Role Reversal & The Last Chapter of Life
By: Sarah Braden, Founder of Our Terminal
Master chef, caring nurse, English tutor, and wise counselor are all hats my mom wore on a daily basis. Skilled at her diverse roles, Mom was the best and brightest in my eyes as a child. As I sat on the vanity chair in her bathroom, she tamed my unruly blond hair, while I shared my worries, dreams, and friend drama alike.
Stories from my school day were frequently shared over warm brownies at the kitchen table. Driving me to marching band and track practice created time for us to talk about the mundane and serious sides of life. As my childhood came to a close and college graduation approached, some of Mom’s hats were hung on hooks where they would grow dusty over time from infrequent use. No longer was she needed to cook my meals, bandage my wounds, or chauffeur me to activities. As I walked down the wedding aisle soon after college, Mom struggled with changes that came in our relationship. For over eighteen years she had been my go-to person, my primary caregiver, my number one. How was she now supposed to embrace a more supportive role in my life?
Redefining roles can be hard in parent-child relationships.
Over the next several years, our bond morphed into something new. Our connection settled into a new rhythm, beautiful in its own way. Though no longer responsible for my day-to-day care, Mom was still available to encourage, give advice, and cheer me on through the new mountains and valleys of adult life. Sharing squeals of joy when a job offer came through, she celebrated my triumphs and was always a quick text message away. Becoming a parent myself, I dialed late-night calls about newborn concerns, post-partum worries, and colicky babies. Though our interactions looked different than before, Mom was Mom, and I was her daughter. Our roles remained well defined, known, and comfortable.
Then, something changed. On a crisp winter day four years ago, I nervously sat in a hospital chair hearing an oncologist deliver worst-case news. Mom had terminal cancer. Reality fell harshly on our ears as this was a shock, not part of our plan for her life. Just a few short months before, Mom had made a cross-country move to be near my family. A new chapter was unfolding for her. Anxious to see her granddaughters grow up, she dreamed of sleepovers, volunteering at their school, and building memories together. As the road map of her cancer was laid out before us, we heard words like, “chemo,” “low success rate,” and “not much time.” Grabbing her hand, I whispered into her ear, “It is going to be okay. We can do this together.”
At that moment, the roles between parent and child began their intricate reversal. The hats Mom hung up long ago were picked up again, but this time, they got placed upon my head instead.
Over the next five months, most of my time was spent driving Mom to doctor’s appointments, administering her medications, and even brushing her hair some days. Managing her phone calls and advocating for her care were part of my weekly routine. Cooking most of her meals, I provided the nourishment she needed, as a lot of days she was too weak to care for herself. Needing companionship, we would take country drives to talk, process, and reminisce. Many of the tasks I performed reminded me of the ways she cared for me as a child. Like I depended on her, she now needed me. In the same way I went to her for advice, she looked my direction for decision making, comfort, and the reassurance that it was all going to be okay.
At some point in life, we will care for our parents much like they did for us in our formative years. Tasks they performed, we will do in return. Conversations they started, we will muster first. Boundaries they set for us, we might have to impose for their safety and the security of those around us. Daunting and exhausting, these changes don’t seem natural. The reversal brings grief, knowing that life is coming full circle. The reminder that life doesn’t last forever becomes a constant companion.
Through the months caring for Mom, I grew to realize that, though hard, devoting time to an aging parent can be one of the biggest blessings and greatest honors we receive.
Blessing and honor: the two words that will forever come to my mind when I think about the last five months I had with Mom. Just as she led me through childhood, I got to journey with her from this earthly life into the next. We became partners in the last great transition she would take.
As Mom fought her brutal and unforgiving cancer, in essence, I watched her die slowly, painfully, before my eyes. Battling the chemo, ER visits, nausea, and fatigue, she continued fighting for normalcy, while gracefully embracing her destiny. Not afraid to die, she showed me how to live life to the fullest until the very end. Pouring out forgiveness, love, and friendship onto those around her, Mom made the most of her final days, celebrating the beauty of this world, while planning for her future.
Modeling courage in the midst of the hardest days and unknown outcome, Mom helped me see that the journey to death can be special too. The blessing of loving her unconditionally to the end helped me see terminal disease as a gift of time, and as space to live, laugh, and love together. Even in her death, Mom taught me one of the most profound lessons of my life: How to end well and impact lives to the very last breath.
I guess our roles weren’t reversed after all.
About Our Terminal Our Terminal is a 501c3 organization located in the Brazos Valley. We provide faith-based resources for families navigating a terminal illness. We believe that every person’s story matters and that no one should walk through a terminal diagnosis alone.
Visit www.ourterminal.com to learn more.