Waiting For the Birth of My Daughter, I Cared for My Dying Mom
In the final weeks before I became a mother, I was losing the woman who taught me how to care for others
It was 4 a.m. when my husband stumbled from our bedroom. Since getting the 1 a.m. call, I'd resisted waking him. My 82-year-old mom's doctor, across the country in New Jersey, had lab results. Mom's pneumonia was back for the third time. Her vitals were dropping fast.
I called my sister. Together we called our 80-year-old dad. Then the three of us told Mom. She was surprisingly calm, both about the ambulance and the hospital (her fourth time in 4 months), though I did hear her snap at the EMT worker that she didn't need his help — she did, but she did without it anyway.
My husband would drive the two of us from the deep South to New Jersey. At almost 8 months pregnant, I knew I'd be resting on the trip, so I'd sat anxiously in the darkened living room letting him sleep. Putting my hands on my belly over my daughter, a child that until at 40 I'd never anticipated having, I breathed deeply.
"We're going to New Jersey for Grandma. This is what grown-up children do."
"We're going to New Jersey for Grandma," I said, "This is what grown-up children do."
When my husband finally appeared, I announced immediately from the darkness, "We're going to New Jersey now!" He jumped.
Two hours later we were on the road. We had been making trips to see her; the 14-hour drive consistently took us 18. Who knew how long we'd stay this time. We hadn't yet set up our nursery, which was currently my office. I hoped we'd make it back for the birth.
For My Mom, a Perfect Storm
Three months earlier, Mom, a strenuous advocate of healthy living, caught pneumonia, then COVID-19, in the hospital which triggered congestive heart failure and previously undiagnosed chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It was the perfect storm landing her in a cycle of hospital-to-rehab-to-home.
Her descent was hard to take. Just before she contracted the pneumonia, my Jewish New York mother (recently relocated to New Jersey) had popped out of my parents' Subaru at my home wearing chic white pants, platform shoes with polished nails and a denim button down shirt. I was barefoot in pajama bottoms and my then-fiancé (now husband's) shirt.
Since moving to the deep South over a year ago, where we live in a beautiful solar-powered cabin in the woods, I hadn't seen my parents. Claiming a psychic strain on her side of the family, Mom had insisted that she and Dad take their first cross-country road trip for a 3-day visit to see us.
Her face wreathed in smiles, she hugged me, exclaiming, "You're really pregnant!"
We'd had our ups and downs, but starting a family of my own was bringing us together. Her face wreathed in smiles, she hugged me, exclaiming, "You're really pregnant!" Dad shook my fiancé's hand.
We had been thinking of using her middle name, Violet, for the baby. Mom shrugged, "Some woman paid Grandma to use it, we needed the money."
Dad had another reaction, "In the Jewish tradition, you're not supposed to give the name of a living person to a baby."
"I don't mind," Mom replied diffidently. "But you don't have to."
A Wedding at Our Home
With a psychic prompting of my own, I said to my fiancé, "Let's get married now, and not wait three months until January."
Three days later we were married on the front lawn, cake provided by our landladies (soon to be the baby's godparents), with their 16 dogs, and seven of my husband's friends from the alcohol and drug clinic where he worked. His boss performed the marriage ceremony while Mom took a video on her phone. Colorful flowers, picked by my mom and me on a walk that morning, were everywhere.
Remembering My Younger Years
Mom and I were equally stubborn. One summer, she'd wanted me to use vegetable spray to clean fruit and I'd perversely refused. She grabbed my apple while I held her spray. The detente lasted an hour.
Yet Mom always believed in me and was my biggest supporter. At age 3, I caught the acting bug. Mom found an agent, then spent a decade ferrying me to auditions, helping me memorize lines. At age 5, I refused to eat meat, so she cooked vegetarian. At age 10, I was accidentally poisoned by Jimson weed and needed a special diet for a year.
In high school, I was arrested for smoking pot behind Tower Records on 8th Street in New York City. Dad was livid but Mom responded with a wry, "So, how was jail?"
After everything she'd done for me, I was eager to do something for her. But Mom seemed to have become the teenage version of me while I, in a nod to my yet-unborn daughter, tried to parent her.
The Effects of Transfer Trauma
I wasn't familiar with the concept of transfer trauma, but her moves from home-to-hospital-to-rehab were clearly destabilizing. Preparing for Mom's latest return from rehab to her New Jersey home, my husband and I removed glass shower doors, tables, rugs and furniture. He added tasteful guardrails to the house and shower walls, a hospital bed and shelving unit for medical supplies.
We hoped to keep her safe but Mom just wanted to come home. She protested that their house was "baby-proofed," as she said. I wished ours was. Mom wanted everything — especially the shower doors — put back. We could readjust the furniture, but really what she wanted was for life to return to normal. That, we couldn't do.
Mom seemed to have become the teenage version of me while I, in a nod to my yet-unborn daughter, tried to parent her.
Most of all, she wanted to meet the baby. My sister's two children were Mom's joy. Dad told me how the baby was keeping her going. She insisted she'd be there a month before the birth. Initially worried she'd be overbearing ("These clothes were made in China?" or "You're eating sugar?"), instead I was the one who was hovering.
"You can't just have pudding all day." I'd scold. Or: "You have to let me know before you go to the bathroom. It's not safe."
"You don't tell me what keeps me safe, I tell you!" She had surprising vocal strength for someone complaining of an inability to breathe seconds before.
"You're not behaving safely." I'd make my voice gentle, remembering how hard she had tried to reason with 15-year-old me.
"Oh, stuff it, Sari," she said. "I'm not one of your students. I'm your mom!"
Dramatically rising from her chair (something she'd declared herself unable to do in physical therapy earlier), sans walker, grabbing a piece of non-diet-approved toast, Mom narrowly avoided her oxygen tube, extra-long to prevent it from seeming like the leash it was.
"I will send you back to rehab!" I shouted with an eerie flashback to high school.
"Never!" She chewed ferociously on her bread.
In the bedroom, I cried into my husband's chest. Mom had taught me everything I knew about caring for loved ones. It wasn't as easy as she'd made it look. This was how she must have felt when our own fights got out of hand.
I was overwhelmed, struggling to learn to be a mom while caring for mine, who was acting like a teenager. And I wouldn't even know what I'd be missing once my daughter arrived that Mom could have helped me with, because she wouldn't be there.
'Make Sure She Knows Who I Am'
The next morning, Mom said she couldn't be at our home a month early but that she'd definitely be there for the birth. I nodded like this was a surprise. Soon, the nurse told Mom she couldn't go at all.
"You'll bring her to see me?" Mom asked repeatedly.
"Right away." We promised.
And then one day: "Make sure she knows who I am."
"We'll use your middle name, Violet, for the baby's middle name," I said.
She replied, "Your father will come out [to see the baby] instead."
Soon, Mom was back in the hospital. My sister joined us in her room with a giant bag.
"Look, Mom, it's all of the kids' baby clothes." She poured them onto the bed.
Going through the tiny brightly-colored clothes with my mom and sister felt like the normalcy all of us craved. Mom talked through each item remembering when my sister's kids wore them, then fell silent.
"Everything I know about caring for someone comes from you," I told her.
"It's true," My sister said, "You taught us how to be sisters and moms, and care for our loved ones."
Mom's eyes were closed, but she made the smallest motion with her fingers. We each took a hand.
Mom took her time before departing a few days later. My husband and I stayed for a while, then with another psychic prompting, Mom came to us differently in a dream, telling us it was time to return to Tennessee.
It was dark when we arrived home. We went immediately to bed. In the morning, I stepped outside and saw violets blanketing the hillside.