God Between Life and Death

Beatrice Crawford Haenisch Peery.

A humble woman.  Sang in the church choir.  Believed in the words she was singing.  Songs about God’s mercy, salvation, provision, omnipotence, perfection.  Where does all that faith go, what does it mean, now that her brain is mush and her ability to praise God or even conceive of His existence simply isn’t there?

I’m here for a month.  I make the journey from Singapore to Houston every year to give my sister, Trina, a break from caring for Momma.  During this time I change diapers, spoon in food, hand Momma pills and the water to wash them down with.  I do these things with a stingy heart, duties I execute and escape from quickly.  A caregiver comes three mornings a week and as soon as she’s in the door, I’m out.  I’ve come all this way, to my home country, and there are things I want to do here—friends to see, stores full of clothes and gadgets, a property to check on. 

Momma’s daily journey is a long one.  She has few words left.  The phrase she mutters every minute is, “I’m tired.”  And when I say every minute, I’m not exaggerating.  She says it nonstop, all day long, from six in the morning until seven in the evening.  Her drooping eyes speak, and they say the same thing.

She gets out of bed.  Her diaper’s changed—either by me or Trina, usually Trina.  She drinks a cup of coffee.  She manages this on her own, but the cereal is beyond her.  She sits bent over, too weak to sit up straight, as one of us daughters spoons it in.  Both of us talk baby-talk to her, as though our high-pitched nasally nonsense will somehow relieve her exhaustion. 

After breakfast she showers.  Trina gives a body-contact wash, putting on rubber gloves and taking the soap into Momma’s private areas.  When it fell to me to administer the shower a couple of days ago, I fit the soap into my mother’s gnarled hand and instructed her to get on with it.  Then I sprayed her down like I would a car.  Sometimes I’m compassionate and sometimes I’m not.  That was a “not” day. 

Then, cleaned up and wearing a fresh day-dress, Momma embarks on a circuit that will last the whole day—a hunched shuffling trek from her bedroom to the living room, through the kitchen, in and out of the utility room, back to her bedroom, once more to the living room.  Sometimes she collapses into her chair, but for no longer than a minute, then she’s up and pacing again.  I estimate by the end of the day she’s walked three miles, the whole time mumbling about how tired she is. 

What’s driving her?  If she had words, she could tell us.  Is she too wracked with pain to be able to relax?  She was busy all her life—maybe she feels a latent need to be somewhere, accomplish something, go, go, go.  Or is she looking for something?  Someone?

“I’m tired. . . I’m tired. . . I’m tired.”

Yesterday, in the living room, a variation.  She said, “It’s tired in here.”

I laughed.  “Is it more tired in here than it is in the kitchen?”

It’s taken me a while to realize that what she’s tired of is living.

People embrace the notion that they’ll live a useful life, and that when they stop being useful, they’ll die.  Death is seldom so accommodating. 

Dear, dear Momma.  Dying is like giving birth—drawn-out excruciating labor followed by great joy. 

My sister, Trina Haenisch, is virtuous and noble, a dry-humored woman who laughs instead of cries, and rubs lotion into an old woman’s aching deformed feet.  So if I’m looking for God’s presence in this hell, she’s it.  And I’ll be forever grateful to her for the care she gives our mother.  

 Momma and her coffee.  The corked wine in the background is mine.

Momma and her coffee.  The corked wine in the background is mine.

 Trina getting ready for work.  

Trina getting ready for work.  

 Diana, the three-times-a-week helper.  She's very good with Momma.  

Diana, the three-times-a-week helper.  She's very good with Momma.