My mother is on her death bed. She has been bed-bound for the past three months. Her list of illnesses are all collaborating to end her life. In addition to old age which in itself has proved to be a terminal condition to humans, she also has diabetes, hypertension and an enlarged heart. She was hospitalized for a week three months ago and when she got discharged she came back very different from the person she was when she got admitted. There was less of her physically, she had lost weight. Mentally she was also very different. She has dementia now, she is often lost in her own world. She forgets her grandchildren’s names and jumbles up sequences of events in her own life.

My oldest sister died eleven years ago, and when her child, my niece, came to visit, my mother asked where my sister was. She had no recollection of the horrific death and the devastating funeral. She had to be retold and she grieved anew. I am my mother’s primary caregiver, and watching her being cornered by death has been nightmarish. She is leaving in increments and there is nothing that can be done. When she was discharged I was told she needed palliative care. My duty is to offer her physical comfort while waiting for the inevitable.

This has been the hardest thing I have ever had to do. Watching someone you love lose grip on life can make you lose your own tenuous grip on sanity. Death by natural causes is slow and deliberate. It seems to be working from a list. Daily it takes away abilities that my mother has always had as an adult.

First her ability to walk unassisted went; she needed to be supported to walk. One day, after placing her on the bathroom to offer her privacy to do her business, I came back and her entire upper body was hanging from her side, head and arms pointing to the floor like a child about to do a handstand. Try as she might she could not lift her head up. After this day she lost the dignity of being alone when she was in the bathroom. I had to stay with her, and the embarrassment of me being there led to her bowel to be bashful even though she was pressed. This in turn led to constipation, then diarrhea. She would hesitate to call me to take her to the bathroom. Around this time she had her first accident and for the first time I had to wipe her, clean her up.

We were both shaken by this change. My mother has always been the strong care-giver, our matriarch. This event disrupted the natural order of things. She became desolate. Her illness cornered her further. At this point she is completely bed-bound and in nappies. I got wet wipes the other day after I had been using tissues and warm water with a face cloth for weeks to clean her up. The wipes have made our changing time quicker. I struggle to look at her during this time because she always looks so embarrassed. I have taken to putting earphones on her ears when I clean her up so she can listen to gospel music.

There are bed-sores to contend with when dying, and these are made worse by the fact that my mother cries when turned and put on her stomach. She hates sleeping in this position and her cries make me indulge her preferred sleeping position even though I know how terrible it is for her circulation.

Aging is a lot like growing up but in reverse. My mother has become my big child. I feed and bath her and provide all her entertainment. She has become much more fussy as an eater. I remember standing over the stove for a long time making her the five pepper beef stew that I know she likes. When I fed her, she picked up all the bell peppers and handed them to me after spitting them out. I was angry that my food was not going down well, and squeamish at being given peppers covered in saliva. Later that night I cried on my own, but the next day I had to be up, feeding, giving sponge baths and brushing teeth.

None of this is easy. I am no martyr. I am often sad, sometimes angry. There are times when I want to run from the responsibility of it all. But then I remember how much my mother has loved me and how in bringing me up she also had to contend with my bodily fluids without flinching. And so I continue.

Since writing this article, Michelle’s mother has passed away. All of us at FunDza send love and condolences.

Note: This article forms part of the new #Todalavida Mindspace series in which writers reflect on their personal experiences.


Tell us: have you had to look after your parents as they age?