54: In Her Footsteps

54: In Her Footsteps

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Amazing Mom

In Her Footsteps

We are not put on earth for ourselves, but are placed here for each other. If you are there always for others, then in time of need, someone will be there for you.

~Jeff Warner

My ninety-year-old mother had come to stay with me. Every day, I watched as her arthritic fingers adeptly tied the laces of her favorite white sneakers. I marveled at her strong will to be self-sufficient. Whenever I asked if she needed help, she simply looked up at me and smiled, saying, “Remember, I’m the one who taught you.”

In spite of my mother’s strength and her will to survive, her heart weakened. Soon, she became bedridden. All the while, under the dust ruffle of her bed, her sneakers waited for her.

As I watched her strength diminish, I began to think: No one can fill your shoes. I recalled a lifetime of friends and family members she had healed and assisted. She had cared for her husband with heart disease and subsequently faced forty years of widowhood. Her mother received her personal attention until a fatal stroke. Her World War II war-hero brother, battle weary from a war with cancer, had stayed in her home until he required hospice at the veterans’ hospital. After her first daughter died she had raised her six grandchildren. When an estranged son-in-law was dying of emphysema, she took him in and cared for him until the end. When she was eighty-five, her Russian-born childhood friend came to her home, where he was helped until his illness worsened and he required hospitalization.

She had an enormous heart and had acted as caregiver for so many people, taking them into her home. I wondered why. What was the catalyst that created this beneficent behavior? What triggers the selflessness of being a healer?

After my mother’s death, I traveled to her home to sort through her belongings. There, hidden in a box in her bedroom closet, I found the answer. Wrapped in tissue paper was a twelve- by fifteen-inch professional photograph that I had not seen since my childhood. I recalled the rainy day when I had stumbled upon it while playing in the attic. I had asked my mother about it, but she offered no explanation. From that time until the day I returned to my mother’s home, the photograph had disappeared. That picture showed a young child in a casket. Perhaps she thought that it was too disturbing for me to see, for the child was three years old, dressed in a white dress with a white veil, laid out in a white casket.

Later, at my mother’s wake, I heard the story. The child’s name was Janina. My mother had been her godmother and aunt. Janina’s family lived above the neighborhood grocery store, and she had been the prize of the family, a Shirley Temple look-alike with a sparkling personality. At that time, there were no vaccines for childhood diseases and Janina contracted diphtheria. Back then, if you kept a sick child at home, the public-health authorities were authorized to quarantine your home, and if you had a business attached to it that would be quarantined too. If Janina stayed home the grocery store would have to be closed and her whole family would lose its livelihood. So Janina was sent to the hospital.

Visiting hours were limited but my mother and her sister went by trolley and visited as much as they could. Nevertheless, Janina declined and died. The hospital nurses said that she died of a broken heart. My mother and aunt had felt that if only Janina had been able to stay at home, she would have rallied and survived. My heartbroken mother decided that she would never let that happen again. She would care for the people she loved so they would never die alone with broken hearts like Janina.

With the passing of my mother, the legacy of caring for others was passed onto me. Her lesson was so simple: take care of others. No one can completely fill her shoes, but I try to walk in her footsteps every day.

~Lorraine Allison

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