Pop said take care of Mom
I try not to give advice. In our divided world most people only take the time to listen to those with whom they already agree, so I try not to give advice. Most people won't listen anyway.
But let me give you some advice. I hope you will listen.
I have spent 22 years of my life in formal schooling, and reading and studying are a regular part of my job, but I've just had one of the most powerful learning lessons of my life. I need to share it. My in-laws have a lot to teach you, too.
The night I gave Amy a diamond, James and Nita welcomed me to AB Jacks Road. My in-laws probably have never fully understood my view of the world, my convictions, my passions, but there was never a question that from that first night I was part of the family.
James died over a decade ago, and our older son expressed grief just right: “But Pop was the main excitement!” Pop was the main excitement, but he chose his quiet, unassuming wife for a reason. She was beautiful and steady and faithful, a loving companion, a tender mother, the mother-in-law who put an end to all bad-mother-in-law jokes. Pop was the main excitement, but we all understood why he married the beautiful girl he started courting just after arriving home from the war, so his three children took to heart Pop’s final request: Take care of Mom.
So here's my first piece of advice: choose your in-laws carefully, and learn to love your mother-in-law like she was your own. Take care of her. Especially when she is dying.
I spend a good bit of time in hospitals, and when I’m walking the halls I pass a lot of quiet rooms. There are a lot of patients as I pass by, lying by themselves, anxious, hurting, suffering – dying – alone. I can’t imagine a worse fate, nor a more unforgiveable failure if you’re the one who’s supposed to be there.
They called our family on a Tuesday night: Mom is dying. About five non-stop days later one of the nurses said, "So, how long are all of you going to keep this vigil?" We heard a hint of criticism in her tone, but Pop had said to take care of Mom, so the answer was simple…
We’ll be here until she dies.
We sat for eight exhausting days, 24/7. At least one of her three children was always by her side. Mom did not like being alone. She was afraid of storms. She wasn’t much for adventure, and dying after 20 ravaging years of Parkinson's disease must surely feel like an adventure. That nurse didn’t know Mom. We knew she would not have wanted to travel that road alone, and Pop said take care of Mom, so…
We were there until she died.
Yes, they say some people want to die in privacy. That may be. But the stories we write about death mostly reflect our need to ascribe meaning: “She held on till her anniversary…” “She died before the holiday so she wouldn’t trouble us...” “She waited until they all showed up…” “She waited until they all left…” Did our vigil prolong Mom’s death a few hours, a few days? Of course there is no way to tell, but one caregiver had it right: “People die when the angels come.” Take that spiritually or fatalistically, the truth is the same: we die when our time has come. If we kept Mom from being afraid and alone for one minute, it was worth the trouble for us, and I don’t think she minded waiting with us for the angels.
Pop said take care of Mom.
For that week the extended family provided three meals a day. They’d stay, and we’d all eat together, sometimes a house-full. Their job was the food. Our job was just to be present. So here's my next piece of advice, the last piece, the best advice I’ll ever give: Show up. Be present. Stay. No one should die alone. And, you only get one “last day” to spend with the people you love. Don’t miss it.
Nita Jacks died on April 25, 2018 – 72 years after she and James were married, eight days after we started our vigil. Pop said take care of Mom. It may be the best thing we ever did.
So, please, take my advice: listen to Pop, too. You won’t be sorry you were there.
(Dr. Russ Dean is a graduate of Clinton High School. He and his wife, Rev. Amy Jacks Dean, also a CHS graduate, are co-pastors of Park Road Baptist Church in Charlotte.)