Because of the snowstorm, the woman who stays nights with my mother is unable to safely make the drive from her small hometown 20 miles away. Like us, she comes from strong Minnesota farm stock. The weather must be very bad to keep her away.

This means I’m on the night shift. It’s not easy. Day or night, my mother sleeps only in short increments, generally 15 to 45 minutes long. She asks for the bed pan just that often, largely due to medication she’s taking for congestive heart failure, and partly because there’s nothing else to do with her waking moments. She no longer comes to the table for supper with the family and has even lost her desire to listen to music. Music and family were her life.

Moving her is an arduous, delicate task. Grasp her arms too firmly and she develops a hematoma. Swing her around too quickly and she groans in pain from her still mending broken hip. Lift her and her bones crackle like Rice Krispies. She still has cracked ribs caused by a physical therapist who insisted on demonstrating the “safe” way to move her. There are reasons we care for her personally.

Since neither of us will sleep much, I decide to tackle her feet. It’s my least favorite thing to do, and the task is long overdue.

I stare at my face in the mirror as I wait for the water to warm. I’ve aged visibly in the last three years, but especially in the last three months. As I prepare for and teach three classes most weekdays to college students whose entire lives are ahead of them and who are largely oblivious to the miracle of daily survival, I’m constantly aware that I’m waiting, waiting, waiting for my mother to die, and now also my 14-year-old golden lab who, at 98, has my mother beat in dog years. He struggles to lift his back end off of his soft bed in our bedroom. She hasn’t stood on her feet since she broke her hip several months ago and probably never will again.

Meaningful Conversations

I gaze into my students’ faces day after day as they seek to build productive, profitable, influential lives, but all I can think about is how living and dying are like climbing Mt. Everest. You think you’re doing it for the view or the satisfaction, but it costs a small fortune and sometimes even costs you your life before any satisfaction comes. Sometimes you perish before reaching the top, sometimes on the way down. Either way, death is eventually waiting, and you get there one step at a time. You don’t stay at the pinnacle longer than a few minutes. The view is largely overrated, and the photographs you’re left with don’t do it justice. I want to tell my students to go home and hug their mothers and fathers and have meaningful conversations with them while they still can.

I sit on a stool at her feet and wait for them to soak and soften. I’m reminded of a hundred communions and foot washings consisting of a few splashes of clean water on mostly clean, healthy feet in hushed side rooms of churches over the years. Rituals that remind of the real thing.

This is the real thing. There’s one callous in particular that I’ve been battling with for years. The entire night is ahead of us, and I determine to remove the whole thing this time, even if it takes me the full nine hours.

I’m Smiling At You

She sits quietly in her wheelchair, a faint, sweet smile on her face. The warm water feels good on her feet, and she’s pleased with the attention. I sit and grin at her while I wait.

“Is there someone behind me?”

“No, Mom. I’m smiling at you.”

“Ahh.” She rests back in her chair and closes her eyes happily. Every so often her eyelids flutter as she surveys the soaking, filing, clipping, and buzzing.

“You’re doing such a nice job!” she murmurs.

Her peaceful submission to the process takes me back ten years to when our little BLM mustang gave birth to a tiny foal under a tree on a snowy night in the dead of a Montana winter. He red bagged and should never have survived. He couldn’t stand up when we found him the next morning. We moved the tired mare and helpless foal into the barn, and the tight-lipped vet administered plasma.

That night, the kids and I slept in sleeping bags on hay bales in the next stall. We woke up every hour, milked the mare, and fed the foal with a bottle. Normally skittish and flighty, she stood still while we milked her, somehow comprehending our intentions. I’ll never forget what a beautiful sight it was when we woke up to see the foal standing and nursing vigorously as early morning light trickled through cracks in the walls. The mare’s eyes fluttered like my mother’s. She also eyed me with a look that said no more milking would be tolerated.

All I Can Think Of

I spent a similar night in the barn with a baby goat, one of three brown and white triplets. She’d been unresponsive after a long birth. The vet, who generally worked on dogs and cats, had a burst of James Herriot-like inspiration. He took her by her hind legs and whirled her round and round like a whirling dervish to get the blood flowing to her brain. She eventually opened her eyes and gave a tiny cry but remained weak and lifeless for the rest of the day and through the evening. All night I sat with her and the doe, keeping her warm and feeding her every 15 minutes from a tiny bottle. At morning light, she revived and joined her brother and sister on wobbly legs, dancing her way into new life.

I felt strong and capable then. Through grit and determination I’d saved and sustained two tiny lives. Each time, I literally swaggered out of the barn in satisfaction and slept soundly as if I’d labored through the night to make the sun rise. I can’t think of anything I’m more proud of, other than planting trees that now stand tall above a stranger’s house, and raising four children to near adulthood.

All I can think of now is that my children will someday be sitting in a wheelchair or lying in a hospital bed. If they’re loved, someone will be working on their feet while an oxygen machine puffs in the background.

I won’t swagger away from this night like I did from the barn, because no one will stand up on tiny new hooves in the morning, bucking and dancing their way into new life. I will drive home, bleary-eyed, after clearing the snow from my windshield, and crawl into bed, defeated, knowing that any moments I add to my mother’s life extend her pain, her loneliness for my father, and her memories of how things were and never will be again.

Another Step

All the platitudes in the world about hope and heaven do not carry me gently down this path. I am more afraid to die old than young. This is the real thing, and if one’s faith isn’t already rooted like a white oak in winter, there’s no getting through it, only to it.

I want to plant my own hooves firmly, like my friend’s donkey who refuses to cross streams, and say, “I’m not taking another step. I’m going back to barns and foals and baby goats. I want to feel strong and capable again. I want this wretched sorrow that’s literally crushing the life out of me to stop—now.”

But there are certain streams that must be crossed. I’m getting close to the point where I have no choice but to find out what’s on the other side.

-Conna Bond | Orig. Jan. 1, 2017