by Carole Duff

After we moved our 89-year-old mother from her long-time home in Connecticut into a care facility in North Carolina near my older sister, I made the three-hour drive down 29-south every month to share lunch with her. Since dementia had stolen Mother’s short-term memory, I decided to apply my teaching skills to help her retain autobiographical memories from the past. She had been a teacher, my teacher; now I would be hers.

Before each visit, I designed mental lesson plans. Behavioral objectives, resource materials, instructional strategies: Mother will be able to view pictures in old photo albums and tell her stories; I’ll point to photographs, ask questions, and wait for her responses. After summary and closure—saying our “I love you” goodbyes—I’d evaluate the lesson during the drive home to Virginia. Assessments were not be based on Mother’s learning, which she couldn’t do anymore, but on my ability to be the adult daughter she needed me to be: a helper.

During the ten years Mother cared for our father after his stroke, my two sisters and I had visited often, cooking meals, doing chores, putting up and taking down the Christmas tree, keeping our parents company while they watched Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy, old movies and TV reruns. We increased the frequency of visits after our father died, since Mother now lived alone. But our helping remained about the same for the next sixteen years, until significant memory lapses precipitated her move to the care facility. Then my older sister became Mother’s on-site caretaker. Our younger sister became a bi-annual helping visitor, since she lived a plane ride away. I became the “on call” caretaker when my older sister was out of town. In other words, I “had to” be Mother’s caretaker at times but otherwise “got to” be a monthly helper.

Pastor Tim Bohlmann at Bethany Lutheran Church often reminds the congregation that Old Testament Law is a “have to,” whereas the New Testament Commandment is a “get to.” Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you. (Exodus 20:12 NIV) Thou shalt: the “have to” honor your parents. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31 NIV) The “get to” love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and “get to” love your neighbor as yourself.

The Law is a curb, a mirror, and a guide, our pastor says. The curb tells us what to do and what not to do; the mirror allows us see our transgressions and repent; the guide helps us to walk in the light. We need both Law and Gospel, especially when the going gets tough, as it often does with caretaking. When my “get to love my parents” failed during their years of ill health and disability, I had the Law’s steadfast “have to” to stand on.

Though my photo album lesson and Mother’s stories got shorter during her seven years in assisted living—the macular degeneration effecting her ability to see—her memories of the past remained mostly intact. Until they didn’t. That spring, I increased my visits to bi-monthly. Through the summer and into the fall, her body functions showed signs of giving out. We knew she needed a greater level of care.

In early November, we moved Mother to a room in the care facility’s skilled nursing wing. I sat with her over lunch and did the old photograph lesson while my older sister oversaw the move. Our younger sister had digitized many family photos, so Mother could view them on my laptop’s large screen. I upped my visits to weekly after the move. In December, Mother wheeled more often than walked; after the holidays, I visited by-weekly. By then, I’d replaced my photo lesson plan with “get to” abiding: feeding Mother at lunch, transferring her from wheelchair to lift chair, playing “Ave Maria” and “When Peace like River” for her on my flute while she dozed.

Mother died two days after Valentine’s Day. We buried her in Connecticut, next to our father, and honored her last wishes: reciting the Lord’s Prayer and Psalm 23 at graveside and telling stories during a family-and-friends memorial luncheon—all mere days before the Covid-19 shutdown. On the drive home to Virginia, I thought about my years of lunch-visits with Mother and realized she had been my teacher all along. What had she taught me?

The honor in being a helper is not so much in the “have to” do but in the “get to” be.

Per Gen regular contributor Carole Duff is a veteran teacher, flutist, and writer of narrative nonfiction. She posts weekly to her long-standing blog Notes from Vanaprastha, has written for The Perennial Gen, Streetlight Magazine’s Blog, and Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog. She is working on a book titled Wisdom Builds Her House: A Memoir About Finding Grace in the Third Stage of Life. Carole lives in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains with her husband Keith Kenny, also a writer, and three overly-friendly dogs. You can find her website here, and her Twitter feed here.


Cover photo by Laura Fuhrman on Unsplash