During those teenage years, after I finally got home, I was to be home schooled, so that I could do the 6-hour-a-day physical therapy for three years to regenerate the left leg’s nerve that had been damaged by the powerful, extremely tight compression bands that my doctor had use to tourniquet the bleeding. I went from junior high to college, home through all of my high school years, from sophomore to senior year. My mother taught me all that I learned, although the Board of Education sent a teacher two hours a week to my house, and a teacher to monitor state exams on a regular basis. It was during that time I had so much time with my mother, and her influence in me grew. She was always there, step by step to keep me optimistic – I would walk again – and I did.
She never dwelled on the pain of what I was going through but instead painted a picture of what was to come. “Susie, you will have so many new shoes, and so many pretty dresses, you won’t know which one to choose. You will be able to travel when you get well too, not like before, when you always had to stay close to home, lest an attack strike!”
I used to say I grew up in Manhattan, but now I just say, “I grew up in hospitals.” If you add up all my hospital stays I have had, each of them very protracted, it comes to about seven years in all. To this day, I have had 40 blood transfusions and I hope will not have any more in my life. Even something as simple as giving birth to my first daughter Chrissie turned into a crisis, and required a two-month hospital stay with transfusions and six months in a wheelchair.
When I risked my life to have my second child, Diana, my mother stood behind me. I asked her if she would be willing to take over the raising of my children if anything went wrong during the birth – specifically, if I were not to make it through. She replied, “Of course.” Brave soul, my mother!
She asked, “How is your chart looking, Susan?” I answered, “That’s a sore point – I have a packed eighth house.” (The eighth house rules death, but also surgery). She nodded. “That shows the condition.” I looked up at her – “Wait! It shows the condition but not the outcome?” She smiled and said, “Yes. Did the doctors ask you to write your will?” I nodded affirmative, and added I had just seen a lawyer to do my will a day earlier. She explained, “Of course! Had you not had a packed eighth house, the topic of your will would not have even come up.” Then she asked, “Do you feel you can have this baby, Susan?” I replied that, despite the doctors’ dire warnings, absolutely yes. And I will never forget her steady, measured reply, looking at me with such kindness: “And so you will. The end result lies in your heart and in your determination, Susan, always.”
More health bouts would come throughout my life, but she was always there, forever practical – we do what we must to get healthy, and we do not spend unnecessary energy bemoaning why it is necessary – we get on with what we need to do without delay. That way, we more quickly become well.
It was to be my mother’s sense of philosophy that I found influenced me the most. I will give you an example of a defining moment that was to forever change the way I would view my life and my place in the universe, all because of her.
One day, when I was about 9 years old, I got an attack at my grandmother’s house. It was the end of June, so school had just ended for summer vacation. We had just arrived in the country and I knew I was to be in bed the whole time, until end of August, and by then, summer vacation would be over. I wished I were home in my own little bed, or better yet, well, and sitting on a wooden box outside my father’s store in New York City. I loved the heat of summer, for I was not a country child – I missed the city. I was frustrated.
That morning sun was steaming in the window on the second floor of my bedroom; a pale green, leafy tree was brilliantly lit just outside my open window. It was about 11 AM and I could hear my little sister Janet squealing downstairs as she ran around the yard with another neighborhood child.
My mother had just taken an hour to change the sheets on my bed, as she had to carefully push the old sheets under me slowly and at the same time gently pull the new, clean sheet under me too, after removing the old one. It was the way they did it in the hospital, but it took a lot of time. During the 6 to 8 weeks that an attack lasted, I was as fragile as nitroglycerine, but she knew precisely how to gently handle my leg, holding it a certain way by the ankle, careful never to twist it even the slightest, which always rested on a pillow, so not to set off spasms and attacks of unbearable, pass-out pain.
That morning, I felt the need to say something shocking – something that would sum up my frustration. I blurted out, “This old leg! I wish someone else had this old leg!” My mother, by then pushing fluffy pillows into new pillowcases at the foot of my bed, looked up in disbelief. I had never, ever wished my pain on anyone else. “What did you say?” Determined to shock my mother over my frustration with my illness, I repeated what I had just said.
Still wearing her apron, she sat in a chair next to my bed. “Susan, don’t you know you were hand picked by God to have this painful illness? What If I told you that your pain might take away someone else’s pain in the world?” I was so surprised at this new idea that she had just offered me – that my pain could actually be used for a good and noble purpose. It was so intriguing, that I was momentarily stunned. I asked, “Is that possible?” She replied, “We know nothing about life, Susan. It is, and always will be, a mystery. Anything is possible.” Suddenly my entire world changed in a flash, for the better. The very idea that pain could have a positive result in the world, that it was not at all useless, and that I might be able to take away someone else’s pain, inspired me deeply and completely reframed my relationship to my illness.
“Where would this person be?” I asked her quickly. My mother laughed, and shaking her head, said she didn’t know. I replied, “Could it be a little girl in China?” As a child myself, I was trying to think of the most distant culture I could conjure up – in my mind’s eye I saw a girl about my age, with shiny black hair made up in braids, in pink Chinese printed silk. She nodded, “Why not?” She said she had to go downstairs to start making lunch but that we could talk about this more later. She gave me an epiphany I would embrace forever.
It would take years for me to fully understand the scope of the idea she had suggested to me. Now I realize she was right (as always) – I feel could never write in the compassionate way that some say I do, had I not suffered myself during much most of my life My columns appear in ten different countries of the world each month (translated) and I am working on my tenth book that will appear in many languages, including my latest, in Chinese. My mother was always prophetic.