Nothing brings me joy like helping a mamma labor and birth her baby. I am drawn to this not only to witness birth, but to give women what I lacked during my labors- the emotional and physical support that only a woman can give to another. While my journey toward doula certification simmers on the back burner, I pay the bills (barely) by caring for people near the other end of life’s journey. And I’m finding it brings me joy too. The daily mundane chores of an elderly man – the medication reminders, the aid in bathing, helping him fight the effects of gravity as he goes through this daily exercises – are not nearly as adrenaline-pumping or breathtaking as working with a woman through her labor, but when I put my head and my heart into each moment, I find it can bring me almost as much satisfaction.
I fight tears when I remember how I actually cared for my own mother. She died in my home more than twelve years ago. I did little to make her final hours comfortable, but left her to the nurse who visited once a day, and to my husband who stayed in the room with her playing music and his computer games. I checked on her, I asked about her, and I cried for her. But my focus was on my birth and my baby not on the dying woman in my home. Every time I hear friends tell me of the last days of their own loved one- how they talked, or prayed, or sat with that person until he died- I feel shame from my own experience.
I called every day to check on her, but if she didn’t answer the phone, and I had nothing on my calendar for her schedule, I was quick to call a neighbor to check on her.
It had taken over a year to convince my mother to leave her home in Alabama and move in with us in Texas. The house she was leaving behind had been her home for over thirty-five years. She had reared four children there, and her husband died in her arms there. But now she was alone and I lived six hundred miles away. I called every day to check on her, but if she didn’t answer the phone, and I had nothing on my calendar for her schedule, I was quick to call a neighbor to check on her. It was frightening and exhausting. When her doctor told her she needed surgery, we would not take no for an answer; we insisted that she move in with us. We had added on to our house to make a space for her, and painted it her favorite color, making every effort to make her feel at home. Although we spent days visiting attractions and museums in the city, attending home school events with the children, and countless shopping trips and lunches out, she never made a full recovery from her surgery. I was glad she lived with me where I could keep an eye out for health problems.
Eight months before her death, I was surprised with a positive pregnancy test. One week later, I started vomiting and could not stop. After a few days in the hospital, I was sent home with a pic line and an i.v. pole to keep my baby- and me- alive. My mother still had needs though, and made them known to me. She was unable to give me any care or consolation. It was then I realized that I was the caregiver, no matter how helpless and sick I was. I knew she still wanted to mother me, but our roles were now reversed. And I resented it.
After a few months, the intravenous line was removed and I returned to the everyday tasks of school, house cleaning, cooking, and caring for my mother. She had good weeks when she could attend Mass, get her hair done and go to the grocery store. I would become irritated if she announced she wanted to go out to lunch on the way home from the hairdresser. “Why didn’t you tell me that before we left the house so I could prepare the children for us to be gone longer?” I would complain. I had children to care for, and I resented her demand on my time and attention. I am ashamed to remember how impatient I was with her. Now, I realize that she – from one hour to the next- didn’t know how she would feel or how much energy she would have after any given task.
When I was almost eight months pregnant, Mama told her doctor she was ready for Hospice care. During the next month, while we watched my belly grow and planned the birth of our baby, we watched Mama grow weaker and weaker. After finding my mother on the bathroom floor the day after my due date, and lifting her with my very pregnant body, I requested a hospital bed with rails. When she was moved to this bed, I knew it was truly the beginning of the end. Two days later, one of our parish priests brought Viaticum to her. As he breathed the final prayer, and she swallowed the Sacred Host, she drifted out of consciousness, and my labor began with force. I walked the priest to the door, retreated to my room, leaving my mother to rest, believing I would not see her awake again. Seven hours later, I delivered my baby girl in my bedroom.
My mother lived eleven more days, to the astonishment of the doctor, who had no explanation, and each day the nurse visited, she was shocked to find her holding on. Mom was in and out of consciousness most of the time; she could barely swallow water, and she did not eat.
I wish I could say that I stayed by her side praying, and talking to her, but I kept mostly to myself and my baby at the other end of the house. I visited her briefly, holding her hand to stroke the baby’s head, wondering why she was still alive. I was anxious to get on with mothering my new baby; I didn’t know how to be in the middle of these two helpless, dependent people- mother to one, daughter to the other. I hated those feelings and tried to push them away, but I was weak and sleep-deprived. My mother died in the night, in her sleep, with no one else in the room.
Now I watch adult children come and go in the homes of others. Most of the time they express gratitude for the care I give, and they show respect for their aging parent. But occasionally I see someone like I was when my mother lived with me. I see the daughter who is so tired that she brushes off the requests of her mother like a flea that is biting her cheek. She has a job to do, a house to care for- problems, bills, concerns of her own. The ninety-year-old lady in the bed in front of me watches her daughter leave the room, laundry basket under her arm, in a huff because she already knew what needed to be done, and her plans for the day did not include listening to her mother’s requests and questions and shopping lists. The elderly mother smiles at me with understanding eyes.
She has so much to do. She’s become the mother, and I’m the child.
I cringe; I disagree with my whole heart. No matter who is the stronger, or the more capable, or giving the care, a mother is always the mother. These men and women I now care for have not reverted to childhood simply because they cannot button their own shirts, or walk on their own. They may no longer be aware of the needs of their grown children, but they are still the parents. No age and no life circumstance can change the direction of the fourth Commandment, “Honor thy father and mother.” Being fragile and vulnerable doesn’t make one a child; on the contrary, in this frail body in the bed before me, I can see the strong, capable and talented woman she once was. But that’s easy for me; I didn’t watch her go from that place of strength where my needs were met to this bed where she became dependent on her daughter.
My heart goes out to the exasperated daughter who wants desperately for her mother to listen to her as she vents her problems, but her mother’s dementia prevents her from understanding. I hurt for the man who can’t find the patience to be kind to his father because he’s working overtime to pay his own bills.
And I make myself available to do what they can’t, because I didn’t – or wasn’t able to do- when I was in their place, and now I can. As I kneel before the eighty-eight-year-old man and lift his feet to dry them after his shower, and pull each sock up over his swollen ankles, and as I brush the hair of the great-grandmother who can’t lift her arms, I remember my weaknesses in caring for my own mother and in caring for them, I honor her.