It was a phone call that would forever change the way I look at life – and live it. Around midnight on June 18, 2010, I was celebrating my birthday with friends when the phone rang. It was my stepfather Rob calling to say that my mum, Erica, had taken a turn for the worse and that I should get on a plane immediately.
I live near Byron Bay in New South Wales. Mum and Rob were more than 2000 kilometres away in Adelaide.
I knew Mum hadn’t been feeling well the previous two days, but the fact that the situation had turned dire so quickly was a shock. The word meningitis was mentioned, but I thought it was akin to the flu, so I didn’t think much of it.
I’ll never forget what I saw upon walking into the intensive-care unit at Lyell McEwin Hospital the next morning. To put it bluntly, Mum looked like she had been bashed and burned: Her skin was as black as charcoal, and her body was bruised and bloated. She had lapsed into a coma, where she remained for two weeks on life support.
Among other side effects, the sudden and dramatic multiple-organ shutdown destroyed both of my mother’s kidneys, affected her hearing, and forced the amputation of all four of her limbs, which were removed below the elbow and knee joints. This all happened within two months of her hospitalisation.
After 504 days in hospital, Mum went home to my stepfather’s care. Rob has had to defer his retirement to fund her ongoing medical and equipment needs, including bionic prosthetics that cost more than $50,000 each.
The will to live
Amazingly, through all of this, Mum has retained her extraordinary fortitude and sense of humour. She faces each obstacle – which are many and varied – with a courage and commitment that leaves many in awe. It must be said that she rarely faces anything alone because Rob, her guardian angel – our guardian angel – is never far from her side.
Friends often ask how Mum is doing, and I frequently don’t really know what to say. Sure, there are the medical milestones that are set and that she surpasses, but words feel trite when I stop to think about what she might be doing at any given time.
People tell me that there’s no way they could endure what my mum has, that they would never choose a life without limbs. But the truth is, most of us will do anything to keep on living. I have seen a few people on life support over the past two years, and they often seem to have an indefinable spirit, willing the body back from the brink. When push comes to shove and we’re faced with that ultimate choice, I think instinct supersedes logic.
I once heard that great beauty is born from great tragedy, and I have to say it’s true. Random acts of kindness, generosity, and benevolence have helped my family raise tens of thousands of dollars for prosthetic limbs and medical equipment. People I’ve never met have supported Mum in every way possible – physically, financially, and emotionally. It has been incredibly humbling, inspiring, and energising.
This year, I nominated Mum for a Pride of Australia medal because I feel she personifies what courage truly means. The form required nominees to have “overcome personal adversity through determination and strength of character.” Mum achieves this – and more – every day from the moment she wakes to the time she falls into restless sleep.
That she didn’t win a medal has done nothing to diminish the pride and respect I have for someone who tackles each day head on, with love, grace, and indefatigable determination.
Mum’s journey has taught me that the deep and meaningful joys in life lie in many of the things we take for granted, every minute of every day: making dinner for someone you love, walking outside to feel the breeze on your skin, getting out of a chair unaided and unimpeded to walk wherever you choose.
My friends and family often refer to Mum as a superhero. They say she’s an inspiration, but sometimes I think that’s a lot of pressure for one person to bear. To me, she will always be Mum, and I am honoured to be her daughter.