The men go first, and the women follow.
These words presented themselves to me as I moved about my mother’s room in her nursing home, folding clothes and bagging up the snacks she was forever offering to the aides. I wanted the tasks that lay before us to resolve as quickly as possible. She lay in the bed behind me, her breathing steady and her eyes closed. If that's what she wanted to say to me on her way out, it made little sense; but then, what passes between a mother and a daughter seldom does. Communication between hearts is often wrapped in bizarre packaging, and never more so when one party literally made the other one.
The phrase arrived as I thought about the average lifespan of elderly adults who enter long-term care. Men tend to last six months; the women two years. And my parents, as proper firstborns determined to uphold the mean, followed suit. Dad, although he stayed home, lived six months past his cancer diagnosis, and our mother passed two years after the day my sister and I sat in the room where he died and told her that we just couldn’t safely take care of her anymore, here in this condo with the steps and the high curbs and the distant bathroom.
Why was she was pressing these words on me? Her, of all people, who stood her ground as much as a woman born in 1941 could, who earned a paycheck and a Master’s degree when her high school classmates were on their third child, and who every morning stalked outside with a clipboard bearing requests, questions, and complaints when the house remodeling crew arrived at the little Cape Cod where she taught us how to roll out Christmas cookies.
Perhaps it was rooted in the way her life seemed to lurch from one trauma to the next. The hazy sensation of domestic upset when Pearl Harbor was attacked just before her first birthday. The odd, all-encompassing ailment at the age of 4 that everyone thought was polio, but wasn’t, and the doctors just sort of threw their hands in the air as she walked out of the hospital, perfectly well everywhere but in her psyche. She now knew that such things as hospitals existed, and that little girls could wind up in them.
The constant new addresses in the wake of World War II. The sudden death of her brother in their 20s. The destruction of her plan to join the Sisters of Charity, blocked by a family doctor who refused to grant her a clean bill of health. The drawn-out death of her husband just as her own body left her unable to walk unassisted. The variously disappointing Cincinnati Reds. The years and years and years of hospital stays and hip surgeries, corrections to the hip surgeries, and attempts to blunt the infections following the corrections to the hip surgeries.
The constant, eternal pain, in different forms and from different sources-- but always, always present.
But in every single one of these instances, the men went first, and the women followed-- whether they wanted to or not. My mother very often didn’t want to. But she always found her way over, around, and through. When my grandfather grabbed the steering wheel out of her hand as he attempted to teach her to drive, she slammed the car door and hired a driving instructor. And when she produced two girls of her own, she sent them to womens’ schools, saying this with each committee she joined and every group she served: “The outside world is going to boss you around. The men and the other women too. But you, daughters—you shove right back, even when the shove is small. Even when it seems like it doesn’t matter.”
One of the ways she shoved back was via greeting card. Indeed, we knew it was almost time to call for hospice when she tried many times, always failing, to finish a thank-you note. Of all the things she taught me, the one that brings the most joy to the largest amount of people is the habit of flipping greeting cards to the back before bringing them to the register: “This helps the cashier,” she explained, and although she never said “Undertake everything in your power, no matter how simple, to ease the journey of others,” that is the advice we carry with us as we type and teach and feed her fine grandsons.
She shoved back, and she did it with the best background music she could muster. Sometimes the shoving was as forceful as facing down my burgeoning mental health struggles by securing the help I needed; sometimes it was as soft as ushering Broadway into any perilous situation. During one wicked Good Friday storm when we were small, she took us to a corner of the basement as the tornado sirens wailed outside. There was nothing she could do about the funnel clouds nearby, nothing at all, but what she could do was teach us how to sing “Mairzy Doats”-- the men who went first in this case being Bing Crosby and Burl Ives. And after a while the sun came out, and we calmly resumed coloring the Easter eggs. The mens’ jobs were done; fine. The women would follow with PAAS.
We always had a birthday cake. We never wondered where she was. We unfailingly had permission slips signed, lunches packed, and soccer uniforms at the ready. She cannot have been happy to see the record album Hi, God! replace the straight-up Summa Theologica she toted around with her as a college student, but never mind—here’s a Rosary and a palm branch and every single sacrament. No matter what the men in the Roman collars decided, she would ditch the Latin and learn the English and muddle forward. And she did so with a Rosary and a palm branch and a trip to Confession, toting us behind.
All of this settled upon me as I sat next to her in the last week of her life. Her room was big enough to function as a double, but I dragged my chair up until my knees touched the metal siderails. “Help me,” she’d say every now and then. Having previously endured this with my father, I understood these calls as an effect of the painkillers coursing through her system. She was confused. It was her last fight, and battle was all she ever knew. Now she did not understand how to lay her weapons down.
“Help me,” she said, and every time I answered, “I’m right here” or “More morphine is coming,” and she’d say, “Okay.” Then, a few seconds later—“Help me.” Because morphine wasn’t what she wanted. Even her child wasn’t what she wanted. What she wanted was an answer.
I ran through the Divine Mercy Chaplet. She said some of it with me, instinct carrying her when consciousness could not. And when we were done, it was back to “Help me.” But this time, she added a name, and it wasn’t mine. She was never talking to me at all.
“Help me, Jesus,” she said. As always, the man would go first, and the woman would follow.