A Dying Mother and What Matters Most

Yellow_Flowers_(3) -- large yellow flowerMy mother turned 92 this past Sunday, June 16. Two days before that, my family enrolled her in hospice.

That Friday afternoon, I’d arrived at her home in Pennsylvania looking forward to her birthday celebration with almost the entire family. So the news of hospice jarred and surprised. At first.

Then it wasn’t a surprise at all.

My mom had been declining noticeably in recent months. Her weak legs and broken knees stopped carrying her for good in late April; ramps were installed in her house and her transport chair was used every time to move her from her bed to her chair and wherever else she was willing to go. She’d been slowing down and losing strength.

But that Sunday, we celebrated Mom’s 92nd birthday in style. She rose to the occasion – she got dressed up, sat in her chair and then in her transport chair for a long time in different parts of the house. She ate dinner with us in the dining room and had cake and ice cream. She was lucid and wisecracking and she enjoyed herself.

Laburnum_anagyroides_yellow_flowers -- in sunlightThere comes a point, in witnessing a parent’s descent into extreme old age, when you dread every illness whether major or minor: is this the one that will lead to death? I’d buried my father in my mind a couple of times when he struggled with illnesses, long before he actually died four years ago at age 93.

I’ve done the same with my mom. She fell a few years ago and broke her shoulder. I thought it could lead to the end. But she recovered. Last fall, she battled bronchitis for months – she thought it was pneumonia and so did I. But she recovered.

Now, however, it appears my mom is battling some kind of infection, and losing. After several tests, we still don’t know what it is.

But it doesn’t matter. Her body is shutting down. According to her long-time internist,  her bone marrow and white blood cell count is so low that, if she has an infection, she can’t fight it off. Putting her in the hospital could lead to a diagnosis, but then what? She is a poor candidate for surgery, plus hospitals can be deadly to those with compromised immune systems.

Instead her doctor talked about keeping her home and “keeping her comfortable,” that euphemism for a looming death knell. Soon after, he recommended hospice. I’m extremely grateful to this wise physician for charting a peaceful demise for my mom.

399px-Little_Yellow_FlowersSo here we are. My family is lucky – for years now, our mother has had an amazing team of caregivers who love her and treat her with the greatest compassion and care.

I plan to visit Mom when I can, including this weekend; I’m only a two-hour drive away.

And I face this – the challenge of the most stressful of times, the saddest of times, when losing a parent is hard no matter what, and all of the other stresses in your life are at once magnified and trivialized.

Throughout, it’s important to remember what matters most:

  • Being present – As long as my mom is still with us, in spirit with thoughts and prayers, and in body when I can — sitting with her, holding her hand, looking into her hazel eyes with love.
  • Mourning the loss – It’s not a choice, I know. But my father’s death taught me that the process of recognition and remembrance are important and therapeutic and not to be done passively. It’s hard, and may be even harder with my mom.
  • Yellow_flowers -- two flowersCelebrating the life – My family is too traditional to call a funeral a “celebration of life” like some families do. But celebrate we will, in the grand Irish Catholic tradition – by getting sloppy drunk and telling stories of our mom’s great wit while laughing and crying through it all. Irish-style wakes are the best.
  • Accepting the love and support of others – This can be surprisingly hard. But it’s important to embrace the outpouring from others. I look forward to seeing relatives and friends of my mom, and of all of us, at her services. Death brings people together.
  • Taking care of yourself – Grief takes a toll, so you need your rest. You go ahead and have that cry in the middle of the grocery store. Then throw a treat in the shopping cart. You schedule a spa treatment. You take a trip. You remind yourself: Your dead parents will want you to go on and live well and be happy.
  • Feeling the love that stays with you forever – This is the greatest gift of life, the greatest gift of all.

It’s one hell of a to-do list, but I’ll give it my best.