Behold Your Mother,
Behold Your Son

By Very Rev. David M. O’Connell, C.M., J.C.D. 1990, President
Statue of Mary

It was the toughest day of my life and the most difficult decision.

My youngest brother lay comatose in a hospital, ravaged by swine flu and pneumonia in both lungs. He had been my mother’s principal caretaker since my father’s death five years ago. I brought Mom to Washington to care for her awhile. She is 83, has great difficulty walking and suffers from dementia, the result of several strokes suffered during hip surgery a few years back.

I loved every minute of the almost two months we spent together, from early November until after Christmas. For the past 12 years I have lived alone, so the company of my mother was a joy! There were challenges with the arrangement, given my schedule and obligations as president, but this time of year required me to be on campus more than off. Our students were wonderful, offering to stay with her when I had to travel or attend an evening function. And she enjoyed their company and conversation.

Many of us in the baby-boom generation face the situation of caring for elderly parents. I know I am not alone. Suffice it to say, that doesn’t make it easier.

For me, just the sound of her voice when we spoke, the smile on her face when I brought her some hot tea or candy, the stories she told me about her early life are memories I shall treasure forever. It saddened me to see her in a state of steady decline, though, knowing that my once vibrant, happy and loving mother was slipping away. She would ask a thousand times a day, “How old am I?” “Why am I here?” “When can I go home?” She wasn’t always sure who I was or what connection she had with me. At times, she wasn’t sure who she was. Other times, she was as bright and lucid as I remembered from years ago. Those moments gave me great hope — maybe she was getting better! But they didn’t last long and she would slip back into confusion.

In the morning, I would dispense her multiple medications. “Why am I taking these?” she would ask. I cooked her meals, washed her clothes, made her bed, prepared her shower, helped her dress, and then I would disappear for the day’s work. Lucky for me, I could pop in on her during the day, join her for lunch and supper, and just simply sit and watch TV with her at night.

I often thought about the reversal of roles, becoming a “parent” to my mother. I didn’t mind it, but I could feel some melancholy come over me. As I put her to bed at night, I would sit on the edge of her bed to put her at ease. It never failed, as I turned out the light, that she would say, “I love you, hon.” Many nights, those words would be greeted by my tears as well as my own, “I love you, too, Mom.” I knew the arrangement could not last and it broke my heart.

I was able to find a place for her, closer to home and closer to my three brothers, the youngest of whom was now recovering. D’Youville Manor in Yardley, Pa., sponsored by the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart, is a beautiful, clean and wonderful facility for assisted living, but when the day came to take her there, it was like a dagger pierced my heart. My mind told me that this was a good place for her, offering every comfort and care. Every other part of me wanted to bring her back to Washington. But she needed care that I could not really provide.

“Why am I here?” she asked as I walked to the door of her room, the same question as before. I knew that my feeble answer would not matter and that she would not remember it. She had no memory at all of being with me for the past two months. But I do and always will. And I will always be grateful for it.

As I left her behind that first day, sad beyond all telling, I passed a statue of the Blessed Mother. I thought for a moment, Your Son had to leave you once in the care of others. And I prayed with all my heart, Take good care of her. And my brothers and I will, too.