For most of the summer, I said no to opportunities that came my way. No to the article assignment for a magazine I regularly write for. No to a friend who invited me to speak at an event she hosts. No to camping trips and vacations and even a funeral. No because I had said yes several years earlier.
When Mom and I first floated the idea of her moving to my small city an hour and a half from her home, we imagined a life together that we hadn’t experienced since I was a much younger adult. We would be close enough for regular dinners, for church on Sunday, for birthday parties and school concerts. Though ostensibly our close proximity would be for me and my family to help her, we dreamed of her helping us, too. Picking the boys up from school, dropping by a casserole on weeks when being parents of three teenagers got overwhelming, staying the night if Steve and I wanted to plan a weekend away.
We didn’t know at the time just how much damage the stroke had caused. We didn’t realize the extent of her decline already. We didn’t recognize how much further a big move might drag her down.
One year after her move, we were already exploring options for more extensive care. Two years after her move, she’d gone from a two-bedroom apartment, to a one-bedroom independent living suite, to one room in a skilled-nursing unit. Three years after her move, she was on COVID lockdown, so close to us and yet completely cut off. Four years after her move, she was on hospice.
As Mom’s world grew smaller and smaller, so did mine. I knew how to say no all summer because I’ve had five years of experience. Each refusal stacking up like bricks around my life, my family, my career. As Mom grew sicker and frailer, the grip of caregiving grew tighter around my life. It was my honor to serve Mom by doing the things she could no longer do for herself. I genuinely wanted to be there for her during these twilight years of her life. But the limits on my own life sometimes felt like a shackle, like every yes to caring for mom was a no I had no option but to make.
People and Nature in Harmonious Difference
In his essay “Getting Along with Nature,” Wendell Berry describes the relationship between people and nature as a harmony of difference making. “Humans, like all other creatures, must make a difference; otherwise they cannot live,” he writes. (Berry, Wendell. “Getting Along with Nature.” The World Ending Fire. Counterpoint: Berkeley, Calif., 2017, p. 160) But unlike other creatures, whose difference on the natural landscape is often instinctual—woodpeckers and beavers and buffalo just doing what they do—humans must choose what difference they will make in the natural world around them.
“If [humans] choose to make too small a difference, they diminish their humanity. If they choose to make too great a difference, they diminish nature, and narrow their subsequent choices; ultimately, they diminish or destroy themselves. Nature, then, is not only our source but our limit and measure.” (Ibid, p. 160)
We come up against nature as our limit in a hundred different ways: a rained out picnic, mosquitos at our campsite, a fallen branch on our windshield, an ice storm that cancels all flights. Having grown up on a farm, I’ve seen that the limits of nature could make or break us: too much or too little rain, strong winds at the wrong time, pests that take out half the garden, a late frost that damages the buds, early snow that delays the harvest.
In some cases, the limits of nature can create hardship for entire communities. I think of Lake Freeman about 30 miles north of my home. Over the past couple of years, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has mandated greater water flow towards Oakdale Dam on the south end of the lake to preserve an endangered species of mussels. To be fair, Lake Freeman, and Lake Shafer to the north, are actually man-made lakes, created with dams along the Tippecanoe River. But if rainfall in the area doesn’t keep up with the release of water, the level of the lake drops—and has significantly so over the past two summers.
Last year, residents all around the lake found their boats run aground, with no access to the water. And this year, the same thing is happening. Beyond individual residents, the community, which relies on local tourism related to the lake, also has suffered. County officials are conducting an economic impact study to determine the influence of low water levels on consumer spending in the area.
It’s true that the difference nature makes often comes into conflict with humans. But pitting the limits as mere conflict doesn’t tell the whole story. There’s not always a winner and a loser. “This conflict often occurs at the expense of both estates,” Berry writes. “It is not only possible but altogether probable that by diminishing nature we diminish ourselves, and vice versa.” (Ibid, p. 162)
But if resisting the limits creates a mutual weakening, could accepting the limits lead to a mutual strengthening?
Later in “Getting Along with Nature,” Berry tells the story of two Sonora Desert oases highlighted in Gary Nabhan’s book, “The Desert Smells Like Rain.” According to Berry, the first oasis, A’al Waipia in Arizona, began to die after the National Park Service removed the Papago Indians, who had lived and farmed there for generations, in order to create a bird sanctuary for tourists. While the habitat was technically “purer” without humans living there, the irrigation ditches began to silt up, old trees were dying, and eventually, the number and variety of birds began to shrink.
Meanwhile, another oasis, Ki:towak in Mexico, continued to thrive even with ongoing farming. According to Berry, the oldest man in that village, Luis Nolia, served as “a caretaker of the oasis, cleaning the springs and ditches, farming, planting trees.” That oasis had twice as many different species of birds as the bird sanctuary. “That’s because those birds, they come where the people are,” another local Papago man told Nabhan. “When the people live and work in a place, and plant their seeds and water their trees, the birds go live with them.” (Ibid, p. 165)
Berry’s point? “What I am aiming at—because a lot of evidence seems to point this way—is the probability that nature and human culture, wildness and domesticity, are not opposed but are interdependent.” (Ibid, p. 164) An interdependence created by limits.
Limits Chosen and Welcomed
While it’s tempting to trace my caregiving role back to that moment five years ago when I asked Mom to move closer to us, it actually was the result of a series of decisions, made not only by me, but by people all around me, some even before I was born.
When God “determined my appointed times and the boundaries of my habitation,” as Paul tells the people of Athens in Acts 17:26, he thought of my dad and mom and saw a place for me with them. As far as my parents knew, they were the ones who decided. And when I arrived, they welcomed me into a relationship I would never slip out of, a relationship that included my older brother too.
But it extended further than that. The bond connected me to Grandma Ruth, Mom’s mom, who lived with us when I was a young girl. To Papaw, Dad’s dad, who lived out his last years with Dad after my parents divorced. To stepparents and stepbrothers. To half sisters and brothers. To nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles. To a husband and stepsons. Even to chosen family, close friends who were grafted in.
Again and again I saw my parents prioritize the bond from one direction, then another, firm and unbreakable. It was the same bond Jesus held firmly to, even from the cross, when he said to John, “Behold your mother,” and to Mary, “Behold your son” (John 19:26-27).
For years, it was Mom who accepted the constraints of our connection. As my mother, she birthed me, nursed me, held me, taught me, trained me, disciplined me, coached me, scolded me, enjoyed me, and corrected me. Eventually she released me.
But she never let me go. Even beyond my years living at home, Mom showed up in my life whenever I needed her. She brought groceries, packed up apartments, and listened to stories of heartbreak. When I was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer at age 36, she camped out with me in the hospital after every surgery and every round of chemotherapy, and when I came home, she made dinner, folded laundry, and stayed until I could do it all myself again.
Even at the time I knew it was a sacrifice for her, knew she’d rather be in her own home, cooking for my stepdad rather than her adult daughter. But the decision she made to show up and help wasn’t one she made each time she came. It was a limit she’d chosen and welcomed years before. A constraint she herself had been born into years before that.
“Thanks for helping again, Mom,” I’d say each time she left to go back home. “Someday, I’ll pay you back for everything you’ve done for me.”
“You don’t have to pay me back,” she insisted. “You can just take care of me someday when I’m old.”
The Lesson of Interconnected Forests
Not only does our common wisdom match humans and nature as competitors, in constant conflict with each other. We also imagine nature in competition with itself. It’s the theory of evolution, or survival of the fittest. Trees are a prime example. Scientists have long imagined that trees compete with each other for sunlight, water, and other nutrients. To this day, some foresters clear out the mature trees of a forest to make room for young, fast-growing species.
But over the last few decades, forest ecologist Suzanne Simard has discovered something much different. Based on her research, Simard believes that trees not only aren’t in competition with each other, they actually share with and support each other through an underground connection of mycorrhizal fungus that allows trees to share resources and even communicate with each other.
On the one hand, this interconnectedness might seem like a limitation in a forest. A new forest where trees from a single species are all planted at once may experience faster growth, evenly receiving and sharing sunlight, water, and nutrients. However, an unevenly aged forest, where trees of all ages and a variety of species stake their survival on the well-being of all the other trees, creates a powerful wall of protection against predators, pests, weather, and even humans. These interconnected forests also have another powerful resource that shouldn’t be underestimated: the mother trees.
“Every tree is linked to every other tree,” Simard says. “All the little trees—the seedlings, the saplings are all linked into the networks that these old trees had established through their lifetime, and that the biggest, oldest trees were the hubs of the network. They were the nuclei. They were what everything else was linked into. And they were linked to each other, these other, smaller nodes, as well. But the biggest linkers were these big, old trees. …The most powerful parts of our social systems can be the elder that has aged and is guiding younger people or guiding their culture. And yet, they can be almost invisible in the hierarchy of our social system.” (“Forests Are Wired For Wisdom,” on On Being, September 9, 2021)
And it’s not just the trees that are connected to each other through these mutual and limiting relationships. Like Berry’s oases that revealed just how mutually beneficial humans and nature can be, we thrive when we recognize how each part of creation benefits from being connected to all the rest.
“Species, they don’t live in isolation. It is a world of give-and-take. It is a relationship of silent agreements between species. We all need each other to create these healthy systems,” Simard says. “Forests are really dynamic places, just like our own societies. And it does involve death, it involves pulling back, it involves learning, or redirecting your resources, sometimes, to learn something new—so it’s not always about growth. It’s not always about becoming bigger and better in a traditional or a visible way that we might measure as wealth, for example, or power.” (Ibid.)
An Intertwined Ecosystem of Love
While Mom certainly prepared me for the possibility that one day our roles would reverse and I’d be the one taking care of her, it was never comfortable for her. When I’d bring her a little gift or buy her a new shirt, she reminded me that she was the one who usually did that kind of thing. When I would help her get dressed or, later on, help her eat, she’d giggle nervously, uncomfortable that I had to do things for her that she’d done for me as a child.
“You said I could pay you back by taking care of you when you were older,” I reminded her, trying to set her mind at ease. Still, she worried about being a burden. When she first moved nearby, I suggested we plan a weekly dinner together. But she didn’t want us to feel locked into a schedule. When she began falling more frequently, she often wouldn’t call me right away, trying to get up herself. When she couldn’t, she texted: “Are you busy?” It usually took several back-and-forth messages for me to realize I needed to help her up off the floor. And when she finally needed more full-time care, we considered having Mom move in with us. But she always insisted she didn’t want to.
“You have your own life and family,” she said.
When Mom was placed on hospice earlier this summer, I kept hearing the same advice from several different people—my pastor, a hospice nurse, friends who’d gone through the same experience with a beloved family member: You need to tell your Mom it’s okay for her to die, that you’ll be okay once she’s gone.
But how could I possibly say that? I’d never lied to my mom before, and I wasn’t sure I’d be okay. Our lives had become so intertwined I wasn’t sure where hers ended and mine began. The limits I took on as a caregiver looked remarkably like the constraints Mom had embraced as a mother. The hands I used to feed Mom looked just like the hands she used to brush her own aging mother’s hair. Each time I read to Mom or worked a puzzle with her at the nursing home, I saw myself as a child, perched in front of my Grandma’s lift chair painting her nails or playing cards.
So instead of just telling her I’d be okay, as if somehow our shared life hadn’t meant that much to me afterall, I appealed to what held us together, the limits of our relationships past, present, and future. The ecosystem of our love.
“For years, you took care of us, Mom. And now I take care of you,” I said, through tears. “But now I’ve also got Steve (my husband), and Gerry (my brother) has Carla. You don’t have to worry about us anymore, Mom, because we all have each other. And I promise we’ll take care of each other just like you took care of us.”
When Mom died, we were all there, holding her hand and telling her how much we loved her. Then, after we said our last goodbyes, we turned to each other. Our loss was great, but the bonds Mom had woven among us were strong.
Photo by Charity Singleton Craig.