By Brandon Due, Executive Director of Communication, Presbyterian Homes & Services
“Take care of each other.” These were the last words that my mother, Nancy, spoke to my father, my brother and me before words gave way to murmurs, and murmurs to breaths.
Lessons of the Spirit
As family gathered in our home for the bedside watch, it was almost as if the house itself was breathing with Mom. The front door was propped open slightly to the crisp autumn air and the coming and going of friends and family. Over the course of several days, three stoic men would each take reluctant turns to rest, with constant attention to the cadence and tone of Mom’s breathing for any sign of change, of a whispered prayer or an unspoken need.
Our hospice nurse had left a bag of tiny pink sponges on sticks, like popsicles. Mom had stopped eating and drinking, so we would take turns, sitting at her side, dipping the sponges in fresh water, and swabbing her open mouth. I imagine this nursing master knew that the therapy was just as much for us men as it was for Mom – to have something to do when you feel so helpless.
It was very odd to see Mom sitting still. Both of my parents grew up on farms and Mom was always doing something – laundry at 5am, and emptying the dishwasher soon after to (not so subtly) rouse us out of bed with the sound of clanging plates. The house was uncompromisingly clean and the flower gardens were abundant.
The house was also filled with Mom’s favorite collectible – angels. Hundreds of angels in pewter and porcelain stood in meticulous cabinets and positions of authority all over our home. In addition to going to the garden center on Mother’s Day, we always knew what to get her. Each time, it seemed silly to me, to “waste” money on countless figurines. It was one of the many things in life I didn’t understand. Following a cancer diagnosis a decade earlier, perhaps she pondered that this day would come when the angels would take up her guard.
As her breath departed and my father carried her once energetic body to the front door under the eyes of angels (porcelain and in person), we also carried our vow – “take care of each other.”
There are some things in life we most often learn the hard way:
- The power of breath
- The awesome responsibility of living
- That fresh water is truly sacred (especially on a tiny pink sponge)
- To only ask “how are you?” if you are committed to listen to the honest response
- That you shouldn’t ask someone going through tragedy or grief if you can help them – just bring a knowing smile and mow the lawn, or drop off a meal in your favorite baking dish to open the door for tomorrow’s conversation
- That now, as a husband and father, I know how my grief must have paled to the grief of my father losing his life partner, and of my grandmother losing her youngest daughter
- That for many people, Mother’s Day is kind of a mixed bag – but it is okay to be both sad and happy at the same time
- That I have had only one Mom, but many mothers
When I read the words of Jesus as he was preparing his disciples for what was to come, I can’t help but hear his words through my mom’s whispered tone: “Little children, I am with you only a little longer. […] I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13: 33-34).
In the end, I was gifted six months by my mom’s side. The rhythms of caregiving felt natural, like I finally understood words like vocation and calling. Presbyterian author and minister Frederick Buechner wrote, “The place God calls you to is where your deep gladness meets the world's deep hunger.” The key perhaps is to notice the world’s deep hunger right in front of you. I always wished my mother would have been more of a conversationalist, more interested in the concerns of the world, but what I have learned in hindsight is that she was a master of the here and now.
I walked through the doors of Presbyterian Homes & Services (PHS) the year after my mother’s passing, when I was pivoting from the life of a student and was filled with a deep desire to be useful. Reflecting on the role and impact of Mom’s hospice nurse, I enrolled in a nursing assistant training program. Soon after, I found myself teaching ethics during the day and applying ethics in the evening as a caregiver. My shifts at the Boutwells Landing
care center would start with the busy rhythms of dinner prep and would conclude by sitting for the first time in 6 hours after each of these adopted grandparents was tucked into bed (except Sister Mary who always stayed up to watch the final innings of the game).
I have worn four different titles in my seven years at PHS, but “Resident Assistant” sticks with me as somehow most closely aligned with my soul. I had the honor of being “part of the family” for so many residents and in this role, compassion was like a sport – to listen for unspoken needs, to be vulnerable, and to memorize hundreds of names and faces so I could greet each daughter or son, nephew or friend by name, sometimes when their loved one no longer could.
I am proud that PHS is a ministry where responsibility doesn’t come from title, but from calling. The calling as individuals to listen to where our God-given strengths meet the world’s deep hunger, and the calling as a ministry to honor God by enriching the lives and touching the hearts of older adults.
In so many ways, I did not choose this career. While I spent much of my childhood around older adults in the church and doing odd jobs for neighbors in a small town, a career in older adult services just wasn’t on my radar. PHS came highly recommended by my nursing assistant instructor, and the reason I continue to choose this work is the clear sense of purpose it brings.
My “Why” is this: I commit myself to work that matters – to extend my mom’s final command, “To take care of each other,” as broadly as I can without losing sight of the needs right in front of me.