being a parent, doing a demanding job that I love, being a spouse and dealing with two sick parents (my father died in late 2013) -- has made life … well, let’s say, interesting. And more than a little tiring at times.
After this year’s Peabody duties ended, I was hanging out with my mother one day when a realization struck me pretty forcefully. She was slurring her words a lot more than she had in the past. Words and phrases were colliding and sliding around when she tried to speak, and it was harder to understand her.
When you are always around someone with a progressive disease, it can be difficult to notice big changes, but I noticed that one. That moment set off an alarm bell in my head. A voice inside me said, “Stop. Pay attention. Don’t just let this slide by.”
Not long after that, I inquired about taking time off, and every step of the way, everyone at The Huffington Post said, “Go for it,” and asked if they could help in any way. The last few years have doled out some very tough times for my family, but I cannot overstate how fortunate I feel to have spent those years working for a patient, flexible and supportive employer.
Given how willing my bosses have been to give me a day or a week off here and there, why not just juggle and multitask and keep on muddling through the wide array of emotional, logistical and professional tasks I’ve had on my plate in any given day or week? It’s what I have been doing for a while now, and with the help and support of my husband and siblings, we've been getting by, and in some ways, things are far less chaotic than they were right after my father passed.
I could try to keep going on in the plate-spinning, multitasking mode of the last few years, but, without going into detail, there is just too much I need to do on the family front at the moment, and I wanted to have the time and space do those things well. Mom can’t pay her bills, shop or handle any of her affairs, and taking care of all those things on top of managing my own life can get wearing. More importantly, you can become so task-focused and list-oriented that, in a quest to make sure that everyone and everything is taken care of, you can start forgetting about the human beings involved -- human beings who are complex, autonomous and capable of bringing joy into my life. My mom, whose favorite hobby remains playing craps at the gambling boats, still makes me laugh on the regular, lest you think my life is a constant round of errands and tragedies. It's not, but her condition will continue to get worse, and I want to bask in whatever good times are left.
In addition to getting a bunch of big tasks done for her, I want to spend time with my mother -- just be with her. I won’t be idle, but ultimately, it’s about being in the room with her and taking her to the mall, while I can. I want to talk with her, as long as she can still talk.
Words are the tools I use in my work, but it goes way beyond that. I love words all the time; I usually have 30 browser tabs open to articles I want to read, and my idea of heaven is diving to the stacks of unread books around my house. I’ll never know enough about the inner workings of language and I’ll never be able to fully master its powers -- hence my love for what I do -- but I have learned more about the limitations of words in the last few years. They are blunt instruments. And now, my mother’s words are becoming sparse and squashed. Her sentences are turning into abstract expressionist works.
I didn’t have the conversations I wanted to have with my father at the end, because I didn’t know it was the end. It didn’t take long for chemotherapy to destroy his brain; one day he was swearing at a football game, the next day he had lost the power of reason. I did say some final words to him, after we removed all life support and his body lingered, but it wasn’t the same as really talking to him. My final words may have fallen on deaf ears.
I don’t want that to happen with my mom. Usually we talk about whatever’s happening on “Judge Judy,” and she often has strong opinions on “Dancing with the Stars.” We argue about “Maury,” which I cannot abide. Every time we watch “The Talk,” she reminds me that Ray Romano went on the show to discuss winning a Peabody for “Men of a Certain Age.” (This made her a big Ray Romano fan.)
Her memory is unpredictable but still strong in some areas. The other day, she recalled where one of my eight million cousins went to college, a fact I could not have retrieved on a bet. And yet she is always anxious about whether her bills are paid and sometimes she forgets where we’re going when we’re in the car. New situations and circumstances are scary when new memories don’t harden and solidify and instead slip away like phantoms.
When I was in college, she would call me and want to talk, talk, talk. I would put the phone down, leave the room, get food and return, and she would still be talking. I would roll my eyes, because I was a typical 20 year old dope. Now I know I’ll probably do that to my son after he goes to college; I’ll try not to be that overly talky mom and end up texting too much instead.
My mother has fewer words every day. For a couple of months, I’m going to make sure I hear as many of them as I can.