It was a long night. The cot the nurse had brought in was incredibly uncomfortable...the sheets that had looked so fresh and inviting earlier turned out to be scratchy and stiff, the thin mattress sagging in the middle so the metal springs poked into my back and shoulders every time I moved.
And I moved a lot! Mom’s thirst that night seemed unquenchable and I would no sooner lay back down than I would hear the rustle of her legs and then her raspy groan for water. I’d hold my breath for a minute hoping she might settle back down, but she never did.
Up and down I went, Mom’s clear distress the only thing keeping my growing impatience at bay. Not again! I would groan to myself when her muffled moan perforated my groggy consciousness. A few times I tried to ignore her, pretending to myself that I hadn’t really heard her, but a potent combination of guilt and love would soon prod me up off the cot to her side, gently holding the straw to her parched lips.
“There you go, Mom” I would whisper, kissing her furrowed brow as her head fell back on the pillow.
It was like taking care of a newborn, but without the upside of well, a newborn.
I remembered the first night after we’d brought Billy, our firstborn, home from the hospital. He surprised us by arriving six weeks early, so the first two weeks of his life he was safely ensconced in an incubator in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit, with round-the-clock nurses looking after him until he was big enough to send home. And though I spent every waking minute I could by his side, the nurses shooed me home each night with strict instructions to get my sleep ‘while I could.’
Looking back, I wish I had appreciated what a gift that was, but I’m not sure I realized then that newborn babies didn’t actually sleep through the night! I mean I knew that babies didn’t sleep a lot, but somehow my twenty-something year old brain didn’t correlate that fact with me not sleeping. I was so surprised after our first night home with our tiny, needy, newborn that I called Mom the next morning to see if I should be worried.
“Mom!” I cried when she answered the phone. “Billy was up all night! I don’t think I slept at all! Am I doing something wrong? Should I call the doctor?”
“Oh, Peg,” I remember her chuckling. “You’re not doing anything wrong! It’s just the way it is with babies! It’ll take a couple of months, but he’ll sleep through the night. Don’t worry.”
“But, Mom!’ I whined, my own inner child desperately looking for someone else to take responsibility for my predicament. ‘He was literally up all night! I had no idea it would be like this! Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Peg, it’s just part of having a baby. Everyone goes through it. Try to sleep when he's sleeping - that’s really all you can do. I promise there is light at the end of the tunnel!”
I laugh about it now, but when we hung up I was honestly a little angry with her that she hadn't prepared me better for the reality of motherhood. Crazy the things we can blame our parents for!
But sadly, unlike with a newborn where you know somewhere in the back of your sleep deprived brain that there was a light at the end of the tunnel, the only light at the end of what Mom was going through that night would be well, the light at the end. Her end.
And I couldn’t bear the thought of that, even though I knew it was coming, so up and down I went, grateful to be there while at the same time wishing I could be anywhere else. Eventually I gave up on the uncomfortable cot and moved to the recliner, pushing it up as close to Mom’s bed as it would go so I could just lean over when she needed a sip of water.
At some point during the night the aide came in to reposition her, so I moved the recliner back into the corner to be out of the way. Suddenly, though, as the aide was moving her, Mom began to retch, and the next second was vomiting all over herself and the bed clothes. Paralyzed, wondering if she was going to die right then and there, I watched as the aide swiftly grabbed the plastic tub on the nightstand and positioned it under Mom’s chin, while at the same time pressing the call button to get some help from the nurse.
Sitting in the corner of the dimly lit room, I watched helplessly as the nurse and aide systematically and oh-so-carefully cleaned up my mom. The dark bay window reflected the fluorescent light pouring in through the open hall door and mirrored the scene going on in front of me in a ghost-like way.
Somehow watching the reflection was easier than watching the real thing, and I wondered, not for the first time, why dying had to be so hard for some people. Was there some sort of spiritual lesson Mom was learning through this horrible ordeal?
Was there some sort of spiritual lesson for me in witnessing it?
They say everything happens exactly as it’s supposed to, and whether it’s good or bad, we just have to have faith that if it’s happening there’s a reason that will ultimately benefit our soul’s growth. They say that we should ‘live in the moment’ and ‘be here now.’ That ‘the present is the only time that matters’.
Well that may all be true, but in that moment, on that particular night, all I could think was f... those people. I did not want to be in that moment at all, and I knew Mom certainly didn’t want to be either. The moment we were in sucked, and I was frustrated, scared and, to be honest, a little bit angry.
But who was I angry with? Maybe all those self-help gurus, the collective ‘they’, who I’d been religiously following since my dad’s death, who made it all sound so easy, so possible, to stay present in life’s difficult moments. Although when I thought about it, none of them actually offered any advice as to exactly how I was supposed to have faith in the present moment when everything happening in that present moment was making me question that faith.
So maybe it was God I was angry with, for allowing such moments of pain and suffering in the first place?
Or maybe it was myself I was actually angry with because, despite all my spiritual bravado, I could not possibly see how this experience my mother was having could in any way be for her soul’s highest good. Or my own.
Years before I'd read a book called Zen and The Art of Happiness, in which the author, Chris Prentiss, suggested that when we find ourselves in a difficult situation we should try to be ‘curious’ about what good may come of it. That if we can shift our perspective from seeing the experience as something happening ‘for’ us, rather than something happening ‘to’ us, then we open ourselves up to a better outcome.
Intrigued by this idea, I broached the subject one evening over drinks to a spiritually like-minded friend whose husband had tragically died of cancer several years earlier, leaving her with two teenage children to raise on her own.
“Do you ever wonder if what you went through was somehow for your soul's growth? That you had that experience in order for your soul to get to some higher level?” I asked cautiously, after explaining the premise of the book.
She paused a moment before answering, gazing at me silently over her wine glass before shaking her head decisively.
“There is no way in hell anything good could possibly come out of what we went through.”
I'm ashamed to admit that my first impulse was to push her to at least consider the idea that what she'd been through might have been a spiritual test of some sort. That perhaps if she could try to see her tragic experience from a more spiritual perspective it might help her heal more quickly.
But then I saw a sadness in her eyes that hadn't been there moments before and my face flushed with embarrassment at my thoughtless arrogance for thinking, even for one second, that I might have some sort of spiritual insight that could help this poor woman make sense of her incredible loss. Did I really think that reading a few books gave me the right to offer spiritual advice to someone who had just been through what she'd been through? Who did I think I was?
Nodding my head that I understood, we moved on to other topics, but I promised myself right then and there to keep my quest for spiritual clarity to my own personal experiences, not someone else's.
So I guess it was actually me I was angry with that night because there I was, right in the middle of a difficult experience, and I was totally failing my own, albeit self-imposed, spiritual test.
There was simply no way I wanted to be 'curious' about how losing my mom was going to somehow benefit my soul one day. And there was certainly no way I wanted to shift my f...... perspective to see how losing her was somehow happening 'for' me rather than 'to' me.
In fact, what occurred to me as I watched my mom struggle through that long, endless, sleepless night was that there wasn't any spiritual truth, or spiritual awareness or spiritual anything that was going to help me get through what I was going through.
What I realized would get me through, though, as I held the straw up to Mom's parched lips for what seemed like the hundredth time, was the exact same thing that had gotten me through all the long, endless, sleepless nights with my newborn children.
And, ironically, that was something I first learned about from my mom, not from a book.
*Note to Reader: This is a story in progress, so I am sharing it as I write it, as a way to spur me on. If you're interested in following along, you'll find Parts 1-23 on my channel page. Thanks!