What You Must Do

Once triggered, a strong memory can hover. It stays close to the surface, stretching its legs after being folded into the recesses of the past, aching to be a story that’s told again. Just a week ago I wrote a few paragraphs about a gripping period in our life, five years ago, when Short-pants had a medical crisis. I don’t mean to dwell on it, but it comes to mind again this week, with good reason.

It’s a story we try to tell enough so Short-pants can own it without shame. It’s a story we try not to tell too much, so it doesn’t become the dominant story of her life. Sometimes, when I visit her room to adjust her bedcovers while she sleeps, I trace my finger along the arced scar that crowns her head. I once told her it was a permanent tiara. I’ve heard her repeat the phrase with pride. That’s the thing about a scar; it’s a story you get to tell for the rest of your life.

Short-pants’ six-week stint in the neurosurgery ward started before Thanksgiving and spanned the holiday season. I was prepared to throw in the towel on Christmas; I had no energy to shop, decorate or enact the role of Mère Noël. But friends and family pressed the spirit of Christmas upon us. They sent gifts for the girls, optimistic that Short-pants would survive, determined that Buddy-roo wouldn’t go without the full-on holiday fuss. Our neighbors surprised us with a 6-foot Christmas pine. And there were angels – so many people sent angels. We must have received five or six hanging angel ornaments for our tree.

One angel in particular was – and still is – my favorite. It was a gift from one of De-facto’s aunts, a woman who sets a classy standard for the family, a woman who has navigated the burdens of her life with tremendous grace. The ornament is made of silver. It’s heavy in your hand, and when hung by its lace loop, pulls the bow of the tree low toward the ground. There are words engraved on one of the wings:

You must do the thing you think you cannot do. – Eleanor Roosevelt

About the time this silver angel arrived, I was at a wall. It wasn’t much fun, being a hospital mom. Every day, punching the intercom buzzer to be let in to the ICU, sitting at Short-pants’ side, worrying and wondering while trying to assure her and give her hope. At the same time staying alert to the nuances of the doctor’s throw-away comments, hounding them down to find out what and why and when. I went to the hospital every day; De-facto and I took shifts, morning and afternoon, overlapping a few hours mid-day to be there with her together. By the time Christmas was near, I was completely spent.

I remember opening the box and rubbing my fingers along the wings of the angel, touching the words, as though I might be able to physically absorb them. Isn’t it perfect how the universe knows when you’re desperate and sends you exactly the message you need to hear? I will always cherish this angel. I have a little moment with her every Christmas; I have not yet succeeded to place her on the tree without weeping.

My mother had planned to spend the holiday with us that year, so she came as scheduled, bewildered at first about how to help, but then finding her way, baking Christmas cookies, doting on Buddy-roo. The hospital was very strict about “parents only” in the ICU. Whenever friends came to support us there, they were obliged to do so from the waiting room. But on Christmas day, one of the more compassionate doctors had a word with the nurses on duty, and an exception was made.

So there was my mother sitting on one side of the hospital bed, me on the other. She reached across Short-pants’ sleeping body and rested her hand on mine. I had grown accustomed to seeing my 3-year old daughter tucked tight under the blanket, emaciated, listless, with a helmet of gauze wrapping on her head. I was used to the machines and sensors and tubes. For my mother, it was startling and disturbing. “I just don’t know how you do this every day,” she said.

I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve seen my mother in tears. She’s just not a cryer. But now she sat across from me, wet-eyed, pained to see what we were enduring each day.

“Somehow, you just do it,” I told her, “you do the thing you think you cannot do.”

These days Short-pants is fully recovered from that grim experience, immersed in her vibrant life, sometimes in the clouds, but with a well functioning intellect and imagination and a healthy emotional intelligence. My mother has relished the opportunity to watch her grow into the soulful young person that she has become.

But now I’m sitting by another hospital bed, the one that’s been set up in the study of my mother’s house, the bed in which she will be spending her last days. After a valiant contest with leukemia, an opponent that she held at bay for much longer than anyone – especially her doctors – expected, she is letting go. She will take no more treatments, no more blood transfusions. She has decided to let her life run its course.

This is hard. It’s hard to say goodbye, it’s hard to see her suffer. But I know what I must do. I will sit beside her. I will hold her hand. I will squeeze it so she knows I am there. I will hold it the way she has always held mine. I will do that thing – if I must – the thing I think I cannot do.

21 Responses to “What You Must Do”

  • Delphine Says:

    nos maux paraissent si peu de chose après avoir lu ça. permets-moi de t’envoyer un ange imaginaire pour vous accompagner sur ce chemin…

  • Dee Says:

    Oh. I am so sorry to read about this. It sounds like there was a valiant fight, which she won for a while. That can be more than many of us receive in life. At least you have the opportunity to be there, to say good-bye, to re-live the chapters you’ve written with her, to close the book. Best to you during this time, as trite as it might sound, Dee.

  • Ruth Says:

    There is nothing more difficult than letting a loved one go, even when we know it it the best thing for them and what they want. My love and prayers are being sent to you, and your sister and brother. Peace and love,

  • Nancy Rubery Says:

    Your posting brought tears to my eyes. It is great that you are here.

    Love, Nancy

  • j Says:

    Thank you so much for writing this piece. You are guiding me to the moment when I will do the same for my mom. xxoo

  • Carolyn Gray Says:

    But, we know you can do it!
    Your writing is beautiful and oh so from the heart! Thanks for sharing your feelings with us.
    Prayers for comfort and peace come your way.

  • René Berneche Says:

    Même si je suis à l’étranger pour fuir l’hiver du Québec ( à Rio), je lis avec tant de plaisir tes chroniques, au point où cela donne le goût d’écrire.
    Cette fois, je fus particulièrement touché par la présence de l’ange et son message. Ta présence auprès de ta mère en ces moments si chargés d’émotion, demeureront parmi les plus beaux souvenirs de ta vie. J’ai vécu cela , il a déjà 2 1/2 ans, et je continue à converser avec ma mère avec beaucoup de sérénité. Tendre affection. René.

  • Harold Says:

    Once again you bring me to tears. By now my clients do not know what to think of me. I made the mistake of reading this one out loud so they could hear from my cousin and what she does so well. I can thoroughly visualize the scene as it was that way with all of us in Memphis with Judy’s mother. Please keep doing what you already know you need to do. Love her and cherish her life. Hugs and Kisses to you, your brother and sister, and of course, my Aunt Marcia.

  • andi Says:

    Once again you bring me to tears. The sadness of life is that it ends; however, we will always carry the wonderful memories of a life well lived. Love and hugs to all.


  • Kunyi Says:

    I’m so sorry to hear of your mom’s illness. Anne Lamott writes that her most simple prayer, when she is too done in to think of anything more, is “please, please, please…” I hope that what you and your family wish for at this time comes to you.It is wonderful that you are there with her – I know your spirit and love with ease this time for her.

  • Katie Says:

    Your mother has been a gift to me, and aside from remembering all the wonderful ways she made the lives of everyone around her better, including mine (she imported me to Rochester 21 years ago, changing my life in ways I never expected, but appreciate so much more than words can say), the thought that often strikes me about her is that photographs just don’t do her luminous graciousness justice. The ones from Punta Cana are the best I’ve seen (I saw them Dec. 20, just recently), and I am so glad you have those. Maybe you can scan a couple for this blog so we can enjoy them, too. Please give her a kiss for me, and take care of yourself.

  • Betty Shamas Says:

    My heart sank as I continued to read your post. My times with your Mother and Dad were few, but left a lasting imprint and memory. Please know you and all the family are in my heart and prayers. This is such a difficult time and I pray for your strength.
    love and hugs, Betty……and Tricia sends her love also.

  • magpie Says:

    It’s hard and it’s necessary and I wish you peace and strength. Odd as this will sound, I am exceedingly glad that I was with my mother when she died, for me and for her.

  • Elizabeth Says:

    I can barely write this because of the tears in my eyes and lump in my throat. Please know that much the same way that the dessert is beautiful because of a well you cannot see, out in cyberspace, there are many, many people praying for your and your family. You may not be able to see us, but we are all sending prayers, karma and energy to you and yours. Que Dios los bendiga.

  • Maëlle Says:

    We can feel so weak sometimes in front of Life but holding one’s mother hand is such a strong gesture; it carries energy and love, peace and harmony… May all your angels be with you and your mother…

  • Wes Palmer Says:

    Your Mom is one of the strongest people I have known. And I told her that many times. Keep strong yourself.

  • jayme Says:

    I am so sorry to hear of your mother’s condition. I wish you the strength to be able to get through this. I can’t even imagine what you are going through. Just remember that where your mother is headed, there will be no suffering and she will become your angel to look over you and your family.

  • 6512 and growing Says:

    I am hoping for you: strength and peace.

  • Caroline Says:

    Oh I don’t know what to say. I am crying, and hoping that your mother feels peace knowing you are there beside her.

  • Mommy Cracked Says:

    I think you are probably doing the most difficult thing in life ever. I wish you strength and comfort and will say a prayer for you and your mom.

  • ganching Says:

    This made me weep. My inabilitly to engage with Christmas this year is because my mother is dying. This is a moving and beautiful piece of writing.

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