KAI RYSSDAL: Sunday’s Mother’s Day. So you’ve got 36 hours or so to scramble if you happen to have forgotten. It’s a day when restaurants are packed with moms who don’t want to cook that day. And when maybe, if you are a mom, you take time for some special pampering. Nanci Olesen’s three kids are older now. But she’s become kind of a mom again, relearning the value of the job.
NANCI OLESON: Several months ago, my sister was diagnosed with brain cancer. So each weekend, I care for her 6-month-old girl, Rose, and her 2-year-old boy, Jens.
At night, I settle the baby into a portable crib in our basement family room. A cooler with two bottles is next to my pullout couch. I’m still winding down from work and a hectic supper. Now I have to zero in on this primal task.
At 1 a.m., I change her diaper while she belts out her hunger cry. Sometimes I can’t get her bottle at the right angle. We walk and bounce. I feel a familiar, desperate edge.
Finally she settles in for a 45-minute feeding. My neck cricks. I swaddle her. She’s got my sister’s face.
I was 11 when my sister was a baby. I learned how to swaddle from swaddling this baby’s mother.
My stomach lurches in fear. We sleep thickly for two, maybe three hours. Then we begin again.
In the morning, I hear my teenage daughters upstairs helping Jens eat his oatmeal. Downstairs, a smile breaks across Rose’s face. She wiggles her little body. She’s radiant. I sing her a little song.
Then I try brushing my teeth while holding her. Suddenly she’s crying full-on. I abandon my hygiene.
We march upstairs. “Do you want to try holding her?” I half-beg my 12-year-old. I feel bitter. Why do I have to do this? Then I feel horribly guilty. Then I’m angry. Why is my sister so sick?
My 13-year-old sits with Jens, smearing jelly on his toast and answering, “Why is the light on? What’s in my cup? Where’s the doggy?”
When I took care of my own babies years ago, I felt vehemently that this work of bouncing and feeding and diapering was the hardest, most important work in the world.
Since then I’ve waitressed, catered, hauled manure, chaired the school board. Now I have a desk job. But I’m back again to the hardest work.
I’ve stepped in out of love and guilt and financial necessity.
My deep grief drives me forward. My fear simmers beneath. I focus on the child care.
I can do this.
It’s the best, most important work I’ll ever do.
RYSSDAL: Nanci Olesen is a radio writer and producer in Minneapolis.
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