Falling Back on Family

She was going to be laid up for six weeks with a sprained ankle. How would her family cope without her?

- Posted on Feb 26, 2016

Guideposts: Laura, husband Steve, son Tommy and mother Patricia make a good team.

That February night, like most nights, I was exhausted. I couldn’t wait to get into bed, where I could finally relax for a minute and thank God for getting me through another day. Like many women my age, I was juggling a lot. Raising a 10-year-old son with special needs, helping my 83-year-old mom, working part-time as a college writing teacher and keeping the household running.

My husband, Steve, did all he could, but he had a high-pressure job with long hours, so most of the work around the house fell to me. The stresses of the sandwich generation!

Good thing all I had left was to throw a load of clothes in the dryer and let the dog out. I hurried down the stairs to the laundry room. My right foot hit something wet on the tile floor and flew out from under me. Wham! I landed hard, my ankle twisting with a sickening crunch.


I yelped. In seconds, my son, Tommy, was at my side. The same Tommy who obviously hadn’t remembered to stomp the snow off his boots before he came into the house and left a puddle on the floor. If I’d told him once I’d told him a thousand times...

“Daddy, Mommy fell down!” he yelled.

Tommy had autism and was prone to anxiety. I patted his arm. “I’m okay,” I said, trying not to gasp in pain. “It’s just a sprain.”

Steve ran downstairs and helped me to my feet. I leaned against him and hobbled to our bedroom. I couldn’t afford to be laid up. Tommy depended on me for so much, even just picking out his clothes and pouring his cereal for breakfast. He didn’t do well if his routine was disrupted. And I had to take Mom grocery shopping. I’ll be better tomorrow, I told myself.

Steve got a pillow to elevate my leg, an ice pack and some ibuprofen.

“The dog needs to go out,” I said.

“Got it,” he said. “Just lie still. Let me take care of you for a change.”

I squeezed his hand. Steve was awesome. From the moment we’d adopted Tommy as an infant he’d been a devoted dad. Tommy got anxious about homework, especially math. Every night, after a long day at work, Steve went over the math homework, read with him for 20 minutes and got him ready for bed. He had enough to deal with. I didn’t want him worrying about me.

The next morning I managed to get Tommy dressed, fed and on the bus. But each step I took was excruciating. I had no choice but to call my mother. She drove right over. One look at me, and she declared, “I’m taking you to the hospital.” She’d taught Catholic school for more than 30 years, and her tone of voice told me it was pointless to argue.


X -rays showed I’d broken my fibula. “I’m going to put your leg in a boot and give you crutches,” the doctor said. “But I don’t want you walking on it more than absolutely necessary for six weeks.”

“Six weeks?” I cried. “That’s not possible! I have a job and a special-needs son. My mother’s in her eighties. My family. They depend on me!”

“I mean it,” the doctor said. “If you put too much stress on your leg, it won’t heal. Then you’ll be looking at surgery and an even longer recovery.”

I protested all the way home. “Laura, relax,” my mom said. “I can help around the house, and with Tommy. I may be old, but I’m not dead.”

I had to press my lips together to keep from blurting, “This is a disaster in the making!”

Tommy loved his grandma, but I couldn’t see her taking care of him every day. Both of them were strong-willed, and they would butt heads. The slightest change in Tommy’s routine, and he’d have a meltdown. I didn’t want him getting so anxious that he reverted to reciting video-game scripts and not being able to carry on a conversation.

And he had trouble following directions, which Mom wouldn’t take kindly to. As it was, he needed me to remind him repeatedly to get dressed and eat his food, brush his teeth, and do the two chores he was responsible for— putting away the clean silverware and taking out the trash.

Besides, did Mom have the stamina? She was in pretty good shape, but she was slowing down. She’d stopped taking her winter trips to Florida. She took more naps and didn’t get out as much. She’d gotten so she preferred not to drive. She liked me to take her to the grocery, the thrift store, the hairdresser. I couldn’t let her wear herself out taking care of me, Tommy, my entire household.

I tottered into the house on my crutches. Mom got me settled on the living room couch and went to make us lunch. I called my dean at the college.

“Take all the time you need,” he said. “I’ll find a sub and send you the paperwork for short-term disability.”

At least that was one thing I didn’t have to worry about.

When Tommy came home, he ran to me and gave me a big hug.

“Does it hurt?” he asked, pointing to my boot.

“A little,” I said.

Tommy nodded, then went to the kitchen for his snack as usual. Mom had an apple and a bag of pretzels waiting for him.

“I have an idea,” Mom said. She led Tommy back to the living room, where we kept a small blackboard for him to practice his spelling on. “When I ask you to do something I don’t want to have to remind you more than twice,” she said. “Each time you do something without a third reminder, I’ll give you a quarter. We’ll keep track on this blackboard and when you’ve earned enough we’ll go someplace where you can play video games.”

Tommy’s eyes widened. Video games? There was nothing he liked more.

“Now go eat your snack and when you’re done, throw away the pretzel bag and your apple core.”

Ten minutes later Tommy dashed through the living room. “Did you remember to do what you were supposed to?” Mom asked.

I laughed to myself. Welcome to my world, I thought.

But Tommy stopped mid-stride, ran back into the kitchen and threw away his trash. With only one prompt. Wow.

By dinnertime, Tommy had earned two more quarters, a fact that he excitedly reported to Steve when he got home from work. Mom had made meatloaf, mashed potatoes and broccoli. It was delicious. Tommy even asked for a second helping.

The next morning I was clomping down the hall to Tommy’s room when I heard the front door open. Mom. “I’ll get Tommy ready,” she said. “Go sit down.”

I plopped myself at the kitchen table and rested my leg on a chair. Moments later Tommy came out, fully dressed. “He picked out his clothes all by himself,” Mom said.

I gave him a high five. “That’s great!” I said. I was proud of him. For Tommy this was no small achievement, but still there was part of me that wondered, Why couldn’t he have done that for me?

After Tommy caught the bus, Mom left to get groceries for dinner. I sat at the table brooding.

Three years earlier I’d survived breast cancer, made it through chemo, a mastectomy, radiation. I was someone who persevered, who got things done. Now I felt totally helpless. No, worse. Useless.

“Lord, was it this hard for your family?” I said. I thought of Mary and Joseph and the challenges they must have faced. Did Mary ever feel overworked? How had she dealt with the pressures of raising a family in a world where so much was going on?

I felt something wet rubbing against my hand. The dog, wanting to be let out. But the door to our fenced backyard was downstairs. “I’m sorry,” I said, rubbing his ears. “It looks like Mom is taking care of you too.”

Mom came over every day to get Tommy on and off the school bus. In between she cleaned, did laundry, grocery shopped, cooked. I spent most of the day at the computer, researching story ideas, filling out school paperwork for Tommy, catching up on e-mail, stuff I rarely found time to do.

Still, I felt guilty about burdening my family, especially Mom. One day I caught her organizing my closets. “You don’t have to do that,” I told her. “You’re going to tire yourself out.”

“Laura, I’m fine,” she said. “I have so much more energy these days. I like being needed. I feel more like an important part of the family and not just some old lady who has to be looked after.”

She had definitely worked some kind of magic on Tommy! He was getting his own cereal for breakfast, pouring the milk himself and remembering to put the carton back in the refrigerator. Most of all he delighted in doing little things for me, like getting me a blanket or a box of tissues. And I only had to ask him once.

Steve noticed the difference. “It’s great having your mother here,” he told me one night as we were getting ready for bed. “I don’t know how we would have survived this without her.”

I snuggled against him. I had to admit, our lives were a lot less stressful than usual.

Within a week Tommy had earned 21 quarters. Then one morning school got canceled. The snow was coming down. Steve would make it to work, but no way Mom would be venturing out in this.

I heard feet stomping on the front porch. Mom. “Sorry I’m late,” she said. “I was thinking we could all go to lunch when the snow stops. That is, if you think you can manage?”

I’d been cooped up 24 hours a day. I couldn’t wait to get out. “Sure,” I said.

Mom took us to a casual Italian place with a video arcade. Tommy ran right to the games. “I want to play Kung Fu!” he yelled.

“Let’s eat first,” I said, steeling myself for an outburst.

“Okay, Mommy,” he said.

We sat, three generations, and ate. When Tommy finished his spaghetti and meatballs, he asked, “Can I play now?”

“Of course,” I said. He beamed and raced to the arcade, his pockets jingling.

“Mom, I don’t know how to thank you,” I said.

“For what?” she asked. “For how you’ve helped Tommy. And me. For everything.”

“I didn’t do anything you wouldn’t have done for me,” Mom said. “What are families for?”

I had been so sure that my family would fall apart without me at the helm. But thinking I needed to do everything was why I was so stressed out, wasn’t it? I’d underestimated my husband, my son, my mom, the family God had blessed me with. No one person makes a family. It takes everyone working together, all in.

“What are you going to do with all your free time once my leg heals?” I asked Mom.

“I was thinking I might go to Florida,” she said.

I looked at my walking boot, feeling a surge of gratitude. It wasn’t just my leg that was growing stronger. Our whole family was.

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