Spending time at the hospital with my husband this week reminded me that this time last October, I spent the night by my mother’s bedside and wrote this piece as she slept:
“I work hard for my money,” you said from the next table in the country club dining room. You wore an expensive Bobby Jones polo shirt, casual slacks, and Tiger-style Nike shoes. Swirling your second glass of 25-year old Scotch, you admired the amber color as it slid in gentle arcs around the glass. You wafted the glass under your nose and sipped before continuing, “And I don’t want the government to take more of it to give to people who are too lazy to work.”
I think of you now as I sit by my ailing mother’s bedside and watch her work hard to breathe. I know you from a distance, enough to know that you own a lucrative company that packages health insurance for businesses. And that you spend many afternoons golfing while those for whom you’ve created jobs in your small business work in an expensive suite of offices nearby.
My mother coughs, and I watch her labor to take in the oxygen that flows through the only clear tube attached to her body. She has labored all her life—mostly for no money at all—as the mother of five children and the wife of a coal miner. She refused to put my father in a nursing home, taking care of him for four years as he slowly died from the black lung he developed as a result of 30 years of hard labor in a West Virginia coal mine.
Her nurse, Redheem, rushes into the room for my mother’s 2:00 a.m. vitals and medications, takes two gloves from the dispenser inside the door, and slips them on quickly as she crosses the room. But when Redheem reaches the bed, she slows her pace and touches my mother gently, waking her from sleep. I watch the nurse’s face, perfectly framed by the tightly wrapped hijab that catches the light from the hallway. She disconnects the tube that drips from one of the four bags hanging on the IV pole. Then she works efficiently to add pain medications to the IV and to check all the wires before going to the computer to log her work. She tells my mother that she will return at 4:00 a.m. to check her again and give her a bath, which she does—with the same gentle touch I’ve watched Mom use on her newborn grandchildren.
As Redheem works, she asks me, “Does your mom have all girls?” She has seen only my sister and me at our mother’s bedside.
“No, just my sister and me…and three sons.” Unwilling to disturb my mother’s peace by talking about my brother who died of a drug overdose, I turn the conversation. “Do you have children?”
“No,” Redheem answers. “I take care of my parents. They live with me. And my sister. I’m paying for my sister’s college because I don’t want her to have loans. My parents paid for my college, so I’m paying it forward.”
Ready to change the sheets on the bed, Redheem calls for a nurse’s assistant to help her roll my mother from side to side. Mom grimaces but does not complain. Redheem repeatedly apologizes for disturbing her. They finish promptly, cover Mom, and ask her if she needs anything. As they leave, Redheem thanks my mom and turns to me: “Your mother is so sweet.”
Exhausted, my mother looks at me and smiles. Her jaw slackens as she quickly returns to sleep.
Brian, the nurse’s assistant, comes into the room and, like Redheem, he dons the blue gloves in the time it takes me to notice his entry. He approaches the bed and stoops to examine the bag at the end of the long catheter tube. He tilts his head and nods, satisfied, then waves to me quietly as he leaves.
The room is still again, except for the ticking of the heart monitor and the soft swishing of the suction devices.
My mind drifts back to the table at the country club. I wonder if you have ever sat by the bed of a loved one who receives the gentle and attentive ministrations of the countless Redheems and Brians who work so hard.
And I see again your golf partner’s discomfort with the conversation you initiated, not for the first or the second or even the third time. And then I wanted to cheer as I watched his response. He squirmed in his seat and, with resolve, he met your eyes above the Scotch glass and asked for the first time, “How much is enough?”