“Someone should write a book called ‘The Beauty of Love: It’s So Easy,’” a frail voice said into the dark night. That frail voice came from my wise, faithful, dying mother.
Mom’s words—spoken so clearly and concisely—had startled me. She hadn’t said anything coherent for days; she didn’t even recognize me anymore. I was uncertain how Mom’s hazy mind had even cleared enough for her to utter meaningful words.
Just one week later, Mom died after a 25-year battle with congestive heart failure and diabetes. But her poignant declaration still lives on in my soul.
Caring for your dying mother is exhausting, but then, care-giving in general can be brutal. I was Mom’s primary care-giver for many years as she battled an ever-growing number of debilitating illnesses. Our lives were filled with frequent visits to an array of doctors, endless blood draws, invasive tests and heart-stopping trips to the emergency room. Troubleshooting new and worsening symptoms became almost routine. And don’t even get me started on the worry I felt deep in my heart every single day.
But even though Mom and I faced countless challenges through the years, we had so many good times together, too. Despite all her health issues, Mom always maintained an amazingly positive outlook on life. She was lovingly supportive, selfless and kind-hearted. Simply put, she was (and is) my inspiration.
I must admit, when I look back on those years of helping Mom, I sometimes wonder if I was too focused on her daily physical needs and unwittingly overlooked her emotional needs. Did I recognize when she was scared or wanted to talk about something she was experiencing? Did I spend enough quality time with her? It wasn’t always easy to set aside my ever-growing to-do list to laze away a sunny afternoon on my patio with her. But being present in that way was important, too. I wish I had been more cognizant of this, especially in her later years.
It’s the eternal battle: finding the time to tend to someone’s emotional and spiritual needs while also taking care of their physical needs. It’s a delicate balance and perhaps the most vital part of caregiving. The truth is, sometimes we just can’t do it all. The secret is to realize this and ask for help when you need it.
I was given a wonderful piece of advice about this elusive balancing act just four days before Mom died.
Asking for Help
During her final hospital stay, it became apparent that the end of Mom’s life was near. She had fought a courageous battle, but her body just couldn’t rebound anymore. After much discussion, she decided it was time to go on hospice. Mom moved into my home, and I took a leave of absence from work. We were entering unknown territory and I was scared, although I would never admit that to Mom. I was the strong one; she had enough to worry about, facing the end of her life.
I don’t know what we would have done without the expertise and loving care of the hospice nurses. They were a calming presence and a constant source of support, and they took the lead in making sure Mom was as comfortable as possible.
The next three weeks were a blur. Mom had developed an aversion to the dark and was usually restless and unable to sleep until the light of dawn came through the window. Those were long nights for my sister and me, filled with keeping her safe as she moved agitatedly in her chair; soothing her as she struggled to catch her breath; and trying not to think that these were the last days and nights that we would ever spend with our beloved mother.
When you journey with a loved one through the dying process, you don’t realize how much emotional pain you, yourself, are in, or how much more pain may be lurking right around the corner. You just continue on. And on. And on. Until one day you hit a brick wall and you can’t go on anymore.
For me, that brick wall came the night our hospice nurse had to make an emergency visit to my home. Mom was severely constipated and moaning in pain, and yet she didn’t have the strength for a bowel movement. Who would ever think they would see their mother go through something so heart-wrenching? The unbearable physical pain she was in, not to mention the embarrassment of desperately trying to take care of one’s most basic needs while your daughters and a stranger—the hospice nurse—look on, trying to help in whatever way they can.
Finally, after two arduous hours, Mom somehow summoned up the strength to find relief and the nurse left. Mom slumped into her chair, completely spent, tears running down her cheeks. Without a word, I walked into my bedroom and locked the door, leaving my sister to care for Mom the rest of the night. I just couldn’t do it anymore. At last, I had hit my brick wall.
In my room, I allowed myself to silently rage at the injustice of it all. If there truly was a compassionate God, I screamed in my mind, how could He let my precious, Faith-filled mother go through such needless suffering, on top of everything else? The cruelty and unfairness were too much to bear.
I slept little that night. But when morning came, it was as if I had an epiphany, or perhaps, a divine intervention. As much as I dreaded to admit it to myself, I realized that I could no longer care for Mom in my home. My sister needed to leave town the next day to go back to work, and I would be alone with Mom. I was going to need help. So, a few hours later, we arranged for Mom to be moved to a nursing home.
As I packed a bag for Mom, filling it with comfortable pajamas, favorite CDs and precious family photos, I shook my head in disbelief. “What am I doing?” I berated myself. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would ever place Mom in a nursing home. I was strong. I had taken care of her single-handedly throughout the years. How was I not willing and able to care for her at the very end, when she needed me the most?
Five minutes before the ambulance came, I heard Mom weeping in the living room. Somehow, she had a moment of lucidity and realized she was leaving my home to go to a nursing home. My heart ached and I cried silently. Thank God for our “angel on earth”—our hospice nurse, Kris. She immediately recognized my anguish and offered me very wise and empathetic words.
Gently taking my hands, Kris said softly, “You need to let someone else take care of your mom’s physical needs now. You just need to be her loving daughter for however much time she has left.” Those words were my saving grace, releasing me from the guilt I would have otherwise heaped upon myself. To be honest, I’m not sure I believed her when she said them. But, as I look back now, I know truer words were never spoken.
For the next three days, I spent every waking hour with Mom at the nursing home—but this time, I was just her loving daughter while nurses attended to her physical needs. We listened to our favorite music, I read to her, prayed with her, kissed her forehead, and told her how much I loved her. I assured her that I was going to be okay and asked her to watch over me from heaven. I’m not sure Mom even realized that I was there, although she did squeeze my hand a few times.
Prayer and Blessing
The day before she died, our priest came and she received the sacrament of the anointing of the sick for the final time. I told him, she most likely wouldn’t respond; she had been comatose most of the day. But when he began the beautiful ritual prayers, Mom began to mutter something. Moving closer, I realized she was saying “I love Jesus” over and over again. When I told the priest, he smiled broadly. “That is the most beautiful prayer you can say,” he told Mom. “You just keep saying that.”
When Mom finally took her last breath on that cold, Monday morning, I held her in my arms and kissed her one last time, knowing that I had done everything possible to make her last days on earth as meaningful and love-filled as possible.
When someone you love is dying, sometimes you just can’t be everything for that person. I had discovered I couldn’t be Mom’s nurse and caregiver, and also be her daughter. So, I had to choose. Which of those things did Mom need the most from me? I knew, without a doubt, she needed me to be her loving daughter. That’s it. Just her daughter. The caregiving roles were easily transferred to others. But being her daughter was my role, and mine alone. So that was the choice I made when I turned over her physical needs to the wonderful nursing home and hospice staff. I chose to “just” be her daughter. And that was more than enough.
And so, upon reflection, I realize that maybe this is what Mom meant by “the beauty of love … it’s so easy.” Maybe she was trying to express this one, central truth all along: when you choose love, it is easy. Take away everything else and just get down to the basics. Choose love.
Story by Mary Ellen Bliss
Published in the November 2022 issue of Catholic Life Magazine