An Inconvenient Blessing

“I just visited with your Mom,” said the hospice nurse. “She told me she wants to come live with you now.” The nurse’s call interrupted a project at work, and I had difficulty making the mental shift from my job to my personal life.

“But that’s simply not possible,” I stammered. “We both work full-time, our house isn’t suitable, and we have two busy teenagers.”

“I can understand that; I’m just reporting what she said. You’ll want to discuss it with your husband and with her.”

A storm of thoughts pelted me as I hung up the phone. We aren’t trained to care for a terminally ill person. How can we possibly bring Mom into our home and add her needs to our busy schedule?

I phoned my husband Larry and relayed the conversation. His response echoed my objections. After a brief discussion, we agreed to visit her after work and tell her that we would have to find another solution.

It was difficult to concentrate on my work for the rest of the day. Although we had already agreed to refuse her request, I kept looking at the situation from every angle. Random thoughts and questions dripped into my mind, like a leaky gutter after a rainstorm.

When Mom was widowed nine years earlier, we had promised her that when she needed help, we would be available. We had kept that promise, responding to various needs over the years. I hated to deny this new request, but couldn’t see how it could work.

A little more than a year before, she had broken her hip. This set into motion her long-planned move from California to Portland, Oregon, to be near us. Always independent, Mom loved the small retirement apartment we found near us that fit both her tastes and her budget. After living apart for many years, we were grateful that she was now close enough for us to visit her regularly, take her shopping, and include her at meals and family gatherings.

Within a few weeks, however, she had been diagnosed with inoperable stomach cancer. She was immediately assigned a hospice nurse, but after several months she had stabilized enough to fly to California for a granddaughter’s wedding. Now, a year later, it was obvious that her body was failing. We were pursuing options for additional care when the nurse’s call came.

On our way to her apartment that night, Larry and I rehearsed how we could gently tell Mom that her request was impossible. For part of the drive we were silent, each struggling with conflicting thoughts. We must have reached the same conclusion, because when we walked through the door of her apartment, and she said, “I want to come home with you”, we said, “Okay, we’ll find a way to work it out.” Her appreciation was gratifying, but we still had to figure out how to add her care to our busy life.

She was now considered “terminal”, but did that mean days, weeks or even months? Bringing Mom into our home indefinitely was a huge responsibility. We weren’t sure if our family was emotionally or physically ready, but we were certain we had made the right decision.

Within days, friends and family came up with unexpected solutions. One friend built a free-standing privacy wall, and our dining room became Mom’s cozy bedroom.  Her dresser and rocker fit snugly next to the rented hospital bed, making the space comfortable and familiar. Her bed faced the woodsy back yard, giving her a view of the squirrels and birds in the tall firs.

Our biggest dilemma was her daytime care. When I mentioned my plans to interview caregivers with our 26-year-old daughter Rebecca, she said, “I’d love to take care of Grandma!” Her compassionate and level-headed personality made her ideal for the task.

We moved Mom in, and started a new routine. Hospice workers assured us that they would visit regularly and be available day and night. Larry spent extra time with his mother, recalling memories and reflecting on her life.  Our teens, Jennifer and Josh, took time to talk to Grandma and include her in family activities. We adjusted commitments so that someone would always be home with Mom. I slept on the couch so I could respond quickly at night.

While we were at work, Rebecca cared for Mom and provided companionship. She played piano and sang hymns, read the Bible with her, and reminisced about holidays and vacations at Grandpa and Grandma’s.

After a couple of days, Rebecca said, “Grandma keeps saying how much she misses the cat she left in California. Maybe we should try to get a ‘foster’ cat to keep her company.” Within two days, I brought home a cuddly kitten. In the mysterious way of some animals, kitty knew her assignment. She would allow us to pet her, but as soon as we put her down, she headed for Mom’s bed, scrabbled up the sheets, and snuggled down next to her. Her comforting purr and soft warm body was a constant soothing presence for Mom.

What had appeared to be an impossible challenge became a blessing. Mom understood the difficulties we faced, and didn’t take it for granted–she thanked us daily.

The blessing we felt did not ease the difficulty. Each of us felt the disruption and stress. We had moments of near-panic as Mom’s body began to shut down. We often felt uncertain, not knowing what to do. The hospice staff constantly reassured us and guided our journey.

We quickly realized that her stay would be short. In her first week with us, she was strong enough to sit on the couch and enjoy a visit from Chuck, her son from Tennessee. After that, her strength rapidly waned. Just two weeks after we brought her home, there was a dramatic decline.  She was still alert, but eating and drinking less, retreating into her private world. She roused only when one of us spoke to her or touched her. The kitten stayed faithfully at her side, providing constant comfort.

One evening we phoned her daughter JoAn in California, so that Mom could say good-bye. After their conversation, Mom seemed restless. Her eyes would open briefly and find their way to the clock on the wall. Late that evening we prayed at her bedside, verbally releasing her and expressing our love.  She seemed to fall asleep peacefully.

Larry went upstairs to bed, while I stretched out on the floor near Mom and dozed off. Barely an hour later, I awakened suddenly, aware that something had changed. I checked on Mom, and immediately knew that her spirit had left her frail body.

It was just after midnight. When we called JoAn, she said, “Mom knew! She was waiting to go, to celebrate with Dad.” I glanced at the calendar; it was February 16, Dad’s eighty-third birthday.

First published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Caregivers, March 2012

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