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Caring for Mom

“Who is going to care for me?” Mom asked after Dad died. I knew that we would find a way.

By Thompson Webb III ’66

I saw grief drinking a cup of sorrow and called out,
“It tastes sweet, does it not?”
“You’ve caught me,” grief answered,
“and you’ve ruined my business.
How can I sell sorrow, when you know it’s a blessing.”

—Rumi, Birdsong, transl. Coleman Barks

NOT LONG AFTER MY MOTHER DIED IN 2009, I realized that I had accomplished one of my life’s dreams by caring for Mom during her final decade. It was not a dream that I could have articulated when at Swarthmore, but it was a dream that emerged once my parents began aging and especially when Mom would comment while weary with all her care for Dad, “Who is going to care for me?” I had no answer, but I knew that we would find a way.


1944: Thompson Webb III is cradled by his mother.

The way emerged as I assisted Mom while she lived independently after Dad died in 1998 and then opened further after her bout with pneumonia in early 2006, as I and others found help for her, which she accepted gracefully. During her final four years when she had to use a walker, my job became one of managing from Massachusetts the crew of caregivers in her Wisconsin home. A capable and professional group, they would turn to me for critical decisions and then advise me on what to decide. I managed mostly by phone but periodically by visiting, which Mom loved. Her pleasant manner and way of being made it a rewarding job for all involved. She attracted people to her, and they served her with an attentiveness and love that went well beyond duty. Her neighbors and friends pitched in. I helped make things happen, such as arranging for a masseuse to come to Mom’s home regularly. My wife and daughters contributed, as did my brother and his family. Our time culminated in 75 friends, neighbors, caregivers, and family gathering to celebrate her 90th birthday in April 2009, and then in Mom being relatively active right up to the stroke that took her down on Sept. 14, 2009.

So when I stood by Mom as she breathed her last on Oct. 7, 2009, my feelings were both sad and triumphant. Sad to lose her and to lose our many interactions but triumphant in having been able to help her stay in her lakefront home and then support her in her wished-for way of dying. “I just want to be able to go to sleep and not wake up,” which is just what she did beginning on Oct. 1, after suffering her stroke. She had had a good and full life and knew it. This final act of standing beside her with my brother seemed like a victory for us all including Mom because she had accomplished what she wished for.


When Tom Webb’s mother (with Tom in 2009) had a stroke, his continuous involvement with her made it bearable. She had long expressed a desire to go and had waited, not always patiently, for it to happen. She had talked to him about her desires, and she knew of his love and wish for her to live but also that he could let her go. The stroke slurred her speech, but she and Tom still had a good understanding. The day before she went to sleep, she summoned him for a long, loving, incoherent talk. The next day, her doctor came to the house to see her. She was alert during his visit and answered his yes/no questions and affirmed her wish not to be resuscitated. When he left, she went to sleep. After eight hours of sleeping through lunch and dinner—and two diaper changes—everyone knew this was it. Tom was losing her and this powerful time in his life. The period of caregiving that his grief had spawned was over, but his sense of involvement and service, along with sweet memories, now carry him into a new phase of grieving and life.

I had learned from caring for Dad (and even earlier from being in touch with Walt Westman ’66 during his struggle with AIDS) that grieving starts long before death and that I could channel my grief energy into active involvement in care giving. It is all one piece, and my involvement buffered the ultimate loss. Having started with the prospect of loss, when the end came, I found that there is no end. Conversations continue within, and memories are rich. In Dad’s case, I also found that I needed to handle several tasks for Mom that had been Dad’s (i.e., financial planning) because, at nearly 80, Mom was not about to pick them up. So in certain functions, I became Dad for Mom and in that way freed her up to enjoy her life on her own.

During my care giving, I shared many activities with Mom. Mom had been a family historian and was in touch with both her immediate and extended families. Old photos and letters abounded in her home, and I loved reading the letters that she and my father wrote during World War II when she was pregnant with me. In one she wrote, “Let’s not have all boys!” not knowing that that is all she would have. We both laughed. I also enjoyed reading letters that she had written to Dad in 1935 when she was an athletic schoolgirl—quite a contrast to her at 90, but a telling reminder of the woman who had raised me. I also asked her to take me on a tour of her childhood home in Los Angeles, a house long ago destroyed. I then assembled a booklet describing the home in words and photos that she delighted in reading and seeing just two days before suffering the stroke that led to her death.

During my visits, I often journaled about how she was and what I was feeling while being with her. My notes preserved some of her stories and memories. In transcribing and editing my writings after her death, I have had a way to relive the pleasures of caring for Mom. These included:

April 13, 2004: Mom is turning 85. I bought her a book of photos from Carmel, Calif., where her family had vacationed, and took it to send by overnight mail. The postal clerk commented on the expense at $21. I told her it was for a woman who was turning 85 and cost was not an issue. The woman’s eyes teared up. She couldn’t speak momentarily and then asked, “Is she your mother?” “Yes,” I replied. “Do you visit her often?” “Yes, I was there 10 days ago.”

July 12, 2004: Mom and Dad’s 63rd wedding anniversary today. I brought home a dozen roses, and Mom could only say, “Oh, my.” They now sit in a vase on the dining table on the porch.

While home in Massachusetts, I used active imagination to help guide me and put me in touch with the deep feelings that this work with Mom elicited. In a movement practice, I visualized being with Mom in her frailness. I was drawn to imagine giving her Reiki, which I then moved to enact with my hands over her imagined body. Later, when visiting her, I actually did so, which placed me in a waking dream in which life imitated imagination. In 2001, I also imagined calling Dad in from wherever he may reside and sat with him on a rock above a Sierra lake, where he had once ridden horses and written to Mom. I was overcome with grief to imagine him with me and did not want to disturb his peace. All I was moved to tell him was, “Mom’s okay.” It felt big at the time.

Thompson Webb III ’66, a retired Brown University professor who studied past climates and vegetation, created “Caring for Mom” in anticipation of discussing care giving at his 45th reunion this June. Recently awarded the Joseph Shane Award, Webb enters his 44th year of alumni interviewing. English Country dancing, discovered at Swarthmore, brings him into contact with many alumni dancers and treasured friends.

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