Death and Dying

My mother’s 85th birthday was last week, and I traveled the 1500 miles home to celebrate with her; my mother is one of  my best friends. We laugh a lot, together, enjoy each other’s company, and enjoy our intelligent conversations…and even at 85, she still drives her car, goes to the gym every day she can, and is a doyen of our small, rural, Catskill Mountain community.

It seemed like a pleasant vacation, to me, sharing a few days with family, and having a party with my mother’s few remaining older friends. As with many things, however, it did not turn out as uncomplicated as that, at all.

The day before I was to fly out, my mother called me twice, in the middle of the night. I missed the calls because I have no land-line, am not used to anyone ever calling me, and kept the phone downstairs charging. When I was able to get in touch with her the next night, she told me she had been diagnosed with uterine cancer…and was going into the hospital for testing the day I was to be traveling. I assume she wanted comfort since, as with me, she has really no one else to call in the middle of the night, when she is scared. In addition, apparently my sister’s mother-in-law’s ovarian cancer has spread to her intestine, blocked it off, and she was expected to die almost any day.

So, my birthday trip turned quickly into a journey about death and dying.

We are all, of course, going to die. Most of us prefer not to think about it…and, in fact, most of us probably don’t have to think about it. Our deaths are so sudden and unexpected that there is no time to plan for how we wish to die. For many of us, that is a saving grace. We do not like to think of our mortality. We hope the decision will be taken out of our hands. There are too many fears and emotional pains associated with dying that we do not wish to face. There is the fear of pain, of course…there is the pain of having to leave loved ones, there is the fear of the unknown…and then the fear of a long, lingering death, maybe unable to communicate, with no way to end ones existence since one has no control over one’s faculties.

The last is my mother’s big fear. She has always been active in the community, and has received many awards for her civic activities. The thought, on her part, of not being able to participate in activities, to no longer be able to drive, herself (she lives in a rural community and, without a car, she is housebound), and to be diminished in importance is worth for her than death…and I believe she plans to end her life, somehow, if it comes to that. She has not expressed this, as such, but she is finishing up her affairs, has made a will, a living will, and a living trust, appointed executors to her will and seems all prepared.

I do not blame her for this. In fact, I have told her I would help; if it comes to going to jail for helping my mother end her life in a dignified manner, I shall somehow learn to live with that. I would hope someone would do the same for me, though I would never ask anyone for that.

My sister’s mother-in-law, Mary, was definitely dying. She had grown up a typical Southern belle, spoiled unmercifully by her family, as a young girl, and spoiled unmercifully by her husband for over 60 years. He loved her, unswervingly, and gave her anything she wanted, if possible, though when she had her infrequent spoiled yelling and screaming tantrum, when she couldn’t get what she wanted, he was the only one who could tell her that her actions had gone too far, and she would stop.

When I went to visit her, she was in her hospital bed, with a feeding tube through her nose, her hair pure white, her lips swollen, but conscious, and aware. She recognized me when I came in, and we exchanged some words and conversation. She did not know she was dying, at the time, but we figure that she guessed it soon after, as her children began arriving from all over the country. I understand that, even in this state, she was still driving people crazy, ordering them around; nothing was good enough in her room, and she was uncomfortable. She had the feeding tube removed, because she didn’t like it…and was still alive after many days. Maybe she will outlive us all, after all. Who knows? That would certainly fit the universal sense of humor as I know it.

There are those who suggest that there is nothing after death…that our lives are finite and death is final. That point of view could be as correct as any other. We shall all find out, eventually…

find sufficient argument to the contrary to leave hope for a future after death…and, as such, feel we owe it to each other to ease our passage, and look kindly at those who are at that point in their journey. I find nothing sadder than the thought of dying alone, and friendless  and feel this could, very well, be one of the more important responsibilities each of us has in our life, being there with someone who is passing.

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