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An Unexpected Gift Comforted This Caregiver

As she prepared her home for hospice care, she discovered a final gift from her dying mother. But how had it gotten there?

Illustration of a gift hidden under a couch

“Your mother’s breast cancer has returned, and it’s metastasized to her bones,” said my mother’s doctor. “It’s…everywhere. I’m so sorry, Roberta.”

I clutched the phone, tears in my eyes. Mother’s diagnosis had no cure. Worse, as a nurse of more than 20 years who’d cared for many end-of-life patients, I knew what her future held.

Even as a health-care professional, I had never really been able to do anything for my mother. Fiercely independent, she’d always been the caretaker, one with a hugely charitable spirit. Especially when I was a teen, battling my own incurable illness. She’d arranged and accompanied me on numerous trips to the Cleveland Clinic. During those long train rides, she’d always reach into her bag and produce a gift—a Seventeen magazine, a brand-new flannel nightgown for me. We didn’t have a lot of money, but somehow Mother always managed to find a way to give me the perfect gift to lift my spirits.

Growing up, I caught glimpses of her generosity toward others too. Mother had an uncanny ability to see people’s unmet needs, making others feel supported and loved through her gifts. I once spotted Mother delivering a crib to a stranger’s porch after she’d learned the newborn had been sleeping in a drawer. On my visits to the hospital, she’d squeeze a jar of raspberry preserves into her bag “for that nice nurse.” In town, people would ask me to thank my mother for gifts I didn’t even know she’d given.

Shortly after her diagnosis, I stopped by Mother’s house. She had wanted to live at home while she could, so my sister and I took turns checking in on her throughout the day. I cracked open the door, expecting to see her sedated from her pain meds. But as I paused in the entrance, undetected, I saw Mother poring over the newspaper. She was talking to herself out loud. “Look at that mama and those babies,” she said. “Their trailer burned to the ground…. I’ve got to remember to bring them a few boxes of Pampers.”

Despite receiving the most devastating news of her life, Mother was still planning how to help others! Even as her condition worsened, giving little gifts filled her with such purpose that she hardly slowed down. It was just engrained in who Mother was. I’ll never forget when I went to sort her medications and found a stack of flower-sprigged, handwritten notes next to her pills, ready to clothespin to the mailboxes of anyone nearby who was going through a hard time.

Mother eventually started to stay with me at my cabin on the weekends and let me care for her. It quickly became her favorite place. I treasured our little traditions during this time. After I’d help her into the house, she would stretch out on my comfy floral sofa, my dog Spanky curled up at her feet. I’d make us cups of tangy Red Zinger tea. She’d look at me and say, “My purse, honey.” Tucked inside would be one of her signature surprises, like a baggie of treats for Spanky or a new pen for me.

Mother lived with metastatic bone cancer for a little more than a year. At the end of her life, she was no longer conscious. Her wish was to be discharged to my cabin for hospice care. The night before, I moved all the furniture and cleaned the hardwood floor to prepare for the delivery of her medical equipment. I was honored to care for Mother in her last days but saddened knowing I’d soon lose her. As I cleaned, I prayed for the strength I knew I’d need to usher her from this life to the next.

The next morning, two burly guys lifted the sofa to move it, making room for the hospital bed. “What do we do with these, ma’am?” one asked. I looked over. He held up two beautifully wrapped gifts, each tied up with Mother’s favorite ribbon. A shiver shot down my spine. How on earth had they gotten there? I’d just moved that couch the night before and seen nothing! My hands shook as I unwrapped a chew toy for Spanky—and a box of Red Zinger tea.

At that moment, it was as if my mother spoke directly to my heart: Our little traditions will get you through this, Roberta, even if I can’t take part anymore. You’ll see.

The mystery of how they got there remains unsolved. But I’ll always believe that Mother gave me her last, perfect gift—in concert with One who works with an unseen hand.

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