By T. R. Robertson
My 82-year-old father was sick at Thanksgiving. By Christmas he was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. One month later he was gone.
Learning How to Live
His departure left my 80-year-old mother grieving the loss of her companion of 60 years. Dad had been the lynchpin holding together the independent life they had maintained, 35 miles away from me, their only surviving son. Dad had devoted himself to caring for Mom as she gradually suffered the total degeneration of cartilage in her joints. She used a wheelchair and was in pain most of the time. Now she had to learn to live without her husband.
I struggled with my own grief, mixed with unanticipated anger. I wondered why he hadn’t made plans for how she would get along after his death. I realize now that he never expected to go first, because of her poor health. By the time we knew differently, he was in no condition to handle detailed discussions about it.
Mom had zero interest in moving to any sort of retirement or nursing home. This was no surprise to me. She’d always been strong-minded and fiercely independent. We agreed that I would live with her, night and day, for one week. We’d put our creative minds together and find a workable solution to every possible obstacle to her living alone.
“Now don’t you lift a finger to help me do things,” she told me, in a tone only a mother can carry off. “If I can’t do it, then you can help me figure out how to fix it so I can.”
Could she cook for herself? Yes.
Could she do her shopping? No, but if I took her to the store every other week, we could do it together.
Could she get herself out of the chair and into the bed or onto the commode? Those took a little more work to make possible. A rented hospital bed quickly, albeit emotionally, replaced the double bed she and Dad had shared. I set up an arrangement for her to charge her wheelchair next to the bed at night.
“You have to be convinced you can do this,” I told her, “and I have to be convinced. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.”
There were a few people with alternate opinions. They thought I was irresponsible and negligent for allowing her to live on her own. One or two of them told me to my face.
Mom and I decided it could work, but we came to realize she would need some help with laundry (she could load the washer but not unload it), with cleaning, and with personal hygiene. This is where the people of her local congregation (Timberlake Christian Church in Moberly, Missouri) stepped up and modeled what a church can and should do to help widows in need.
Mom and I were both surprised that we made it work when the odds were against us.
Learning How to Die
From the day of my dad’s death through the following two years, my time and energy had shifted to helping Mom live independently. Not only did this bring about major changes in my life, it deepened my relationship with my mother to a level we had not known since I was a preteen.
Roles were reversed. I came to know and care for my own mother’s basic physical needs in ways she had done for me as a child. Her instincts from a lifetime as a nurse led her to clinically describe to me every detail of her physical condition. I became intimately aware of every ache and pain and the details of how the weather, the time of day, and every movement of her body amplified or soothed her sufferings.
As autumn approached in her second year alone, some of her helpers had to quit. Those who remained were telling me something needed to change. Her health was declining and her reasoning and decision-making skills were becoming less reliable.
Mom and I began having tentative conversations about what needed to come next for her. Convincing her it was time for her to move to some sort of assisted living situation was not easy. She never did agree to it.
Before she was forced to give in to the inevitable, the inevitable happened. Her health took a sharp turn for the worse one day in October. She broke down and pushed the alert system button that had hung unused around her neck all those months. Two of her closest friends dropped everything, rushed to her side, and got her to a doctor. I arrived in time to take her from the doctor’s office to the hospital.
In the hospital I watched while she was lifted from her chair and put onto an exam table. She screamed and raged through it all, her aching body rebelling against the necessary manhandling. I sat in the hallway outside the room and wept.
After nearly a month in the hospital, she moved to the dreaded nursing home. Her freedom of mobility was gone. The staff would not allow her to navigate her electric wheelchair around the hallways due to liability concerns. She spent her time there mostly confined to her bed or in an immobilized chair. There was absolutely nothing she needed to do. Everything was done for her.
“What use am I anymore?” she asked me more than once. “It’s like I’m just lying on a shelf waiting to die.” I had good answers, suggestions of how she could serve God from her room. All of those things, though, required an awareness and flexibility beyond her remaining abilities.
It all ended with a whimper. By Thanksgiving she became sick with a hospital-acquired infection. Then I got sick. I had picked up the same bacteria while caring for her. The nursing home staff strongly recommended I limit my visits and physical contact.
She was declining so rapidly she couldn’t remember from day to day why her son wasn’t coming to see her. I was too sick to do much of anything to reach out to her. My wife had her hands full looking after me.
The nursing home called me at 3 a.m. the day before New Year’s Eve. By the time we arrived there, Mom was gone, her body curled up on her bed like the husk of a cicada. That sounds harsh, I know. But mom wasn’t there anymore. She had moved on.
Both my mother and father had trembled with fear at the suffering they knew would come along with death. But neither of them had ever expressed fear about what would happen to them after death. They both had absolute, solid-rock confidence they would be together again.
Until I sat at my computer to write this story, it had been a long time since I’d given more than a moment’s thought to the details of those two years she and I had together. But I do think of my parents often. I picture them dancing the Lindy Hop together, with Jesus playing a soulful saxophone, leading the band.
T. R. Robertson is a freelance writer in Columbia, Missouri.