His mustache tickled my upper lip as I leaned over my Dad for one last kiss goodbye. My tears mixed with his on his cheeks. He didn’t have the strength to wipe them away. I whispered, “I love you,” but I don’t think he heard me. An hour earlier, he had joyously removed the hearing aids that he had always despised, knowing he would never need them again. As I began to pull away, He held my arm firmly. “Take care of your mom,” he instructed, “Promise me.”
“Of course,” I breathed. Of course.
Within an hour, I was watching my Mom weep silently next to his motionless form. In a room full of loved ones, she was entirely alone. The medical personnel who had come to know and care for my parents would return home to their friends and family. Even we, her children, would reluctantly resume our lives. Our worlds would continue. Hers would not—at least not in the same way.
“Oh, I need bread,” I hear my mom say behind me, wrenching me from my memory.
I click my pen and scribble the addition to her shopping list. Much of my time with my mother is now spent helping her with everyday tasks of life, from paying bills to doctor appointments. At first, I resisted the realization that the woman who had always watched over me now relied on my help, but over time, I came to view my caregiving as an opportunity. I once read in an article by Dorothy Sanders that Erik Erikson, “the father of psychosocial development,” discovered 8 stages of development that take place throughout a person’s life. The elderly are in the final phase, where they reflect on their lives and basically prepare for death. My role in this phase of my mother’s life is simply to travel down this path with her as far as I am able.
My daughter with Down Syndrome climbs the stairs into the kitchen, where my mom and I are seated at the table. She is naked from the waist down, apparently having used the toilet and not having been wiped yet. “Oh no!” I yell as I race her into the bathroom.
Returning to the kitchen, I find my mother hunched over, face buried in her hands, quaking with laughter. I can’t help but join her.
“It’s not funny,” I insist.
“Chelise,” she giggles, “This is the best time of your life. These are the memories that matter. Never forget to laugh.”
She’s right, of course. After 43 years, she’s still teaching me, still encouraging me. I realize that it is my privilege to walk this final road with her. The memory of my dad and the promise that I made flood my mind. “Take care of her,” he had said. The reality is that we’ll take care of each other.