Out of the thousands of books I have in my mother’s and my combined library, my eyes rested on “Beeton’s Book of Household Management.” I pulled it off the shelf and settled in with a hot cup of peppermint tea. I glanced through this facsimile of Mrs. Isabella Beeton’s 1861 tome, which outlines observations on all things from the history of fishes to making soups, jellies and puddings, to the management of the housekeeper and domestic servants. I was particularly interested in her chapter on Invalid Cookery, and although it didn’t shed much light on the subject – at least not much that I could use – there was a passage that I was compelled to duplicate here:
“(2416) All women are likely, at some period of their lives, to be called on to perform the duties of a sick-nurse, and should prepare themselves as much as possible, by observation and reading, for the occasion when they may be required to perform the office. The main requirements are good temper, compassion for suffering, sympathy with sufferers, which most women worthy of the name possess, neat-handedness, quiet manners, love of order, and cleanliness. With these qualifications there will be very little to be wished for; the desire to relieve suffering will inspire a thousand little attentions, and surmount the disgusts which some of the offices attending the sick-room are apt to create. Where serious illness visits a household, and protracted nursing is likely to become a necessary, a professional nurse will probably be engaged, who has been trained to its duties; but in some families, and those not a few let us hope, the ladies of the family would oppose such an arrangement as a failure of duty on their part. There is, besides, even when a professional nurse is ultimately called in, a period of doubt and hesitation, while disease has not yet developed itself, when the patient must be attended to; …”
I reflect upon my own scant early education of caring for the sick, which was comprised primarily of a required course in first aid taught by my future mother-in-law in Freshman year of High School. Helen was very matter-of-fact about sticking to the little pamphlet and the diagrams of how to make a tourniquet, apply a dressing, fashion a temporary cast, wrap an ace bandage and make a sling out of a scarf. There may have been mention of sponging down a fevered brow, a reminder to call the doctor, but not much else that I can recall.
None of that helped when six years later I home nursed her son / my husband, after he fell off a balcony, broke his leg and injured his arm. I had to feed and dress him, wash him, shave him, brush his teeth and assist with all kinds of unmentionable things. I was fortunate that I had learned a lot about palliative care during my three-month stint after graduation when I worked in the nursing home. Little did I know back then that I’d be preparing myself for now.
As a young mother, I of course learned about all the rest of the ‘pleasant tasks’ I had been spared in my own youth. Yes, sometimes you gag, sometimes you collect the sheets and decide you’d rather throw them away than clean them, and sometimes you have to laugh at the ridiculousness of the whole human condition. It’s the only way you can get through because if you take things too seriously, you miss the whole point: You were once a helpless child, and at some point someone may have to take care of you again. Someone may have to spoon feed you and wipe your chin, bathe your withered body and rearrange your weakened limbs. You may be at the mercy of someone to give you water to drink and a blanket to cover you, and you may not be able to ask for these things yourself. So you’d better be gracious now because Karma comes ’round.
My mother had to take care of her own mother back in 1948. My grandmother complained of stomach pains, and when someone finally believed her (I was told she was a bit of a hypochondriac) and took her to the hospital, they cut her open and sewed her right back up. They sent her home to die with instructions to a little 20 year old on how to cleanse the wound and inject the morphine. My grandfather couldn’t bear to do it, couldn’t handle his wife’s moaning and begging for the drug. It was left to my mother to deny her pleas, to tell her through her tears, “No, Mamma, it’s not time yet. The doctor said I can’t give you any more.”
One morning my mother went into the bedroom to find that her mother had somehow crawled across the room and was slumped over the table. “She wanted the morphine more than she wanted to live,” was how Mom put it. I can’t imagine how traumatic that must have been for a young girl. She spent the rest of her life looking for a mother figure, and I suppose she found one – in me. Our relationship was always a complex one, and until just now, I didn’t realize just how complex.
My father was at home with my mother when he passed on, and despite reports on the internet of how there is always pain with cancer, my father had no medication and no pain – even to the end. This was in 1986, and the experience made such a profound impression on me and on how I personally view life and death, that I can perceive of no other way to go other than naturally – to let Nature take her course, and take me when the times comes in a calm ‘slipping away.’
I’m pensive today. Sometimes, like this morning, when I ask Mom if she’d like to take a nap, she says, “Yes. And I never want to wake up.”
It used to upset me, but now I answer, “You’ll have to take that up with God. I have nothing to do with that. Everything happens in His time, not ours.”
She’s content with that, and so am I.