I hadn’t bathed in days. I’d finally managed to squeeze in a little exercise — between trips to the grocery store and the pharmacy and to buy dog food, and a return to the pharmacy for the prescription I had to call the doctor to remind him to refill — but not a shower. My hair fell from its elastic as I shoved yet another load of soiled sheets into the washer. Standing at the fridge, I forked a few bites of leftover takeout into my mouth, then tiptoed up the stairs, avoiding the creakiest steps. I wanted nothing more than to collapse into bed and sleep. But just as I switched off the lamp, the baby monitor crackled to life again. Straining to hear any changes in breathing or shuffling of bedclothes, I lay rigid and awake, sleep eluding me despite my exhaustion.
It’s a scene familiar to any new mother. Except it wasn’t my child sleeping down the hall. It was, instead, my mom. I was 21 years old, and I’d dropped out of college to come home to help her die.
My mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in September 2005, three weeks into my first year of college in Boston. She was a fiercely independent woman who lived alone (my parents had long since separated) in suburban Westchester County. For the next three and a half years, I commuted to care for my mom, organizing my classes into three packed days. Friday mornings, I took her to chemo, then drove her home to collapse on the couch. While she alternately dozed and vomited, I quietly moved about the house, changing sheets, washing laundry, fielding calls with her doctors. When she finally tucked the covers around herself for the evening, I’d sit beside her — textbooks perched on my knees — and power through my schoolwork until she fell asleep.
On Valentine’s Day 2008, after her oncologist gently explained that the chemo wasn’t keeping the cancer at bay anymore, I called to confer with my older brother, Pete. It was, at last, clear: Mom was going to die, and soon. When we hung up, I sent brusque emails to my professors and to the registrar, packed up my car, and drove home for good.
That month is a dark hole in my memory. There was little sleep in our household, everyone keeping odd hours, anxious and edgy. Mom faded in and out. Pete and I plied her with the meager, bland foods she could stomach — eggs scrambled to rubber, French toast made with the limpest sandwich bread, and popsicles — but she ate less and less. Her wrists became hard as Tinker Toys, balls and sticks under loose skin. In a bid to find something I could control, I became obsessed with logistics. I made checklists of chores for Pete and me, managed the revolving door of hospice nurses and social workers, noticed when the toilet paper was low or mom’s pain meds were nearly gone, and helped her up the stairs to bathe when the stench became too much to bear. Pete and I alternated sleeping with a baby monitor at night, fitfully half-resting as we listened for the sounds of mom trying to get up to use the bathroom or, worse, deliriously pacing the house. Busyness defined my life, though nothing much actually seemed to be happening. We were prisoners of our vigil, entirely detached from the world around us and from our previous lives. A better person than me might have sat placidly, stroking her mother’s hand as she slept. But I itched with boredom, discomfort and resentment.
My mom died after weeks of incontinence and falls, having lost her ability to speak and, eventually, even to gesture, returned to an infant-like dependency. When she inhaled her final rattling breath late one night, I convulsed with horror and relief. She was gone — released from pain, at last — and I too was now liberated.
After mom’s death, I tried to begin my 20s in earnest, living in a state of anxious aimlessness. I felt prematurely aged, estranged from myself and carved by the grooves of loss. Though I welcomed my freedom, I missed the clarity of purpose and the intimacy of the immersive world of caregiving.
A year and a half later, my father found a lump in his neck and was diagnosed with non-aggressive non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. A year after that, his doctors found a tumor the size of a softball in his abdomen. Non-aggressive, my ass.
He was hospitalized immediately, hooked up to an IV continuously for weeklong rounds of chemotherapy. My stepmother, Nan, kept close, devoted. Again, I pushed the events of my young life to the back burner, deferring a graduate program and taking leave from my bakery job to rub thick cream into my dad’s cracked heels, help him pee, parse his condition with doctors, shuffle alongside him through the halls in attempts to help boost his circulation and read aloud from The New Yorker to lull him to sleep.
Five years after my dad died, and just a month shy of my 30th birthday, I gave birth to twins. I’d wanted motherhood badly, and I’d prepared for it with attention and care. Doubt in my abilities to meet my babies’ basic needs and keep them alive never entered my thinking. I knew what it was to survive bone tiredness, and I was unfazed by bodily fluids. So the sudden arrival of two helpless humans with their constant demands for food, fresh clothes, diapers, comfort and my tolerance wasn’t surprising. Neither were the soiled linens that mountained up. I was less prepared, though, for the feeling of being sucked back into a world so sharply reduced. I’d forgotten what it was to have what I’d known as my life suddenly dissolve. Only weeks before, I’d been a glowing orb of fecundity, a lightning rod for softness and fret. But everything changed when my babies came rushing out. I searched for my former self, but to no avail. I felt I’d been emptied, become loose-skinned and shadow-eyed, leaking milk, blood and often tears. I knew — but had forgotten — that caregiving demands that you check your own life at the door. Everything was intensified: the pain, the devotion, the softness of new skin (so very alike dying skin, I noticed with alarm).
In midnight moments of wakefulness, I grieved, rage and tenderness coursing through me as I nursed my daughter, then rocked her to sleep while I pumped for my son. A maddening high, to be needed like that. Two or three hours later, I dragged myself from bed to sip at coffee already gone cold as I sat, trapped, breastfeeding for hours, facing another day consumed by effort and nothing to show for it: Sisyphus with unbrushed teeth and a hunch developing in her back.
As the months passed, the pieces began to find their new order. I entered into the clan of motherhood. Sometimes we gathered in one another’s homes to bounce babies and let our nipples air dry. Sometimes we furiously texted, letting the babies wail. “Remember sleep? Remember getting dressed for work? Remember sex?” These were delicious complaints, and badges of belonging. “It’ll come back,” some women offered as solace, gaping in disbelief at the changes rendered upon their lives. I wanted to believe, too. But there’s no return, I knew. I’d been here before: Daughtering was my education.