Written by Sr. Lucy Marie, SV
As a Sister of Life, I have often seen the beauty and frailty of newly conceived life in the womb and the effort needed by many to support a mother and that new life about to burst forth. However, a recent experience expanded my horizon to the beauty that can be experienced when we accompany someone in “giving birth” at the end of life.
I was seven years old when my family and four older brothers immigrated to a suburb of New York from Sicily, Italy. When my mother was 83, following my father’s death, she moved in the home of my eldest brother Sam and his wife, Rose, and this began the journey of attending to my mother in her advanced years. At first mom’s health was good, but with each passing year new challenges arose. How did my brothers respond to each situation? They would say, “Okay, this is the next stage of her life and the newest difficulty so let’s figure out how best to care for her.” They made it sound so simple. It meant adding full-time aides, all of us taking turns spending nights with mom, and being creative so that she could enjoy life. Sam would pick up mom at home every day at 11:15am and take her to the “shop,” the family business Rye Auto Collision where my four brothers work together, and there they would prepare and enjoy an Italian lunch cooked just the way mom liked it.
In October 2017, at the age of 93, mom suffered a serious stroke and eventually this led our family to bring her to Calvary Hospital in the Bronx. The stroke affected her speech, brain, and eventually her capacity to swallow food. Calvary became our second home for the next seven weeks. The day we arrived there with mom, Dr. Michael Brescia, the Executive Medical Director, called for my brother Sam and me to be brought to his office. He sat us down and beside him was Dr. Alma Carrington who would be mom’s primary physician. I will never forget Dr. Brescia’s first words to us, “I want to thank you for bringing your mother here to Calvary. It is our pleasure to serve her, and she is a gift to us. I don’t care if she is 93 or 23 years old, she will receive the best care. Every patient is treated with dignity and respect because we believe that in serving her we are serving Jesus.” Dr. Carrington smiled and nodded in agreement. Then he told me that they would work as a team to care for her, which meant that mom would have a doctor, nurses, and technicians, and to top it off Dr. Brescia said, “And I’ll have a care partner sit in the room with your mom, round the clock, just in case she might need something. This will allow you and your brothers to get back to work and not have to worry about anything.” I felt such relief and joy knowing that our mother would be so well attended to; now this was true health care. Constantly from the staff I would hear, “Dr. Brescia told us that this is the way we do things. He has trained all of us to treat everyone with great reverence and that includes the family as well as the patient.”
When you walk into the hospital there is a sign which reads, “Calvary, where life continues.” At first it might seem strange to read this because their mission is to provide palliative/end of life care and some see it just as a place where one goes to die. To me it was so much more. The hospital is aptly named Calvary because the Mount of Calvary was the place where Jesus died out of love for us. He was victorious over death and opened the way to new and eternal life. I came to understand that here mom’s life wasn’t just going to “end” but in fact we would continue to assist her to live it fully for the remainder of her days. The words inscribed on the wall of mom’s room read, “Here we don’t count days, we count moments.” We had amazing moments as her life progressed. One day I saw a technician dancing outside the door of a patient’s room. I stopped to watch in wonder, and when she realized I was looking, she caught my eye and we both burst out laughing. I said to her, “Sharnette, what are you doing?” She said, “Palliative care!” This particular man was feeling sad that day, and his son had told Sharnette that he enjoys watching people dance. She was dancing to bring a smile to that man’s face. I looked at her and said, “That is the best in palliative care.”
There were other moments of life lived to the full. I had the privilege of being with mom and praying by her side. Each day she was able to attend Mass; they “hoisted” her out of bed, placed her in a recliner, and wheeled her down to chapel. A priest would visit, bless her, and anoint her. Her spiritual life was attended to, and she lived fully united to Christ and His Church via the sacraments.
Each day my brothers would visit and the entertainment would begin! Sam would sing to mom her favorite songs and bring a twinkle to her eyes. He could even get her to “sing along”, and we watched in amazement as she moved her lips to mouth the words. My brother Joe was the backup singer, and he would also throw in a joke or tease mom to get her to give him that Italian look that we were so familiar with – they call it the Italian eye, and mom gave it to him! Tony would be the steady peaceful presence that would arrive to comfort mom, and by his words and gestures would assure her that all would be well. Sergio had something about his voice that would get mom to respond, open her eyes just long enough, and then let out a smile. We also think it’s because he would bring his special coconut oil cream so that mom would feel comfortable.
Some would say, “Why bother doing all this?” “To live in a manner worthy of our human dignity, and to spend our final days on this earth in peace and comfort, surrounded by loved ones – that is the hope of each of us. In particular, Christian hope sees these final days as a time to prepare for our eternal destiny.” (To Live Each Day with Dignity: A Statement on Physician-Assisted Suicide, USCCB) We knew that as mom had given birth to us, we were now assisting her in the “birthing” process that would lead to new and eternal life. How we live our lives and how we assist each other in living our final days can determine how we will spend eternity. Is it any wonder that when mom died she was as peaceful as ever? Her doctor described her final moments like this, “It was as if Our Lord came, stretched out His hands, and said, ‘Come.’ And she stretched out her hands and went.” Through this journey she was born into new life.
Originally printed in the Spring 2017 issue of Imprint.