Two years ago, when my mother was eighty-five, she required major surgery for the ovarian cancer that led to her death. She came through the operation amazingly well – she was awake and alert within hours. But, after being discharged home from the hospital she developed a 'post-op ileus,’ which meant her gut stopped working and just stood paralyzed. This is why doctors always ask if you've 'passed gas' after surgery. (Which she hadn't by the way, a result of the quick discharges encouraged by our broken health care system; but don't get me started...)
The ileus caused her hours of unrelenting nausea and vomiting, a type of suffering I wouldn't wish on anyone. My two sisters and I cared for her, and each other, as best we could. First we unpacked, quickly and quietly, then set up the bedside commode designed to minimize pain from her three-day-old, seven inch wound. While one ate (in the hallway outside of Mom’s apartment, so we wouldn’t make her nausea worse) another dropped homeopathic remedies under her tongue, and the third delicately massaged her belly to help her gut start working again. We taped a sign on her door so her many caring neighbors would know she was home, but not well enough for visitors. We even went shopping for something, anything that might help - prune juice, antacids, laxatives.
Between the waves of nausea Mom tried to rest, but when they came she moaned - with an occasional “Oh honey.” At these times we all stopped what we were doing to attend to her. We had an assembly line to deliver clean moist cloths and basins, and were always at the ready for the next episode. It was the least we could do after the many years of her tending to us. Eight hours and two calls to the doctor later, we were told to take her back to the hospital.
As Mom sat in a straight back chair outside of her bathroom, pale and weak, we ran around like squirrels repacking and preparing for the 45-minute car ride. Once everything was set in the apartment, washcloths and basins ready, we slowly walked her to the elevator. She experienced a particularly bad episode of retching just before getting in. On the way down, she moaned "Oh, God, please help me" and leaned her head onto mine. I gave her a gentle hug. The elevator door opened and we walked her towards the curb, a daughter on each side and the third with the car ready.
Mom stopped on the sidewalk and announced, "I am passing gas…"
"Really?" we said, shocked and excited.
"Yes," she smiled, amused at our astonishment, "and it’s a good one!"
And, by God, that resolved her symptoms! We still climbed into the car but with the nausea gone we talked and laughed during the ride to the hospital. Mom was readmitted, but for only a brief stay.
For years we kidded my mother about her ‘direct connection’ to God. She sat in conversation with Him every morning. She thanked Him for all the good in her life, her health, her wonderful new ‘independent living’ community, she even thanked Him for my hands (I am blessed to be able to attend births for a living). Then she ran her list, asking God to keep people, so many people, in His care. Of course this included her children, her grand and great-grandchildren. But it also included our in-laws, her priest, my sister’s house cleaners, my son’s teachers, people on drugs, the president, the soldiers. The list went on and on; if you’ve met her, and certainly if you’re here today, she’s probably said a prayer for you, too. She did this every single day, although, she did tell me once that if she was ill, she’d cut it short saying, “…and You know the rest.”
In all the years of knowing this, I was never so close, so present for it - the simple yet genuine “…please help me” prayer in the elevator, answered moments later. When my sister acknowledged how hard it was to bear so much discomfort, Mom replied simply, “Well, we do have to suffer some on this earth.”
She had a way of leaning on her god, asking for help (usually for others) but, and this is the key, she was always willing to accept what she could not change. It wasn’t easy but it’s how she got through everything life handed her over her 87 years.
Accepting what is… We’re going to need that to get through what life hands us without her here to cheer us on and keep us in her prayers.