“I think we can all agree that this is not fair.” My sister, Kari, was referring to our elderly mother as she addressed my oldest daughter, Chelsea, and me. Chelsea was holding both of her grandmother’s hands with her own as my mother slept fitfully. My mother was terrified of being alone, and this was pretty much the only way she was able to rest.
“There is pain that is physical and pain that is psychic,” she continued, “and one is not worse than the other.” Our mother was in mental pain, and we wanted it to stop.
When my father passed away 10 years ago, I was flummoxed. The entire family was. It’s true he was 80 years old, but many other less healthy people lived long past 80. Here was a man who made all the right choices. He was a man of faith. He watched his weight religiously and was active, spending hours outside daily. He took 15-minute power naps each afternoon and would leap up from the couch refreshed and ready for action. He was full of joy and verve. His life was a perfect picture of balance, as he spent time with family and cherished friends. A lifelong learner, he was always looking for ways to expand his knowledge, always looking for ways to share his wisdom with others. The results were often comedic as his enthusiasm for teaching often exceeded his actual grasp of the facts. I simply can’t help but smile as I think of him.
Although he died well, I remember feeling like it wasn’t quite fair.
I remember being glad other people could not read my thoughts. As I would converse with an elderly person in poor health, I had to make a concerted effort not to blurt out the question, “Why are you still here? Why is my father gone?”
It just did not feel right.
Looking back I can realize I simply saw fairness as all of us do. That fair was fair as long as I was not inconvenienced or asked to suffer in any way. And yet all of us must.
I was introduced to the writings of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in the mid-1980s when I was finishing nursing school. Kübler-Ross literally wrote the book “On Death and Dying” and provided insight I drew on as a fledgling nurse. One of her many quotes says it well: “The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of those depths.”
The truth is I don’t want to be one of those beautiful people. I don’t want to know suffering, struggle, or loss.
I want to live a charmed life with none of these things, ever.
But even as I write, I know I would be cheating myself out of some of the elements that create the rich tapestry of a life truly lived.
When my friends ask me how I am doing, I answer them honestly—“Horrible,” I say, “I am doing horrible.” And they do not bat an eye. They listen and sympathize and share their own stories. They don’t tell me to look at the positive side or talk about “God’s perfect timing,” and for this I am grateful. I have a faith that is deep and comforting. I pray nightly for my mother to have peace. But trite clichés are not what I need right now.
I need something real, something true. I want honesty. So share your stories with me. Don’t embellish them to make them pretty or inspiring. Be who you are, I want you to trust me to really hear your story. It helps.
Every Friday afternoon since my mother came home on hospice, a casserole has magically appeared. My nephew, Dane, who lives with my mother and provides a great deal of her care, frequents a bar in town and has become a regular. Two women in their 60s heard of his love and concern for his family and formed a plan. They would take turns bringing out food in order to aid my sister while Dane was at work. Kari was unable to leave my mother’s side to make a simple dinner without her crying out. They would feed the hungry, they would be the hands and feet of Jesus. This is what is called “love in action.”
When I graduated from nursing school all those years ago, I believed I knew what to do to care for people. But to this day, I am learning and growing—albeit kicking and screaming. And I still have a long way to go. But I’m not afraid to ask the questions that will lead to a higher understanding, although there is pain in the lesson. Author Cassandra Clare said, “If there’s a thing I’ve learned in my life it’s to not be afraid of the responsibility that comes from caring for other people. What we do for love: these things endure. Even if the people you do them for don’t.”
I am grateful for friends and family who support and value me, they listen to me and love me. I am grateful to God above as I question, implore, and pester him to get my own way. I am confident in His love and ultimate grace as we continue to navigate this road without a map or a compass, in the dark, in the rain—our destination merely a hazy and imagined image. My sister and I are grateful for a mother who meant the world to us. We are willing to do the hard work and learn the hard lesson.