Like her mother, who had worked as a nurse in a factory, my mother found her calling in caring for others. Between raising my sisters and me, she taught special education, ran a women’s crisis hotline, volunteered at the state prison to teach reading, worked at the YMCA—and that’s just what I can remember before I left for college.
I tell these stories to my mother’s caregivers now, wanting them to see who my mother was, who she still is, despite her diseased brain, her atrophied body, lying in the hospice bed, knees folded to her waist, her hands in a palsy as she reaches for something to touch to make what connection she still can to the sensate world. I tell these stories to remind myself where I came from, and why I am here beside her bed.
Six years ago, I left my apartment in Chicago to help with the care of my mother who, after several years of cognitive decline from Alzheimer’s, appeared to be nearing the end of her life. What I believed would be a summer became six months, then a year, then two, then three. She went on and off hospice care three times, until—when she began to lose weight after catching flu along with half the residents in her care home—my sisters and I decided to bring her home, sure her last days were imminent. Two and a half years later, and despite the looming danger of the COVID-19 global pandemic, I am still here and so is she.
Though I have no children, I have become for her both mother and father, one and the same. She reminds me of our reversed roles, calling out suddenly with emotion: “Daddy? Daddy?” And at once, the image of my grandfather comes to me, a balding, pale Irish American, as tall as I am, with his bartender’s apron around his waist. I pat her on the arm; whether she thinks I am him or me now doesn’t matter. She calls, too, for my deceased father, staring into a corner of the family room with such concern and sincerity in her voice that I look myself to see if she’s somehow summoned his presence with the love she still possesses for him. Why she’s never once uttered my name remains a mystery, but for her, words are used not to define but to express emotion, and that’s enough.
Before my father’s decline, he was a preeminent scholar of Black religious history. As brilliant as he’d been, I wasn’t sure, at the end of his...