Prayers for My Children
The bedside light is dim and two of my daughters speak to each other in subdued tones. I can’t quite hear what they are saying, but if they were speaking on a normal day I know they’d be talking excitedly about art and writing. They think I am asleep and I am doing my utmost not to disabuse them of this idea. But I also know they are watching me closely, despite their conversation, in case there are any changes in my breathing, any signs of discomfort or pain.
I can hear small sounds of night-time traffic outside. Footsteps. A car door. Someone calling in the distance, laughter – people on their way home from the pub. This is a busy street during the day, but there is always some noise or other, at any hour. I insist on having one window open at least. It gives a welcome coolness to the air. Prevents an accumulation of odour. A sick old woman, me, is near to death. A bit too near for my liking. Earlier today, my eldest daughter had plugged in one of those discreet air fresheners that you can buy in any shop nowadays. She must have been worried that I would be insulted, as she waited till she thought I dozed off before fiddling in the corner with the outlet and freshener. However, it was a relief to me too; the air was cloying. I appreciated the thoughtful gesture.
The hospital bed whooshes and settles. Like the freshener, it too is plugged in to an outlet and is regulated to a constant air pressure for my maximum comfort. At first this sound was startling, but everyone – both me and my various carers, my daughters – is well used to it at this stage. I have been bed-ridden for at least a month, confined to this small room. Maybe it has been longer, I am not sure, as I navigate the fuzzy edges of time these days. I have friends who visit often and a lot of children, who cater to my every need. Well, some more than others.
This room used to be my mother’s sitting room. I have a permanent image of her seated between the bay window and the fireplace, watching the “soft parade”. I understood this phrase later to mean the outside world passing by. I was determined not to be like my mother. I would fully participate in everything life had to offer. And I did. I don’t know where the time has gone, but I would so love to have more of it. There is still much I could do. Fun I could have. “People to meet, places to go” as they say. If only.
Changes were made to the room before I got home from hospital. Items brought down from my upstairs bedroom. Lots of photographs form a collage on a cork board: my numerous children and grandchildren and great grandchildren watching me from the wall. But no books. No art. None of the clutter of my life. My bedroom here, now, is more clinical than I am used to, but it is pleasant enough. It is practical. In one corner there is a table for medication – so many prescriptions, syringes and tiny plastic cups – a veritable nurse’s station. In another corner the potty chair looms; it is moved closer to the bed in the evening, when non-family visitors have gone home. There are several tapestry covered foot stools that I bought years ago and a comfortable chair for special guests. The small set of drawers has been brought down from my room to contain the clothes I need now – mostly pyjamas – and one drawer of bed linens. It is a practical room to die in.
The two daughters who are with me now like to talk to each other, but when they realise I am awake they change their focus to me. Other siblings have accused them of “partying” with me when they are here together at night, and I am wondering who could have started this strange rumour. I only wish I could dance, be capable of a party! I love dancing.
I ask for painkillers, the potty, food. Generally that is the order of things. Though less “asking” – more demanding, or motioning if I can’t speak. Sometimes I can’t speak, the pain is so bad. And sometimes I can’t even indicate where the pain is. They try to keep me comfortable. I try to escape in sleep.
We laugh when I am on the potty. This has become the state of things: there is no longer a time and place for private bodily functions. They help me out of bed, slowly, slowly. Sometimes I am in more of a hurry but still everything goes very slowly. I can’t will my feet to move. One daughter always massages my feet while I am seated. Or rubs my back; this I love. Her hands are so warm. They are considerate of my modesty and place a shawl on my lap. My daughters sit beside me, hold my hands, ask gentle questions, tell jokes, reminisce. I am joyful with them. There is still much joy in my life.
I’m hungry and one of the girls offers to fix me a bite to eat and the other takes the potty bucket upstairs to clean. While one negotiates the steep staircase to the main bathroom, the other walks – quickly – down the hallway to the kitchen and investigates the fridge. I hover over her shoulder, peering inside the refrigerator as soon as it is opened. I like the look of the cooked drumstick of chicken cling-wrapped on a small plate behind the milk carton.
My daughter brings me a ham sandwich with a light salad and a cup of coffee. I can’t hide my disappointment with this fare and ask her about the chicken leg. The expression on her face is priceless: she has a look of surprised awe. Then I remember that I have been in my bed this whole time, and though I correctly saw a piece of chicken that was there in the fridge, I am confused at my guesswork. She explains “out-of-body” experiences to me, and describes the incident in detail when my other daughter returns to the room. She is hugely interested in this “astral projection” as she calls it, and talks about her own, related experience from a hospital bed, in another country, many years ago.
To placate me, the chicken leg is brought on a saucer along with the pepper mill, and I devour it with gusto, obviously dismayed when I reach the small bone and there is really nothing left for me to gnaw on. My two daughters look a bit shocked, but they are also amused. I return their smiles and suggest dessert. Simple rule: if I am awake, I am hungry. It is 4 a.m. One of the girls runs to the kitchen to fetch me some raspberries, cream and a bit of cake that she has made. I realise that this is what the other siblings have complained about as a “party”. But when I first came home, they explained what the Palliative Care nurse had told all of them: “be led by your mother’s desires and give her whatever she asks for; don’t forget to be a daughter as well as a carer”. I don’t have much time left, so it hardly matters how outrageous my requests might be. We all know this. A bite to eat and a coffee in the middle of the night is hardly outrageous.
After more medication and more time seated on the potty, I am tucked in, kissed and gently cuddled by both sisters. I worry and ask for my rosary beads, which are nearby on the bedside table.
One of the girls is not sure what to do; she abhors Catholicism though I know, deep down, she believes in the spirit and the soul. She just isn’t sure how it all fits into the modern world; this is something she will discover on her own terms. My other daughter is more fluid: with good humour she embraces the best of all religions and kneels by the bed to murmur the prayers with me, holding my hands steadily while I touch each bead.
I start with the Joyful Mysteries. The repetition of prayers is comforting to me. The “Mysteries” represent the stages of Christ’s life, a man’s life – well, anyone’s life. My life. Joyful. Sorrowful. Glorious. I think the “glorious” part is supposed to be the next life. After death. I’ll soon find out.
My daughter who is praying with me thinks that what we are doing is parallel to chanting a mantra in Buddhism. She is proud of herself for remembering the order of the prayers from her childhood. The other daughter is completely quiet, listening but not participating in this ritual.
I pray for both these daughters and the others too. They will all need a lot of help in the coming days to face their fears and despair. They have shown me the depths of their care and I know they will support each other with strength and love when I am gone. I pray that they will be kind to each other. This is my most important prayer. It will be a time of deep sadness for them, but I pray they will remember my joy. This will be my legacy.
Lorraine Whelan is a writer and visual artist based in Ireland.