We are the last stop on the train. Our life, our presence, our hearts, is where you want to land when the last phase of your life may be happening. We love, pay attention, facilitate the particulars, meticulously coordinate, are kindly and patiently concerned, and always painstakingly vigilant. We gingerly and carefully make things happen, and when necessary, we move and shake.
Time swishes this way and that. Generations unfold and change, care is swapped, and roles are reversed. Hands on the clock have cycled at cartoonish speed and the time has come for us to care for those who lovingly raised us when we were small and helpless, the ones in need. What one does for the other comes echoing back back years later.
I admit that often it is simply too much. My days are full, my plate is overflowing, and some days, too many days, my energy is so depleted that I feel like I am drowning, losing it. I have been here before, I tell myself, in a place where someone’s needs are greater than mine, and can be intensely overwhelming. I have already journeyed through the end of someone’s life, the doctor visits, the compassionate but exhaustive care, the endless and unremitting details, the follow up and follow through, the tending to every need to ensure the quality of life, the quality of days. Yet somehow it’s our turn again, this time to tend to the wonderful women in the family, matriarchs who gently and lovingly took care of us. So I try to put forth the best of myself even when I feel short-tempered and impatient. It’s draining and frequently makes me feel invisible, but I listen to their stories and solve their problems, all the while navigating my way through a life that never should have turned out this way, bereft of spirit, stripped of my son.
I am at work, students knocking on my office door, documents open for revision, files layered on my desk. A call comes in that there’s a test result I must deal with, or an appointment that needs to be made. Or my mother-in-law just wants to chat or needs to give me her grocery list as she slowly checks the inventory in her pantry and fridge. My patience comes from an unknown source, the multi-tasking now second nature. “Do you have time for this now?” she sweetly asks. “Yes, Mom, no problem. Just tell me what you need.” Or she tells me about her dream or the drama in the dining room yesterday evening or the pain she has in her fingers, her hips, her life. Scenarios I never could have anticipated arise; the minute we crossed over the border to Canada for a few days rest was exactly when my husband’s mother was admitted to the hospital.
She often accuses us of treating her like a baby, but when I help her on with her clothes or strap the seat belt around her shoulder in the car, she does not complain. And now another parent – albeit active and healthy – will be moving here soon, living the last, and hopefully long, phase of her life close to us. While my mother is fiercely independent, she believes she will help me more than I will support her, but I am the wiser. I have already rearranged my schedule to preview condos for her, to inquire, pave the way, make sure that her transition here after 50 years in one city will be a smooth one. My sister and I are helping her in new ways, explaining options, clarifying, simplifying, being there for her as she continues to live and age.
It takes an inordinate amount of patience to take care of my husband’s mother, and I know my mother will demand a part of me, too, a fragment of my broken self. I somehow draw from an unknown well that is deeper and wider than my life, the patience coming from an inexplicable source, likely something my sweet boy left me in the aftermath of his demise.
Life is not simply about the choices we make, but speaks to the power to handle the ones we are faced with. It’s all good and well to cautiously plan which path to take, but often the journey takes you to place where there are no forks in road, where the route is windy and unpleasant and tenacious. Sometimes the only alternatives are bad or worse, and we need to choose between what is least offensive or distressing.
How is it, I wonder, that this is what we are now good at? There are many ways to be successful in life, whether it’s the achievement of fame or attainment of wealth, or the realization of one’s hopes and dreams. Ambition is not only realized in manifestations of possessions or titles; sometimes it’s the ability to lovingly care for those who come into your life and stay until the end. This would not have been my choice, however. I did not need to be baptized by the fire of my son’s illness to teach me kindness and forbearance, but it is a welcome outcome that serves us well. I enter this stage of mothering the mothers already depleted, not from years of caring for children and then putting a career in order, but from a disillusionment of a higher order, my hopes dashed when I slogged backwards and buried the young before the old. This next phase of caretaking is indeed in the natural order of things, and I pray for the strength not only to endure, but to learn and gain from giving back to those who gave us life and breath.