Honor Thy Mother

            Lydia’s mother was sick. She had undergone open heart surgery four years previously, but now whatever increased energy had resulted, was ebbing fast. Her side hurt; she could not recover from this long term bout with the flu; she was coughing, and she was losing weight. She was going to the doctor.

            Lydia’s mother made an appointment with the surgeon who had performed her quadruple bypass, a man with whom she had maintained a friendship and mutual respect. The doctor sent her home with prescriptions to knock out the viruses he felt certain were behind her lingering cough and general malaise.

            Several weeks passed and Lydia’s mother worsened. Her friends convinced her an internist might be more experienced with her symptoms than a heart surgeon. A visit was scheduled and the report was not good. Her mother’s lung cancer had metastasized throughout her body. She was too sick to undergo chemotherapy, but radiation would help to shrink the tumors in her brain and make her more comfortable. Lydia should probably come home.

            Steady now.

            The chaplain notified the hospital that she would be gone for at least two weeks and would be in touch with them when she knew more. She made reservations to fly south, which the airline lost, delaying her trip for another 24 hours. Eventually she found herself on the stoop of her mother’s home.

            The building was locked and no one answered the buzzer. Lydia waited by the security door until another resident came by, whom she convinced to let her through. The man followed her to her mother’s unit and when there was no answer, called for assistance.

            The president of the condominium association arrived with a ring of master keys and unlocked the door. Standing there was a terrified woman, who had no idea who was attempting to break into her home. When she saw her daughter, she broke into tears.

            It was then that Lydia realized her mother could no longer hear. The recent radiation treatments had knocked out what little auditory ability she had left after years of increasing deafness. She could not hear the buzzer but she could feel the violent thumping on her door.


            Her mother’s usually immaculate and elegant home was in need of a good in-depth cleaning. Trash was in need of disposing. And the refrigerator was virtually empty except for the bags of almonds. Her mother had eaten three almonds a day for as long as Lydia could remember – to ward off cancer.

            The older woman had always been tiny, but never frail. She was a spitfire businesswoman capable of holding her own in most real estate transactions. Now her body was painfully thin and her sunken facial muscles accentuated bulging eyes, due in part to the tumors playing havoc in her head. The doctors said the daily ten-minute radiation treatments would reduce the size of the tumors and that her mother’s eyes would regain a more normal appearance. This eventually proved true, but on first sight, Lydia was terrified for her mother.

            Lydia learned that her mother had been driving herself the ten miles for the radiation treatments, but the last several days she had become too weak to chance navigating the aged Cadillac through local traffic. She who had driven many friends to many doctors appointments, did not know how or whom to ask for assistance for herself.

            The chaplain began making telephone calls. She called the radiation center and the primary doctor. She called some friends of her mother for recommendations for in-home help. She called Hospice. Hating to leave her mother alone, she nonetheless drove to the grocery store and purchased some easily digestible foods, drinks and ice cream. After this flurry of activity, she sat down with a pad of paper and began communicating with her mother about more personal things. Her mother was afraid, but she was glad Lydia was there. She finally went to sleep.

            Lydia lay awake.

            I am here, came the familiar feeling. Lydia cried.


            Day Two brought a visit by two cheery beings from Hospice, as well as a Hospice chaplain. The Hospice chaplain was just so pleased to meet another real female minister, but Lydia was not in the mood to talk shop. Undaunted, the woman wrote a note to Lydia’s mother,

            “It must be such a blessing to have a real chaplain for a daughter.”

            Lydia’s mother wrote back,

            “She’s totally useless.”

            And she’s right, thought Lydia. It is very difficult to minister to your own family. How many different roles can I play? Neither one of us wants to talk to this chaplain. I wonder how many people I have annoyed over the years. It’s horrible to even think about.

            Lydia had less than two weeks now to get things in order. It never crossed her mind that she should just quit her job and stay for the duration. After her mother’s death, it was her biggest regret.

            Hospice provided a visiting nurse twice a week, and a weekly visit from the chaplain. Lydia could see her mother needed round-the-clock care and began looking for a live-in care-giver. These were in great demand and very difficult to find.

            “Two hundred dollars a day minimum,” the agency told her on the telephone, “more if you need someone who speaks English. Your mother does speak Polish, doesn’t she?”

            Well, no, Lydia’s mother didn’t speak Polish, but then again she couldn’t hear English, either. They would set up an interview.

            Josie turned out perfect. She spoke Polish, Russian, and some English. Actually, her English was pretty good, but heavily accented. The accent didn’t make a bit of difference to Lydia’s mother. She couldn’t hear anyway. Josie was gentle, kind and had experience with taking care of the terminally ill. The little Polish-Russian and Lydia’s mother got along famously.

            It was time for Lydia to leave. She would return in two weeks and give Josie a break.


            Back home, Lydia attempted to work and primed her family to take care of each other during her upcoming extended absences. For the most part, they rose to the occasion.

            Lydia and the airline were now in synch – two roundtrip tickets a month, please, we can do this. Her employer mailed her paperwork for family medical leave and told her by what date her mother must die before the leave ran out.

            Each flight south found Lydia’s mother weaker. Lydia learned that she could not doze off during the day while caring for her mother. The older woman would attempt to walk to her own kitchen – fall – and Lydia would find her crawling in the hallway. Once, Lydia tried to steady her mother and both women fell against the door jam, drawing blood from both their foreheads. They cried together. Eventually, Lydia’s mother could not leave the hospital bed which had been installed over her objections in the room she had always used as an office. Lydia would stay two weeks, Josie would return, and Lydia would leave. The process repeated itself for six months.

            “How stupid could I have been,” she rails now.

            We can only do what we can figure out to do at the time, comes a gentle response.

            Lydia had just returned home after spending two weeks with her mother when she received a late night call from the Hospice chaplain. Lydia’s mother had taken a major turn for the worse and was not expected to live but a day or two more. Lydia must return now.

            Lydia flew through the night not knowing if it was the thoughts of her mother’s impending death or the shaking and groaning of the aircraft that made her feel so sick, even frightened. A Midwestern snow storm had risen up, growling, with an angry eye on the intruding plane. Its goal: Close O’Hare.  But even a storm cannot be everywhere.  A hole opened and the determined 747 descended. Bump. It hit the ground, slid through the deepening snow, and stopped. The storm lashed and whined but the plane was safe.

            Lydia hired a cab to inch the thirty miles to her mother’s home. When she came through the door, her mother whispered,

            “Look, Josie, she made it,” and closed her eyes.

            No Lydia’s mother was not yet dead, but she was in great pain and ready to die. Josie hated to leave, but her niece had arrived to take her home. If they waited much longer, no one knew what the storm would do.

            A Hospice nurse appeared with a large bottle of morphine and an eye dropper. The instructions were that if her mother appeared in pain, squeeze another drop of morphine under her tongue. Her mother was in constant pain, thought Lydia, but she would do her best.

            That’s all you can do. I’m here, said the Presence.

            The nurse left. The snow kept falling. And another night closed in. Lydia sat with her mother using the eye dropper whenever her moans worsened.

            As the dark window slowly turned a lighter shade of gray, Lydia knew that morning was near. She decided to take a quick shower before coming back to make her mother more comfortable.

            Still wet and in her mother’s bathrobe, when Lydia returned to her mother’s bedside, the woman was dead, a tear in her eye.

            Lydia sat frozen for a long while. She rummaged around for the Hospice telephone number. Because of the snowstorm, a number of staff members had called in and there was no one who could come to pronounce her mother dead. Lydia did not need this service and called the community funeral home.

            Because of the storm, they would not be able to come either. They needed a plow and it would be at least two hours before they could travel the six to eight blocks to reach Lydia’s home. It was just Lydia and her mother, just like it had always been. As a child, Lydia and her mother had weathered many storms, many broken furnaces, frozen pipes, a couple of floods, and a sometimes painful mother-daughter relationship. They would weather this last, long wait together.  


            Lydia’s job was to pick out an urn for her mother’s ashes, conduct a funeral service, and host a luncheon in her mother’s honor at a popular, nearby museum.  During the service, a family friend had likened Lydia’s mother to a leprechaun, sprinkling magic into each life she touched. Lydia silently recalled that an encounter with a leprechaun could also bring a less than pleasant magic.

            The snow finally ceased falling and the plows pushed it neatly to the side of the roads. If only life was so easily managed.


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