Epilepsy has my mom.
People don’t like to say it that way. It sounds weird, for starters, and possibly inaccurate. So people do not say it that way and I know people do not say it that way because people make a point of telling you they do not say it that way.
“I have epilepsy, it doesn’t have me.”
People love victories, no matter how small, so we avoid nouns like disabled or diabetic or schizophrenic. Do not let it define you, they say. Fill in the blank with your own affliction. Brain cancer. Autism. Food allergies. Smart phone elbow. I have this Twitter app, it doesn’t have me. Whatever gets you through a Tuesday.
In a lot of ways, though, epilepsy does have my mom. She has not had a driver’s license since college. Her only paycheck the last 40 years was a brief stint as a teacher’s aide. (Her major was education.) Many jobs, as it turns out, require you to be able to get to the job, and then once you are there, not have seizures.
At some point after they met in college, my parents decided that my dad’s family farm would be the best place for a person who has unpredictable episodes of convulsion, which as the great humorist Dave Barry would point out if he were alive today, would be a great name for a rock band. (Update: I’m being told Mr. Barry is alive and well and that I made a regrettable condolence decision. Dave, if you are reading this, I want my card back.)
My mom and dad are grandparents now and they still live on the farm and after all these years they still don’t know if their “Green Acres” choice was the right one. In a city, you can walk to destinations, you can take a train, you are in closer proximity to friends and pharmacies and french fries. But you are also closer to traffic and lots of other potentially dangerous things like elevator shafts. Are people still falling down elevator shafts? If so, it sounds awful.
Life is awful sometimes. You make decisions and even in the end it’s not always clear whether it was the right one because you didn’t do the other thing and life isn’t a Gwyneth Paltrow movie where you get to see all the options play out in 99 minutes. The nearest paved road to the farm is two miles, the nearest neighbor three miles, the nearest post office 15 miles, the nearest convenient Wells Fargo banking location 200 miles. But isolation doesn’t necessarily equate to safety. My great aunt on the other side of the family also had epilepsy. Decades ago, she had a seizure, walked into a lake and drowned.
As kids, my brother and I knew that story and even though there is no water in Kansas, we knew we had responsibilities that we mostly didn’t recognize as responsibilities at all. When you’re in a situation you don’t consider it a situation, it just is. If your mom with epilepsy is chopping an onion with a big cleaver, that is something you keep an eye on. If she starts to drool and stagger, you hug her toward a chair. If she gets up in the middle of church and runs around like a toddler, you quietly ask Jesus to step in and save the day.
Frankly, the whole thing was fantastic because I got to spend a lot of time with my mom. Perhaps your mother is awful, but mine is not awful. She plans sophisticated April Fools’ pranks. She is sarcastic. She is funny and gullible silly and she will put on a catcher’s mitt even though she is not at all qualified to operate a catcher’s mitt. Of course you don’t appreciate any of that until you’re a 30-something living 1,300 miles away in California trying to become a famous writer and you’re too selfish to see her more than a couple times a year. Does the farm feel like a prison now that her kids are grown? Does she feel more alone? Was the farm the right choice? There are no good answers, or maybe there are and I’m too scared to ask.
And now she and I get to hang out again. Every day. People ask me why I am in small-town Kansas again after leaving 17 years ago and there are many reasonable explanations, like getting laid-off from the newspaper industry or wanting to be there for the birth of my nephew or simply missing the farm and youth and family, but this winter I am going to make Italian Christmas cookies with my mom. Maybe they aren’t really Italian. Maybe they aren’t holiday in any way other than she uses red and green food coloring in the frosting. It is a quality answer.
Surely, there have been advantages to farm life. My mom has driven several times despite not having a license, almost all around the farm, and most famously the time when, mid-seizure, she mowed down a row of mailboxes with my big-eyed grandma holding on for her life in the passenger seat.
There is also a framed letter from a man named Chris. When I was a small child, my mom went to St. Louis for what was then an experimental brain surgery. I mostly remember staying at my grandparents house and my mom’s long brown hair being shaved when she got back. What I found out later is that we didn’t have much and the insurance company wasn’t going to cover any of the crazy expense and a lawyer named Chris Concannon wrote few letters to the insurance company and changed that. Afterward, he wrote a letter to our family that said, Our families have known each other for a long time. We would appreciate it if you would consider this a favor.
That’s right. In a small town, even lawyers are nice.
Years later, when my dad was a youth baseball coach and Chris was dying of cancer, he asked Chris to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at an important baseball game. The local paper printed a picture of the moment and a cutout of the newspaper is still framed at our house along with the letter Chris wrote to our family about my mom’s surgery.
This happens everywhere. In big cities and small towns. Wonderful, selfless people do great things, constantly. There just seems to be more of it in a small town. Or you notice it more. Without a doubt, more niceness per capita. It’s something you don’t appreciate until you’ve been gone for a while, nostalgia that is contagious.
The question is, do I have small-town fever, or does it have me?