Margaret Coleman likes to joke that it took one mother to care for 14 children and now it takes 14 children to care for one old mom.
Coleman – Marge to her friends – turned 92 this month. For 15 or so years, after her youngest child left home, she lived alone in the 19th century three-story frame house where she and her husband raised their family.
During her child-rearing days, life in the house was a pleasant, controlled riot, kids and toys and books everywhere, her parents installed upstairs.
Back then, in the 1950s and ’60s, a family of 14 kids wasn’t remarkable, not in the South Side neighborhood of Beverly.
“Years ago,” Coleman says, asked whether she’d wanted that many children, “you took them as they came. There wasn’t anything like Planned Parenthood,” at least not for an Irish-Catholic family such as hers.
She was known as a warm mother who enjoyed her big brood, and in the crowded house, the Coleman kids learned to depend on each other and to be independent. If you wanted lunch for school, you made it yourself. When you went somewhere, you walked or took the bus. The older kids took care of the younger ones.
Then the Coleman kids, who now range in age from 47 to 67, grew up.
John, Mike, Tom, Tim, Maureen, Maribeth, Peggy, Terry, Patty, Rich, David, Diane, Cathleen, Dan.
One by one, they moved out, to work, to marry, to have their own children.
Finally, the day came that Marge Coleman was alone – and determined to stay in the old house until the end, which worked just fine until, inevitably, it didn’t, leaving her and her children in a quandary familiar to many elderly parents and their children:
Somebody would be around
“Your hands are freezing,” Coleman said to one of her daughters who was visiting on a recent Sunday.
Coleman’s eyesight has dimmed, but from her new hospital bed in the living room, she fixed a worried maternal gaze on one of her girls.
Still eager for the details of her children’s lives, she drew her daughter closer.
“Are your eyes puffy?”
If taking care of an elderly parent is a common experience, what’s not common is how the Coleman siblings are managing the challenge of giving their mother the gift of finishing life at home.
Every week, each of them – all 14 – takes one 12-hour shift. They coordinate the calendar online, conduct teleconferences and convene in person for a crisis. Twice a day they share texts updating each other.
“Good news,” Dan Coleman, No. 14, texted a few weeks ago. “Terry, Tom and I were able to move Mom to the twin bed and moved the couch to the curb. Also, Terry, Tom and I have officially been removed from the will. Just kidding. Mom put up a little fight, but I think she will be glad once she is able to get some rest.”
For several years, after climbing the stairs to her bedroom grew hard, Coleman slept on the living room couch. She liked the couch, but not long ago her children bought her the twin bed, which was wider. When she rolled off the twin bed, she reluctantly agreed to a bed with railings.
Getting old is a series of steps, many of them so tiny they’re imperceptible until they add up to something big, the kind of “what now?” moments that demand decisions.
One of the siblings’ first “what now?” moments happened at a Super Bowl party when their mother fell. After that, she took to using a walker.
Another “what now?” moment soon followed with the news that Coleman had a respiratory illness.
In October 2014, they established their caretaking plan.
Since then, Coleman and her children have learned to adapt to successive difficulties.
She breathes now through an oxygen tube. She recently stopped walking. Her kids bought her a speaker for listening to TV so she didn’t have to turn her shows up so loud. She likes “Law & Order” and “The Golden Girls.”
“Only a couple of bites of grilled cheese and tomato,” David Coleman, No. 11, recently texted the crew. “Speaker broke, can’t hear tv or anything else for that matter but seems peaceful.”
When Coleman was a robust woman taking care of all those kids, she rarely thought about who would take care of her when she was old.
“I figured somebody would be around,” she says.
By now, though, most of her friends are gone. So are her younger siblings. Her husband, an internist she met while working as a nurse, died in 1997.
The story goes that they met at Mercy Hospital when she helped him get the plunger out of a glass syringe. They married soon afterward, quickly had their first child, and when a second one didn’t follow immediately, she took to saying novenas in the hopes of more.
Her novenas, one of her sons says jokingly, are paying off in her old age in the form of caretakers.
Just giving back
Marge Coleman’s children want to make a couple of things clear.
“We are not the Brady Bunch,” says Maureen Kelly, No. 5. “We can be testy. She can be testy.”
Dealing intimately with their mother’s body hasn’t been easy for her or for them.
“She has told a couple of us we should go to nursing school,” says Tim Coleman, No. 4.
They also want to make it clear that they know how lucky they are. Many other people are doing the same things for an elderly parent – helping them eat, bathe, go to the bathroom, stay as comfortable and engaged as possible – and doing it with far fewer resources.
“We’re lucky we have a big workforce,” Maureen says.
Coleman’s doctor, Richard Farrell, says, admiringly, that even among the tight-knit Irish families he knows, the Colemans stand out.
“In my practice, there are times when I didn’t even realize patients of mine had children,” he says. “They are the most doting family. She is the matriarch. They respect the way she wants to live and eventually die.”
Fourteen caretakers, of course, can mean 14 opinions. Sometimes the Coleman siblings argue. A few months ago, they debated whether their mother was ready for hospice, and ultimately agreed she wasn’t.
But even in disagreement, under the stress of imminent grief that can break a family apart, they stick together.
They’ve found pleasure in the complication too, such as the chance to have long talks sitting at their mother’s bedside, without the clamor of the entire family.
“It’s special to have one-on-one time with her,” says Patty Griffin, No. 9.
Lately, Marge Coleman has been wistful about the summers she spent when she was young along the lakeshore in Michigan, those long, warm nights when people talked outside after supper instead of retreating to the TV.
She has mentioned to her kids that she’d like to see the lake one more time, and so Friday – though not all her kids thought it was a good idea – they took her, guided by the idea that it’s better to live than to just exist.
“I’m a very lucky woman,” she said on the day I visited her at home.
Maureen reached for her thin hand.
“Ma,” she said, “we’re just giving back what you gave us.”