Breathing my mother, breathing myself

Since my accident, I’ve been practising self-care. I take time. I allow for rest. I try to just be.

But when my mother goes by ambulance to the hospital, time goes berserk. Will mom make it through surgery? Will she get out of the ICU?

I’ve learned to breathe, and I find myself breathing my mother.

I breathe her while she’s in the ICU. I breathe her while she’s in the OR. I breathe her when she’s back in the room with a tube down her throat.

For 24 hours I breathe, breathe, breathe in a little windowless room on the 10th floor.

“I have a brain injury and need rest,” I say to the nurse on call. And she gives me access to a dark space usually reserved for families who’s loved ones are dying.



The following two weeks are a blur.

They move mom out of the ICU and up to the 14th floor, which is one floor up from where mom spent two months two years ago.

Those memories are so full of contradictions.

It was such a hard time, but did I have it all together! I cycled to work, often stopping to visit mom on the way. Occasionally I worked from her hospital room. I prepped meals when I got home. I did all that I had to do.

This time, there’s no biking, no work, and a visit to the hospital is my one big thing of the day. Although my newfound ability to breathe helps keep me grounded, I’m exhausted.


I say to my therapist: “It’s like I’m driving an old-fashioned horse and buggy. Mom’s in back in a bed. Dad’s trying to hold a conversation, but I can’t make out what he’s trying to say.”

How do I manage the reins so mom doesn’t fall off? How do we avoid careening into a dark swamp?

The new version of me wants to stop and just let the horses graze.

I write in my journal: That’s the best way I know how to do things these days. Just stop.




But a few days later it all comes crashing down. The carousel’s turning too fast. The juggling’s out of control.

It’s a dark and rainy night. The horses are nowhere to be found. Mom’s bed is askew on the side of the road. Dad’s gone silent.

I take a day off visiting mom. I make a list of everything that’s happening, or not happening, and tied to her.

How will we celebrate Thanksgiving? What about the TSO? How do I deal with family drama? Are my parents’ wills up to date? When do I go to the hospital? Why is mom like this?

Every time I listen to one of my favourite guided meditations, I get snarled up in the same place.

“I love you, I’m listening,” says the voice. But for the first time since I started meditating, I can’t picture anyone but my mom.



One beautiful fall day, I stop by Riverdale Farm on my way to the hospital.

I need to back off, I write in my journal.

Back off. Fade away. Back off.

Guilt hangs around, though. (Is guilt one of the many versions of my former self?)

She wags her finger. She prods. She reminds me of all that I managed to do the last time mom was in hospital.

“What’s changed?” asks my dad over the phone.



I wake up in the night, scribbling notes in my journal. Do I do this, or do I do that? How do I manage the weekend?

It’s care for myself versus care for others, I write. How do you balance when you feel swamped?

I’ve got decades of experience with overwhelm. (My parents taught me well.)

But I don’t want to live like that anymore.

With a brain injury, I can’t.



Of all the things I pick up in my mindfulness class, this one sticks: “Be careful when you breathe for or with someone.”

I have to learn to breathe. For myself.


I amp up my daily gratitudes. (1) Race up Todmorden Hill with the dog — twice. (2) Arrive at the hospital early. (3) Stay offline for seven hours.

My gratitude grows. Mom starts getting better.

But still, I wake up one Tuesday and can’t find myself.

I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place. My recovering self on one side, my ailing mother on the other. Trying to do so much when I can do so little.


My mom starts smiling, talking, eating.

One morning while I’m visiting, I say, “I need to close my eyes and rest for a few minutes.”

Mom does, too, and we take a time out.

Over the coming weeks, we do this repeatedly.



Flashback to January: I feel ready for an outing, so mom and I plan a trip to the ROM. She calls a taxi so I don’t have to drive. I lift her walker into the trunk. She knows I’ll probably have to take time-outs.

We wander around the darkened halls, admiring the resplendent Christian Dior dresses, the shoes, the perfume bottles.

“Do you need to sit down?” asks mom, and she waits patiently until I’m ready to go on.

Over the coming months, we make excursions to Edwards Gardens, the Yoko Ono exhibit… We spend an afternoon creating a collage. We do those things that we’ve always been thinking about doing.

It occurs to me that spending time with my mom is one of the silver linings.


“I have so much to learn for when this happens again,” I say to my dad.

By this, I mean coping with anything outside my parameters of calm. By again, I mean: there’s always something!

It’s like I’ve learned to surf. But when the waters get choppy and there’s turbulence, it takes effort to just hang on. Then I’m back to being a brain injury beginner. I become frustrated and sad, and pine for my former self.


Breathe, I think. Breathe.

12 thoughts on “Breathing my mother, breathing myself

  1. Love you Mara! You are working so hard… but I love how you are advocating for yourself and letting others know you need to rest. First you, then the others. Like the training you get in the plane to put YOUR oxygen mask on first, then do your child’s… so contrary to what ANY mother has ever done, but now this is how you roll. You can’t help others if you’re not in shape to do it….

  2. Beautifully written. As usual so touching and honest…..and brave. It’s good to learn your own boundaries and limits and helps me to consider my own. Hugs to you and a wish for better days ahead for you and for your mother. ❤

  3. Mara,
    Thanks for sharing this with us all. You are a remarkable person, strong and caring.
    I’m sending positive thoughts to you and mom, and I’ll try to breath for you.
    Mary Price

  4. I see a new you Mara, in the same beautiful, intelligent and strong skin. Look what you are modelling for your beautiful, intelligent and strong daughters! Love life, love yourself. Love you,
    Beautifully written.

  5. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I believe your Mom was totally proud of your efforts. The road may be long, but you can do it. She had such determination and guts. It is in your genes.

    Take care, be well

    Chris Knight

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