'I Quit My Job Mid-Pandemic to Care for My Mom'

My official last day of work was in November. This, sadly, is not at all an uncommon experience these days, especially in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic and its attendant economic crisis. But I made the difficult choice of leaving a great job, with supportive management and amazing co-workers, voluntarily. I was already at the proverbial crossroads of life, where my son is in college and wants complete autonomy, and my mother, who now needs more of me, while not wanting to admit it. But here may be a time in life where life's challenges force you to make dramatic changes, even when you may not be ready. Caring for an aging parent with an aggressive illness is why I made this choice and is at the heart of my decision.

Three short years ago my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. When you hear those words, you might think death sentence. I remember as if it were yesterday, when she relayed what the non-empathetic gastroenterologist said. He told her the tumor was inoperable and to "get your affairs in order". Thankfully she didn't listen— and is where this story begins.

The world as you know it suddenly comes to a screeching halt the moment someone you love is told of their diagnosis. The hyperdrive to find the best doctors, hospitals and treatments available became all-consuming for me and my family. On a recommendation, we were introduced to PanCAN, the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, who immediately provided guidance about my mom's diagnosis, the staging of the cancer, living with the disease, being advised on getting a second opinion, and made us aware of clinical trials that were being conducted. We would have been lost without having that immediate framework.

The entire rock star oncology team took on my mother's disease. She is a recipient of life saving surgery and is a testament of not accepting "no" for an answer. As she says, "I'm not going anywhere". Her smart, good-looking and IMO god-like oncology surgeon performed the complicated Whipple surgery. In surgery terms, it is considered a holy grail of procedures—disconnecting and reconnecting the entire digestive system. The procedure itself could have been my mother's demise, as it is serious with many risks. From start to finish, the surgery lasted well over 9 hours, and it was done laparoscopically, a less invasive surgery where a robotic machine is utilized. The surgeon made four tiny incisions instead of a large one running down her entire midsection. During her hospital stay, she would walk the hallways with tubes coming out of almost every orifice, including the dreaded NG tube, a tube that drained her stomach and protruded from her nose. Once on her feet, she would walk up and down the hallways proudly, say hello to fellow oncology patients in their rooms, their family and staff saying "how do you do" or a simple "hello" as if there was an unspoken understanding of what each were going through. One day, a patient said to me with a quivering voice "your mother is my hero, if she can do it, so can I". I replied "She's mine too" with the same unsteady delivery. After 11 days in the hospital, she Rocked the Whipple.

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The author's mother, Susan Schultz, at her birthday celebration in 2020. Courtesy

Her aggressive chemotherapy, radiation schedule along with umpteen trips for lab work, she was never discouraged. An unfortunate side effect of chemo is weaker bones and in the middle of the night, she tripped, broke her ankle, required an additional surgery and was given a new set of hurdles to overcome - to not bear weight on her ankle for 6 weeks. You should have seen the orthopedic surgeons face when she showed up at the OR with a green ribbon around her ankle "It is March 17th and need a little luck" she said "besides, I want to make sure you know which ankle it is". While her ankle was mending, her Chemo protocol continued. She could be seen hopping on one leg from a wheelchair to a recliner and back into the wheelchair. My mom would scoot up and down the hall, dragging the IV pole with her. Not only was it a masterful aerobic feat, but it also personifies who she is. She does what needs to be done, makes the best of the situation, all without complaint! I wish I had taken photos of her at one of the last chemo appointments, as she "pole danced" with the Chemo/IV "partner" and her newly healed ankle. When her treatments ended, we celebrated with poop emoji cupcakes and a 'sage-ing' ritual at the house amongst family and friends.

For well over 2 years, she remained cancer-free, until a lump on her neck revealed what any cancer survivor fears. Burrowed in a lymph node and sitting on top of where nerves bundle together, her cancer returned. My own heart sank; I can only imagine what went through her mind. Thankfully, her doctors were encouraged by catching it early, and prescribed another course of chemo, which, in turn, significantly shrunk the tumor, followed by radiation treatments.

For me, however, the relapse brought up a host of urgent questions. I actually made a list at the time—and put it away for a week, rereading it right before I gave notice.

Why can't I both work and take care of my mom?

I tried that and have had to leave work suddenly and for extended periods of time as well as asking a colleague to cover for me, repeatedly. As much as I love working, I didn't want to be the one who always asks.

Will I miss having a life outside of the home?

Yes.

Will I feel like I am putting extra pressure on my husband, who is CFO of our family (or as I prefer to call him CFW Chief Financial Worrier)?

Absolutely—do you know my husband?

Will you have regrets of leaving your job?

Of course. However if I didn't, I would always regret not being there for my mother, so No. Additionally, now that COVID-19 is so rampant, the choice was made for me. I am not willing to hire someone to come in a few days a week, who could potentially bring COVID-19 into her home. Also, if I were exposed at work, and then exposed her, the guilt would be insurmountable.

But can you afford to do this?

Yes, although my salary isn't ginormous, it has afforded us some of the many extras we've enjoyed. With COVID-19 still here, there are no extras. I realize how fortunate I am, not only to have my mother in my life, but to also have the means to hit pause.

Do you love your mom?

Without question—More than Life

Is anything more important than her wellbeing?

Besides my husband and son, no one else is more important than she is.

By leaving your job, and taking care of your mom, do you think it is the right thing for you to do?

YES, YES, YES!

And the last question, which is most important, and pales in comparison to all the questions above:

Is your mother worth more than your salary?

Without question, YES. This is non-negotiable.

I have had some ups and downs since giving notice, but I know by being her main caregiver, I'm allowing my mom to focus on herself. If I had any doubts before, all I have to do is look over at her, see her hazel eyes look to me with adoration, love, and gratitude. It is more than enough. Our time together is a gift and an undeniable privilege. For the first time since I can remember, I've been able to spend copious amounts of time with my mom, without competing for her attention.

Many may think it's irresponsible to walk away from a great job; and some drive the point further, pointing out that I'm almost past my prime earning years. I am literally at the age where I can up the ante—that magical time where I am allowed to increase the percentage of contributions towards—gulp—retirement. While I know that what fiscally responsible folks say is true, for me, it boils down to this: there are more important things than money. Besides, they don't know my mom.

My mom, a tour-de-force, is the epitome of everything good in this world. Only petite in stature, she remains larger than life. And she continues to live life with gusto, incredible humor, fierce determination and above everything else, awe-inspiring grace. I am constantly amazed by her sheer fortitude and upbeat attitude. Susan, as she is known, has taken life's hiccups in stride. She moves on undeterred. and continues to lead by example.

I learn from her. Every. Single. Day. When I grow up, I want to be just like her. But for now, I think it is only natural for me to do everything in my power to keep her living her life.

Lauren Postyn is an essayist and a poet living in North Carolina. She blogs at Unfinished For Now, and is currently working on her first novel.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.