The afternoon Paul Gamble visited his mother in the hospital after she became ill with pneumonia, she told him something he never expected to hear from her.
“I spoke to God last night,” she said, “and I told him I was ready.”
Gamble, however, was not. He figured he and his mom had been through so much that, by comparison, pneumonia was a walk in the park. They had faced his father's death from cancer. Her serious car accident. His moving back home after her accident to take care of her and his younger brothers. Her trying to recover from a serious lung condition. All that flashed through Gamble's mind that September 1993 afternoon at the hospital, a week before his 36th birthday, so he was in no mood to hear her talk about death.
“Listen, who are you to tell God it's your time?” he recalls telling her. “That's not your decision. Just take the medicine, get better, and cut this nonsense out.”
Two days later, she died in her sleep. She was 62. Her doctor couldn't understand it because she hadn't been that ill. In retrospect, Gamble said, he and his four brothers should have believed her.
“When she said she had that conversation to say she was ready, we should've listened,” he said. “That, to me, was an example of faith. Medical science is wonderful. I thank God for the care my dad and mother received, but when God decides that the time and the hour has come, it has come.”
Faith. Accepting God's will. Those concepts keep coming up in conversations with children who re-arranged their lives to take care of their sick or elderly parents. So do the words “love” and “sacrifice.”
Love and Sacrifice
While growing up in Brooklyn and Queens, Gamble observed his parents making sacrifices all the time. His father, an immigrant from Panama, often worked several jobs to send all of his sons to Catholic grammar and high schools. His mother wanted a job, but decided being a stay-at-home mom was more important. He also learned about faith from them. The family went to Mass every Sunday, where his father was a lector and he and his brothers were altar boys. His dad was also president of the parish council and home-school association, while his mother was a den mother for the parish's Cub Scout group.
Their faith was tested, starting in 1979, Gamble's last year of college, when his father was diagnosed with prostate cancer. The cancer went into remission, but returned during his last year of law school at Catholic University. After graduation in 1983, Gamble entered active naval service with the Judge Advocate General Corps. Gamble's tour-of-duty was supposed to last for three years in Norfolk, Va., but several days after he graduated from naval justice school in March of 1984, his father died. Eight months later, his mother was involved in a serious car accident, which resulted in several herniated disks and aggravated an existing lung condition. Gamble requested a change in orders so that he could work for the Corps in Brooklyn. During February of 1986, he moved back into his family's house in Queens to take care of his mom and two younger brothers who were still living there.
“It was more reflex,” he said of his move. “I was trained. One of the commandments says to honor thy mother and father. What do you do when your mother and dad become ill? How do you honor it? You take care of them. It's not an issue. You just do it.”
A large portion of his salary went toward taking care of his family. Even after he married and moved to a nearby apartment in 1989, he still supported his mom. His wife, also Catholic and active in church, was understanding, but Gamble admits those days were difficult, both emotionally and financially. There were lots of calls and visits to see how his mother was doing. An image frozen in his memory is her sitting in the living room, an oxygen tube around her nose, looking drawn and gray.
Several years after his mother's death, Gamble was working as a federal prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney when he decided he needed a change. Because he wanted to help those experiencing aging and serious illness issues, he opened up his own elder law practice in Manhattan in early 1999. He tells his clients not to dread their parents getting older, but to “cherish” the moments they have together.
Cherishing parents during trying times can be viewed as a crushing burden—or as a way of getting closer to God.
“Sacrificial loving is the whole Christian challenge,” said Pat Livingston, a nationally known Catholic writer and speaker. “That's the message of the cross. You experience that in any love relationship: that you really do give your life for the one you love.”
Elder care is often extremely trying and emotional, but no matter how difficult the situation, God is always present with his love, said Livingston, who recently spoke about how God makes creation out of chaos during an aging conference in Queens, sponsored by the Diocese of Brooklyn.
The trials of care often “break you open to how much you need God,” but there are “enormous blessings in the mess,” she said
Livingston knows about elder care because her family dealt with it in the late 1980s until 1993, when her parents died. During that period, her father was in a home that offered Alzheimer's care and her mom was in an assisted living facility in a nearby town. Her older sister, Peggy, shouldered the biggest burden of care because she lived in Knoxville, Tenn., a half-hour away from each parent. Patricia, who was living and working at Notre Dame at the time, visited her parents when she could, while their youngest sister lived in upstate New York—too far away to offer any help.
“The vulnerability is huge, and it gets bigger on both sides,” Livingston said. “Financial vulnerability. Emotional vulnerability, in terms of time, and so what does that vulnerability do? That's a huge question in everyone's life. My conviction is that it can be a doorway to love.”
But, for the elderly, being vulnerable is a doorway that's not easy to step through.
Catherine Hess, 77, has relied more on her family because of the following health problems during the past 11 years: double-bypass heart surgery; a burst appendix; the removal of a breast; the repair of an aortic aneurysm; and, earlier this year, a triple-bypass operation.
Since her husband died in 1992, she only feels safe, she said, when her daughter is around.
“She's not only my daughter,” Catherine said, “Maureen is also my best friend. I've never had a friend as dear and as close as my daughter.”
Maureen, 54, never married and lives downstairs in the two-family house she was raised, while her mother lives upstairs. The home, in Ridgewood, Queens, is the same place where Catherine took care of her elderly mother until she died.
When she does feel vulnerable, Catherine is grateful that she has Maureen to help her in her day-today activities and her son, who lives in Pennsylvania and calls her almost every day.
“Every family should be like this,” Catherine said. “Unfortunately, there aren't too many families like this. This is the time when we should always stay close. It should always be this way—not only when there's sickness, but all the time.”
Carlos Briceno writes from Woodside, New York.