Thirty years ago, in 1986, Mim and I were still living in Chicago. That’s when my mom was diagnosed with liver cancer. She was 78. Mom and Dad were living on the farm in Cambridge, Wisconsin where Mom had lived her whole life. When Mom told Mim and me about the diagnosis, we made weekly trips from Chicago to Cambridge to take her to the clinic in nearby Stoughton for chemotherapy. After a few weeks of chemo, Mom chose to discontinue the treatments because of how sick they made her feel. Her oncologist predicted she would live only two or three months without more treatments, maybe a year or two with treatments.
A couple weeks after Mom stopped receiving chemo, Mim and I went to Door County in northeastern Wisconsin for a week-long vacation. We stopped to see my parents on our way, mostly to see how Mom was doing. Already she was much weaker.
Mim and I had a wonderful week relaxing in Door County. Little did we know that God was providing a week of rest for us before what would become an intense six-week period of caregiving.
On our way back to Chicago we stopped to see my parents again. Mom’s health had deteriorated further and she was quite weak. We offered to get Hospice and some local caregivers lined up to help Dad care for her at home. As an alternative, we invited Mom and Dad to come to Chicago to live with us, and we (mostly Mim) would take care of her.
We stayed overnight at the farm with my parents. The next morning, Mom got up and said she’d made up her mind. She wanted to go home with us to Chicago. We spent the next few hours helping Mom and Dad pack up their things – a few clothes, Mom’s crocheting, and their Bibles. We told my brother and sister about the new plan, and they came over to the farm to say goodbye and help pack up for the move.
Dad rode to Chicago with Mim and me in my car. My nephew Dave drove Mom in his parents’ van so that Mom could be lying down for the two-hour ride. Then Dave carried her up the stairs to our second-floor apartment.
We called Hospice the next day to help us get a hospital bed and a local hospice physician to prescribe pain medication. We also enlisted one of the physicians Mim had previous worked with at Circle Christian Health Center on the west side of Chicago. He was willing to become her primary care physician and to make house calls for us.
Mim was teaching nursing at North Park College at the time, and she had a flexible work schedule. She also had very kind and highly skilled colleagues who volunteered to help care for my mom to give Mim and me a little time off from round-the-clock care giving. I had just left my corporate job and was in the process of starting up my own small business consulting practice, which meant that I also had a flexible work schedule.
We turned our living room into Mom’s room. For the first couple weeks Mom was able to walk around the apartment and eat with Dad, Mim and me in the dining room. As she got weaker, she spent almost all of her time in the living room. I played her favorite hymns on the piano, over and over again. I read to her. She really liked “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” by Barbara Robinson, a good story that made her smile and laugh. She also enjoyed having me read to her from the Psalms. My brother and sister and their families came down to visit Mom and Dad weekly.
While Mom was living with us, Mim periodically asked her, “Do you know where you are?” as a means of monitoring her mental well-being and cognitive decline. One day Mom answered, “I know you want me to say I’m in Chicago, but I’m not. I’m at home.” That said to us we were providing the kind of care she needed.
Mom lived with us for six weeks. She was the first of more than twenty people who have lived with us during their final weeks on earth. There can be many precious moments as the end of a person’s earthly life approaches. We’re thankful for the opportunity to share these special times.
Caring for Mom throughout the last weeks of her life happened thirty years ago. Why am I thinking about it today? A very close friend of mine is living through a similar experience in her life right now, and she is under an incredible amount of stress. Her parents, both in their 90s, have been in relatively good health and have been living in their own home in northern Illinois. That all started to change a couple weeks ago.
First, her father, who has been the healthier of the two, got quite sick and had to be hospitalized for a few days. My friend took a few days off from work (she’s a teacher) to go to Illinois to care for her mother, and also to be an advocate for her father as he was being shuffled through the impersonal and complex medical system that has replaced family doctors and community hospitals.
Then my friend’s mother became very weak, and she had to be temporarily moved into a caregiving facility, just as my friend’s father was being sent home from the hospital. Her mother’s doctor said she is no longer capable of living at home and must move into an assisted living facility. Her father’s doctor said he can’t drive, although he can live at home if he wants. However, if he can’t drive, going to see his wife – wherever she ends up – may be very difficult.
My friend is trying to help her parents figure out their options and move ahead into the next phase of their lives, which may be moving into an assisted living facility together – although at this point her father is unwilling to consider any option that involves him leaving his home. Meanwhile, my friend is driving back and forth to Illinois (a couple hours each way) almost every day, or every other day, as her already busy life in Cambridge goes on.
So what can I do to help my friend? Good question. I can listen. I can pray. And occasionally maybe I can even do a few practical things like checking in on her home while she’s gone.
About a year ago, a good friend of mine in Chicago went through a similar crisis with her parents. Again, about all I could do was listen and pray.
“Honor your father and your mother” is one of the Ten Commandments that almost everyone remembers. As we get older, honoring them means more than obeying them. In my case, honoring my mother in her last days meant having her live with Mim and me in our home in Chicago – and making her feel so at home there that she really knew that she was at home. In our friend’s case, the best way of honoring her mother and her father is still a mystery. That’s partly why she is feeling so much stress these days. I guess that’s why Jesus told us in his simplified list of only two commandments, that the second most important commandment, after loving God, is to love our neighbor as ourself. (Matthew 22: 39) That’s why I’ll be praying every day for my friend while she is caring for her mother and her father in whatever way she can.