My mother, Emma, and the mother of the Marvelous MarÃa Beatriz, herself named Beatriz, are both in rough shape in their mid-80s. Both are confined (Beatriz at home, Emma in a nursing home) with medical “conditions” which translate to “the engine is just wearing out.” Both have minimal mobility and require dedicated care. Beatriz has a squad of women who care for her during the day and overnight, and Emma has a staff that seem as affectionate and diligent as an institution allows them.
Both are scared. At times, when the breathing comes hard and the heart slams, Beatriz says that either she feels like she’s dying or wants to die. At times, when her kidneys weaken or she refuses to eat or hydrate, Emma loses contact with the world, not knowing who sits with her in the room, and when she returns, she is reluctant to keep keeping on. She says to me, “I want to go home,” with her finger aimed heavenward. Point taken.
What can one do? What can I do? All I can do is be present without judgment, ease their pain and lessen their fears. I say “without judgment” because it is too easy for the feeling-better to think that much of the suffering of the not-feeling-well is self-induced because they aren’t trying hard enough to overcome their conditions: “If only you would . . . .” The time for constructive criticism (if such a thing exists) has passed. They have earned our unconditional attention to and open-ended acceptance of whatever they bear. They’ve earned that by virtue of the suffering that comes with living a human life.
At the other end is my quintet of kittens, snagged from the feral streets at one month from a mother who cared for them but would not bring them in for the human touch. (“Human” is not always synonymous with “destructive.”) They were born around the beginning of June, and the Marvelous MB and I have been fostering them. (We will keep two, find homes for three.) They’ve had their medicines, and they eat more than a can of food per day each at their two daily feedings, having gained a pound each in the last two weeks.
One of the best blood-pressure-reducers at the end of a work day is to sit with them before pre-sleep bed reading and let five kilos of kittens clamber over me. I don’t really do anything to entice them; I just become part of the furniture, and they slide and slither over me as they tussle or rest or leap or gambol.
Sittin’ with the kittens
As they gambol over me
Sittin’ with the kittens
Their ramble does unscramble me
As far as I can tell, they bear none of the weight our mothers bear, none of the torturing self-consciousness of the conscious self slipping into its deletion. Our comfort for our mothers bends toward distracting them (jokes, movies, stories) when it isn’t just holding hands, stroking cheeks, whispering, “Don’t worry, Mom, everything will be all right.” Keeping vigil is literally a labor of love, one of those things we humans can do for each other that almost absolves us for all the other terrible things we do to each other. Vigil is a time when, after all the logical/rational arrangements have been made for disposal and disbursement, we become kittenish: soft warm mammals in close contact playing, grooming and detailing, resting, sharing food, easing each other’s bodies forward through suffering into comfort.
I don’t want to draw “lessons,” religious or moral, from keeping this vigil. I want, instead, to achieve a forgetfulness of sorts—a stilling of the brain-chatter, a deepening of my own breath—so that I can pay a full attention that she deserves to the person who brought me forward as she herself moves forward into the moment when she no longer suffers.
The kittens will mature, of course, but who they are is pretty much set now: Fiona will always be a bit stand-offish because she had an extra week learning “feral” with her mom before we could get her; Seamus will always be bold since he’s spent the longest time with humans. For us, though, we mature best at times like these: called upon to attend to one another, we can surprise ourselves by how open and apt we can be, pulled from the thicket of our ego into a clear space of graceful watchfulness.