The phone rings shrilly in the middle of the night. Jostled out of a deep sleep, I bolt up and answer it. “Hello?” My heart is hammering in my chest—is this the phone call that I have been waiting for? Dreading? “Hi Beryl, it’s Liz from the hospital. Sorry to call you so late, but your mom is real agitated. She keeps insisting that she talk to you. She's real upset, do you mind?” Mind? Mind? I am not sure what is louder, my heart beating or her gum snapping, but I take a deep breath, thank her for calling and ask her to put my mother on the phone.

My heart is hammering in my chest—is this the phone call that I have been waiting for?Over the last seven months of my mother’s life, calls like that were not uncommon. This one resulted in me driving into Manhattan at 2:00 AM since my mother insisted she needed me. On the phone, while she sounded agitated, there was some semblance of coherence. However, as I walked into her room, she looked right at me and begged me to find the missing cat. The meowing, she insisted, was keeping her up, and no one seemed to care. At first I thought she was joking, but when she clearly was not, I told her I would find the cat and let it out. As I walked around the room, she kept pointing me to different corners, telling me where the meowing was coming from. The room grew blurry as my eyes filled with tears.

This was my mother? My mother, the college professor? The valedictorian of her class? The woman who worked, parented and still got her PhD, even in the face of this final illness that was claiming her life? I grabbed some paper towels from the bathroom, and I wiped the tears from my cheeks. I sniffled and blew my nose, the harshness of the paper towel offering me some kind of reality check in this surreal situation. I gamely looked under her bed and proclaimed that I found the cat. I told her that I was going to go up to the roof of the hospital and let it go.

My mother’s sigh of relief shattered my heart. As if I had offered a dehydrated person a drink, she settled her head on her pillow, a faint smile passed over her lips, and she looked ready to sleep. I walked out of her room and went to the nurses’ station. I told the nurses what had transpired, and with understanding looks they explained that this type of mental deterioration was not uncommon for people with end-stage cancer.

End-stage cancer? How could that be? I mean, I knew how that could be. I had known that my mother was sick for years. Just the deterioration over the last few months had been marked and fast. With the birth of my first child seven months before, I became a young member of the sandwich generation, stuck between caring for a parent and one’s children at the same time, a title that an acquaintance had given me. My internal reaction to my new title was that of a primal cry that shook me: “No, I am not the sandwich generation, I am a young married girl with her first baby. The sandwich generation is for other, older people!”

But here I was, taking care of my new baby, experiencing all of her firsts, while at the same time experiencing the same things with my mother, but for her they were her lasts. Feeding my baby pureed carrots and wiping her mouth with a napkin conjured up unpleasant associations, as I had done the same only hours before for my mother. I found it hard to revel in my baby’s first physical milestones of rolling over and sitting up, when I had just come from assisting the nurses in the same tasks for my mother’s personal care.

This was my mother? My mother, the college professor? The valedictorian of her class? Looking back, I realize that when put in incredible situations, you are given new reserves of strength to do what needs to be done. I needed to take care of one life that had just entered the world, as I helped another one leave. The poignancy of that time has stayed with me always. While that time cannot be described as anything less than bleak and painful, it is also remembered with glimmers of light.

There was the smile that would cross her face (even up to the very end) at the mention of her grandchild. We had hours we spent just together, giving us a chance to focus on the moment, rather than on a task that needed to be accomplished. I was blessed with the clarity that allowed me to drop other once-important, but really meaningless, trivialities, for the chance to focus on my mother. There was the constant reminder that the present moment is important, because once it’s gone, it’s gone forever. The gifts that I got from that time are treasured keepsakes that I keep in my heart. While the tasks themselves were painful, the privilege of being the person whom my mother trusted more than anyone else is something for which I am truly thankful.

Through all of this, I gained a greater appreciation of the commandment of honoring one’s parents. As parents, we nurture our children throughout their childhoods (and beyond) in the hope that they will give us joy, and hopefully care for us when we are no longer able to do so for ourselves. Yes, there is a Torah commandment to have children and raise them. But honoring one’s parents is an even greater commandment. We shouldn’t expect anything back.

The parent/child relationship is compared to our relationship with our Creator. We honor our parents as a means to acknowledge and thank them for sustaining us in this world. This point is even more poignant when one cares for a dying parent. There was no other expectation on my part, except to make her as comfortable as possible. When she finally did return her soul to its Maker, I knew that in helping her, I really helped myself, as I found new reserves of caring and empathy that I am able to use to this very day.