Guest Post by Leoni Drobinski
“Your mother has a brain tumor above her right ear affecting her mobility.”
Mum’s young and caring Asian doctor calmly spoke these words, shattering my life forever. My mother, Leonie, did not show any emotion. I immediately started to cry.
We left the doctor’s office and started out for the hospital, Mum insisting on the way that we stop and buy her Saturday night lottery ticket—just in case her luck would change.
My mother was my inspiration, my guiding light helping me weather the rough stormy seas of life. She was always the strong link that kept the family together and I could not imagine life without her. Now Mum faced her biggest challenge, the fight for her life.
But this fight was just another obstacle in an adventurous life. Mum was widowed at 47, raised six children by herself and left the United States to move back to her childhood home of Brisbane Australia. She knew her life’s struggles would be hers alone, but her heart was in Australia and that’s where she would tend to her family and see her life come to its end.
My father was from Long Island, New York, a master sergeant and meteorologist who served in the American Air Force during World War II. While stationed in Australia, he met and fell in love with my mother in 1944. The scene of their first encounter was a beach party, an idyllic setting against the backdrop of the Great Barrier Reef in Mackay North Queensland. The party organized by Mum’s nursing buddies from the Mater Hospital sealed their fate forever. My mother was studying her double certificate nursing qualifications and specializing in midwifery. As a trainee nurse she delivered 104 babies. We six kids were always astounded that she remembered the exact number of her deliveries—a number not to be forgotten.
During the war, my father participated in various campaigns in New Guinea, the Northern Solomons and the Bismarck Archipelago. When he returned to the states, Mum and Dad were already married. Sacrificing the familiarity of family and friends for this man she had fallen in love with, Mum followed him a few years later, one of the original war brides. In 1948, the ship mom sailed on was crammed with other starry-eyed young Australian war brides, all bound for San Francisco and a new life in America.
My parent’s romance and marriage endured for 23 years until my father’s untimely death. Always the romantic, Dad missed seeing my mother during the day, so they would arrange lunch dates. Arriving in separate cars at the restaurant, they would embrace and kiss in the car park, in full view of astonished lunchtime diners. They must have caused great speculation as to the heat of their passionate affair.
But it wasn’t totally easy for Mum. She experienced frustrating adjustments to American life, missing certain Australian luxuries. Where Mum lived, individual butcher shops did not exist. You got your meat at the supermarket. One day Mum asked the butcher “Do you have any brains?” to which the butcher replied straight-faced, “Lady, if I had any brains I would not be working here.”
Mum did not always know how to take these brash Americans with their crazy sense of humor, especially the New Yorkers. Australians were more reserved and polite in comparison, so her first few years were filled with homesickness for her family and Brisbane.
Mum was often the first Australian person that people in American had ever met. “Do they speak English there? What sort of food do you eat there?”
Mum would try not to laugh at the endless questions, finding that though she was somewhat of a novelty, she was in an elegant class all her own and loved by many who met her. When comparing our Australian relatives to our father’s New York relatives, they might have had opposite ways, but some things were similar. The Australian relatives spoke with a strange slang, but our New York relatives spoke with a broad Long Island accent!
Mum always thought it was an essential part of our upbringing to retain our American roots while not forgetting where she was born and raised. We were, after all, half-Australian, acquiring a first class education in another culture through our mother’s eyes. We knew Australia—its rich culture, history and unique animals. Our much-loved Uncle Jim visited us, sharing tales of kangaroos hopping down the street and koalas sucking on eucalyptus leaves. He told us of Aborigines walking down the streets of Sydney in native dress armed with spears. He captivated his American audience, everyone hanging on every Aussie word that came out of his Aussie mouth. When charming and elegant Aunt Mollie Peoples came to visit, Dad referred to her as Lady Peoples and treated her like the Queen of England. Mum and Dad’s friends actually believed she was a Lady and an exceptional woman of substance. Visions popped into our young and curious heads of being related to some sort of royalty back in Australia, but the thought of meeting such people was remote, as they lived thousands of miles away.
The move back to Australia to raise six children as a widow made Mum very frugal, a way of life that never left her. The night before her surgery, the brain surgeon, Dr. Kay, received a call that Mum’s blood pressure was greatly elevated. When he went to check on her, he asked if the rising BP was related to her fears about the procedure.
“I am only worried about the bill,” replied Mum with a straight face.
Laughter and a positive outlook can lift the spirits of cancer patients. Life and fate are full of twists and turns. I learned all of this when my mother came to live with me after her operation. My household consisted of a loving partner and two highly active teenage boys. Adjustments and compromises had to be made for the three week journey recommended by Dr Kay. But the three weeks turned to six months and produced treasured memories for a lifetime.
The thought of living with Mum was a little daunting at first as I had not lived with her for over 20 years. She was in a fragile state, still having staples in her head from surgery. We had to be careful about not getting them wet in the shower. I had never seen my mother naked and when showering her for the first time, I tried to concentrate on the job and not giggle uncontrollably. I was also the baby of the family, the one with the weakest stomach, yet here I was being the chief nurse and caring for my mother’s intimate bodily needs.
Mum always wanted me to be a nurse, but it wasn’t the profession that I chose. Caring for someone with cancer means that you sometimes have to switch off and not let your emotions cloud your judgment. Despite thinking I would receive sainthood for nursing Mum, she would tell me off if I did anything wrong and often I felt like a little kid once again. Mum’s presence in my home made her the head of the family once again. Everyone accepted this and kept busy looking after her.
Mum relished every minute of the attention and the loving care we provided around the clock. The brain tumor actually changed my mother and gradually I witnessed a softer side to her personality. She was smiling more and was truly happy in her surroundings. That was the picture I remember most. I try not to dwell on the many bad days that I had to encounter during that time. Mum somehow encouraged me to rely on my inner strength. Thus I could carry on and then sob in my private time.
Mum went through radiation. When it was completed, we danced and celebrated with two bottles of Yellow Glen champagne. Mum savored every sip of champagne, a memory I will always treasure. My sister Terry came from the US to help during Mum’s last days. After drinking two glasses of champagne, she was up all night in the bathroom. We laughed and giggled until our sides hurt.
Mum’s treatment was not successful, but I think she knew all along that her journey was at an end. Her determination, composure and dignity were remarkable. She had lived a fascinating life, mothered six children and been a grandmother of eight. As life creates strange events, Mum’s cancer reunited and bonded her family. We were in awe of her achievements in life and her extraordinary qualities that she passed on to us. Her goal was to reach her 80th birthday with a family celebration and with her family’s love she was able to live that dream. After her birthday, she had exactly two more months to live—this was a special bonus to all who loved her.
My experience has taught me how important it is to treasure precious memories with loved ones, to come right out and say I love you and rejoice in the time you have left. Remember the branch of the tree, share stories with your loved ones and the new branches arriving in the family. Release your guilt: “Sorry Mum for denting your car when I was a teenager and yes you were right about not getting involved with boys until after the age 30!”
My mother enriched me with her wisdom and I have inherited her name (she ran out of them when I arrived). Thanks Mum.