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Life can throw you for a loop, and often does without explanation or apology. For six-and-a-half years, I was my mother’s full-time, live-in caregiver until her death from cancer in February. I watched her slowly meander down a long, tortured road while at the same time always believing that her death lay somewhere in the future, months, perhaps even years away.
 

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Weights and measurements came to dominate my waking hours. I logged my mother’s bowel movements and reported her daily fluid intake in ounces to the visiting nurses. I took her temperature every two hours. I counted out her pills according to the labels on the prescription bottles every day and night and gave her injections of an expensive anticoagulant at three in the afternoon. Ironically, my mother took fewer medications than she did before her cancer diagnosis. I guess that was because she was dying.
 
I became flat broke, having spent my savings, retirement money, and the meager income I made over the past seven years as an independent nonprofit management consultant. It all went to my mother’s medical expenses and to maintaining our household. I think of A Streetcar Named Desire and Blanche Dubois’s indignant reproach to her sister after the loss of their family’s beloved plantation, Belle Reve, to foreclosure: “How the hell do you think all that sickness and dying was paid for? Death is expensive, Miss Stella!”
 
In December, my mother needed to be moved to the hospital. She instantly told a nurse there, “If I’m here, he’s here. We belong together.” We watched the old Hollywood movies she loved so much. In a way, she’d always seen our life together as a movie. Now, she could no longer remember many of the details, but she could still discern the overall plot.
 
Sometimes, whether because of dementia or the side effects of her medications, what my mother said didn’t make any sense. So it caught me off guard one evening, while we were watching TV, when she turned to me, her expression more alert and her eyes more clear and focused than I had seen them in months. “All I have to say is this,” she said, taking my hand. “I want you to do it the way you want. You do it the way you want, everything’ll be all right.”
 
I had no idea what she was talking about, but what my mother said made a whole lot of sense to me about a whole lot of things in life. I promised her I would. Lying back in bed and closing her eyes, my mother seemed relieved. That brief, almost mystical exchange settled in my mind a question I’d pondered for a while: When does a mother stop being a mother? The answer is: Never.
 
P. Todd Pickens lives in Connecticut and is writing a memoir about being his mother’s caregiver. 

Illustration by Polly Becker 





Comments (1)
11/26/12
 
This is a beautiful passage. Eloquently written and passionately conveyed. P. Todd Pickens was a remarkable son to have devoted all of his life to caring for his mother. I can't wait to read the memoir.
 
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