I pulled open the curtains to let in the soft morning light. The distant mountain peaks outside her big windows were sparkling as the rising sun moved across the tops of the ridges. Bird song filled the air as her beloved finches duked it out at the bird feeder on the deck.
“Good morning,” she mumbled from under the mound of covers. “Good morning, mom,” I said as I set the steaming mug of coffee down on the table beside her. I had learned from childhood that you didn’t talk to my mother before she had her two cups. I left to sit quietly in the living room, letting her wake up gently at her own glacial speed.
At the age of sixty-five I found myself living once again under a roof with my mother. It started when the assisted care home she was living in suddenly and unexpectedly closed their doors. There were no other options in the county, and being the eldest of three siblings, and no stranger to stepping up as the responsible daughter, I rented a house and moved my mother and myself in together so I could take care of her. She was ninety years old and this was to be the last year of her life. I could not have known then how profoundly this experience would inform the rest of my life… It has now been four years since Sophie passed away.
I didn’t really know my mother very well. We had not been close and I had always seen her through my distorted filter—colored by a sketchy childhood and my own lack of insight and sensitivity when it came to my parents. How tragic it would have been for us both if she had died before we had had this precious time together to discover the wonder and beauty of each other. I drop to my knees with unspeakable gratitude every day. It was a time of grace and blessing, even as it pushed me beyond my edges into the dark places of my unexamined life and brought me face to face with my own humbling human limitations.
This is my story—a deeply personal one that I want to share. But it is not told in isolation. For the last two and a half years I have worked as a hospice nurse, and I draw deeply from my own personal experience as I encounter death and dying and the world of caregivers on a daily basis. I write in kinship with all these people who are now or someday will be, showing up for loved ones who are dying. I remember and bear witness to their strength, kindness, sacrifice, crazy humor and boundless devotion in the face of what is at times—bone weary fatigue, an overwhelming sense of helplessness and sorrow, and just messy, backbreaking work.
I write also with humility. Anyone who has ever provided 24/7 care for another knows that we also bring our raw vulnerabilities to the bedside. I still live with regrets—tender places that do not go away. It’s the ‘doing as best we can, but still coming up short” part of this deal. I know that I am not alone. I hope that in the telling of my story there is benefit to others.