One of the best presents I ever got on Christmas morning was the sound of my mother’s voice.
“I need to find my phone,” I heard her say. I woke up feeling happy as I realized I wasn’t dreaming. I really was hearing her voice again.
When I opened my eyes, I got over the disorientation and reality set in as I stared at a dry-erase board filled in with the date, names of the nurse on duty, attending doctor and other patient information. It was Christmas Day 2018 and we were on track to cap the year off with yet another round of multiple hospital visits.
I was supposed to sing midnight Mass the night before, something I had done year after year, even as a foreign correspondent based in the Philippines coming home for the holidays. In recent years, as a caregiver during our mom’s various serious illnesses, being a cantor was just a given for me on the most important feast days of the church.
But this was the first year of our mother’s stroke, which left her nonverbal, needing 100% assistance and quite vulnerable to infection. We were dealing with something far more serious than anything she had experienced in the past.
On the first day after the stroke as our mom lay in a coma, my sister and I made a promise to her that we would do everything in our power to give her the very best recovery possible. I did not know what this would look like but what I did know was that my love for my mom and a hefty dose of faith and trust in God would carry me through this commitment.
In the months and years that followed, I transitioned from a microphone- and camera-carrying reporter to a syringe-carrying home nurse, praying daily for the strength to do the right thing.
It’s been heart-wrenching to watch my mother change from a very active, athletic, fast-talking, fast-walking little dynamo to a weary, mostly silent and immobile patient. But she has remained unchanged in her ability to take with much grace and dignity whatever challenge God has thrown her way, always keeping a spark in her eyes.
Christmas time is quite different now. There is not much running around buying presents for a long list of people, nor preparing meals for the numerous visits and dinner parties throughout the season and no singing solo at midnight Mass.
But this change in the holiday season brought an unplanned tradition. As a cantor I’ve always subscribed to one of St. Augustine’s famous quotes, “He who sings prays twice.” So now unaccompanied and using my old choir hymnals, my sister and I have given our mom concerts of Christmas songs. Last year, joined by some of her friends, we serenaded her with traditional Christmas music, complete with a multiple-part harmony.
This November our mom had a weeklong stay in the hospital for a far-lingering infection that she could not shake for months. Heading into the holiday season, we’re a little on edge, just a touch anxious, wondering whether there will be a repeat of 2018. It’s yet another unpredictable Christmas ahead.
What remains constant, though, especially during this time of year is a strong sense of family. Looking to the Holy Family and the sacrifices Jesus’ parents made to bring him up with love into this world has always been a good reminder for me of what our own mother did to single-handedly raise us.
I could never repay that sacrifice, but with immense gratitude I am blessed to spend each day helping to take care of my mom, drawing on her love and being inspired by her.
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(Orendain is now a 24-hour caregiver to her mother. Prior to her mother’s illnesses, she was a freelance correspondent for Catholic News Service and other international news outlets.)