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Mother's illness draws daughter closer

Sometimes, late at night, Glennae Williams is startled awake by a crash.

"Are you ok, Ma?" she calls to her mother.

Her mother, DaVeeda White, has fallen again. She gets up to use the bathroom and her legs collapse, just as they have been collapsing since Glennae was a little girl.

"I'm on the floor," White calls back. She knows her daughter will come.

These are not the kinds of nights one associates with the last exhausted, exuberant, anxious weeks of college.

Williams stays up late cramming for finals and fretting about grades, then rushes off to work in the morning. She'll be finished with all of her classes in a few weeks, although she won't officially graduate until the end of the summer. She wonders about her career, what life will be like now that school is finally behind her.

But there's another question hanging over her: Should she stay with her mom, or move out on her own?

Williams, the only child of a single mother, has cared for her mom through multiple sclerosis and breast cancer. She's bathed her, taken her to doctor's appointments, slept on a hard sofa in her hospital room.

But now the soft-spoken 22-year-old wonders if it's time to start her own life, away from her mom.

"I'm so torn," she says, sitting in the living room of their Mount Winans rowhouse. A train clangs in the distance. "I wanted to move out and get my own place."

"A 'swanky apartment,' is what she calls it," says White, 47.

"But you don't want to leave your mom," Williams says.

The diagnosis

Williams was in second grade when her mother first started falling.

White would be working a shift as a cardiac nurse at St. Agnes Hospital when the floor would start to spin. At first, she thought it was fatigue. Then her arms and legs began to tingle. She started slipping, tripping.

"We used to tease her and say she was clumsy," recalls her sister, Monica Pringle.

And then, one day, her legs just wouldn't move, White says.

She knew what she had before the spinal tap confirmed it: multiple sclerosis.

Although the cause of the disease is not known, multiple sclerosis is believed to be an auto-immune disease. Women under 50 are most likely to be diagnosed, although it can affect men and people at other ages as well.

Multiple sclerosis means "many scars." The scars are microscopic, spread throughout the body and caused by the body attacking itself.

White blood cells attack cells in the brain, spinal cord and other parts of the nervous system, eating away at a protective covering called the myelin sheath, which functions like the plastic coating on a power cord. As the covering thins, the nerve cell is no longer able transmit electrical impulses. The result is numbness, balance problems, weakness, paralysis.

However, the body is able to rebuild these coverings and, once the myelin returns, the symptoms subside.

Multiple sclerosis is a disease of relapses and remissions, misery and normalcy.

"It's not a disease that's the same for any two people," says Kerry Naunton, the nurse who heads University of Maryland's Center for MS, where White receives treatment.

White was hospitalized after she was first diagnosed, then spent time in a rehab facility, learning how to use her limbs again. She stayed with her own mother, who cared for her as if she were a little girl again.

It was an odd role for her, the oldest of three sisters raised by a single mother, says Pringle.

"She was the bossy oldest sister, in a good way," Pringle recalls. "She was always the strong one."

The hospitalization was the first time that mother and daughter were apart. White had split up with Williams' father just after the girl's second birthday. She married another man a couple years later, but that marriage ended in divorce. It had mostly been just the two of them.

Williams stayed with her dad while White was recovering. When mother and daughter returned home, White slept in a hospital bed in the middle of the living room. The girl's aunts and grandmother took her to school.

Gradually, White's strength returned. But her life had permanently changed. She quit her job, went on disability and devoted herself to spending time with her daughter.

"I looked at it as a blessing," she says. "I missed the whole first year [of Williams' schooling], because I was working crazy busy hours. But after that, I was right there. I could be her cheerleader. I wouldn't have had that if I had to work full time."

Williams says she doesn't remember much about her mother's illness in those years.

What she remembers most clearly is her mother's presence.

"I'd say, 'Ma, I need you to come to school today,' and she would," Williams says.

Finding strength

Williams nearly left Baltimore once before. She planned to attend a small, liberal arts college in Virginia.

But the summer before she was set to leave, her mother persuaded her to enroll in a summer program at Morgan State University for incoming engineering students.

Something clicked for her on campus.

"I loved the friends I've made. I loved the curriculum," Williams says. She enrolled in Morgan and majored in industrial engineering with a concentration in process improvement, the science of making things more efficient. She moved out of her mother's home and into the dorms at Morgan, just a few miles away.

But college courses didn't come easy to Williams.

She spoke about her struggles a few weeks ago when she gave a sermon at the family's church, The One God One Thought Center for Better Living in Windsor Mill.

"When I started school, I whole-heartedly believed, 'I can do this,'" Williams says. "But with every semester that passed, I got more and more discouraged. It was so bad that I failed health class — health class — two times in a row. I failed all of my classes one semester."

She went to a conference for black engineers and sat bawling in her hotel room. How would she ever get a job?

Williams began her sermon with a reading from the book of Isaiah: "I will go before you and level the mountains. ... I will give you the treasures of darkness, riches stored in secret places, so that you may know that I am the Lord, the God of Israel, who summons you by name."

From this place of darkness, Williams fought to find strength. She doubled down on her studies and sought extra help. She became the student organizer of the summer engineering program she had once attended.

She moved back home after she finished her fourth year of school. Now, after five years, she is poised to graduate. Williams initially thought it would happen this month, but, because of a class scheduling complication, she will get her diploma at the end of the summer.

And she has landed a job. It's a one-year contract, but it's in her chosen field. She's working for the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab as a contractor in the Naval hospitals, helping to improve the experiences of patients.

It will become a full-time position once classes are over. Right now, Williams works three days a week and squeezes all her classes into the other two. She's pulled a few all-nighters recently as exams approach.

"I'm burned out. My body is exhausted. I'm mentally drained. I'm all cried out," she told the congregation. "I'm so over this college life, but I'm still here."

Second diagnosis

White found the lump in her left breast about a year and a half ago.

She went in for a mammogram, but asked the doctor to hold off telling her the results. It was her daughter's 21st birthday and White had plans to take her to New York.

The doctor called the day after they returned. The mammogram showed three spots, a constellation of dark stars. The cancer was in the early stages though and had not spread.

White decided to get a double mastectomy and chemotherapy at St. Agnes Hospital. When she told her parents and sisters about the cancer, she asked them to help Williams.

"I just need you to look out for Glennae," she said. "Make sure she's doing OK in school."

A few weeks before the treatments began, Williams announced that she had a surprise for her mother.

"She threw me in the car, took me to the Hair Cuttery and got my head shaved," says White.

Williams also got her long hair snipped off in solidarity with her mother.

"I wanted to do something to support her and tell her we're in this together," she says.

White went in for surgery a few weeks later. Her family and friends wore matching pink hats and shirts to the hospital to show support. Team DaVeeda.

The surgery took longer than expected. The aftermath was incredibly painful. When Williams finally saw her mother, drainage tubes were sticking out of her chest.

"I was crying because I was in so much pain," White recalls. The surgery left her in such pain that a crumb on her back felt like it was slicing her skin.

Williams stayed by her mother's side constantly, bringing her homework to the hospital room.

Lauren Williams, Glennae Williams' best friend, saw how hard it was for the young woman to watch her mother suffer. The two friends are not related, but they've been like sisters since they met in fourth grade and learned that both of their mothers share MS.

"That's your mother. You only get one," said Lauren Williams. "No one wants to lose her mother, especially so young. You still need your mom. You're not ready to let her go."

Slow recovery

In the morning, when White wakes, she hears her daughter hurrying around downstairs, getting ready for work.

"I say, 'Wait a minute, let me give you a hug before you go,'" she says.

White's recovery from breast cancer has been slow, the weakness compounded by multiple sclerosis. But the cancer appears to be in remission. She's completed a course of chemotherapy and is about to undergo a final reconstructive surgery.

There are dark circles under her almond-shaped eyes. Her legs are dotted with bruises from a recent fall. But she looks elegant with her hair closely cropped. She and her daughter modeled clothes for a breast cancer fundraiser together and her portrait was included in a calendar of breast cancer survivors.

She manages to stay upbeat, says Naunton, the University of Maryland MS coordinator.

"She's always looking out for somebody else," Naunton says. "I think that probably helps her get through both diseases."

The person she looks out for the most is, of course, her daughter. She scours sales for work clothes, filling Williams' closet with crisp blouses, tailored skirts and glossy pumps. She accompanied her daughter to an engineering conference last year, staying in a different hotel so Williams could hang out with her friends. White networked for her daughter, even convincing the editors of an engineering publication to write an article about her.

White is not sure what she'll do now her daughter is almost finished college.

"People are telling me I need to back up," she says. "Now she's an adult, I need to let her go and have a life."

Williams says her mother's illnesses have made them incredibly close.

"I've bathed her, wiped her after she's gone to the bathroom, given her injections. I can't think of something I haven't done for her," she says.

But, like most mothers and daughters, their relationship is not without tension.

Sometimes White gets jealous of her daughter's boyfriend. "He calls and she's gone and I'm like, 'Where are you going? I thought we were going to stay in,'" says White.

Williams describes her mother as being "very active in my dating life."

"She's a little sensitive," says Williams. "I'm a little frustrated, a little cranky."

Williams contract to work at the Naval hospitals ends in March. After that, it is unclear where she'll land a job. Mother and daughter sketch out scenarios for the future, studying each other's reactions.

"I told her if my first job is out of state, she's coming with me," says Williams.

"And I'm ready," her mother says. "I'll be there just to wake you up in the morning, make sure you have dinner."

But both wonder what will make the other most happy.

"I don't want to move out and leave her alone," says Williams, "But maybe she wants to live her own life now."

"Maybe she wants to live her own life now," says White.

They hold each other's gaze for a moment, then look away.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

twitter.com/juliemore

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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