Friday, May 28, 2010

Do not go gentle into that good night

When do we accept death? When do we deny its claim? What is death? What would we be without it? Human beings are born knowing they will die, and it informs pretty much every waking decision of our lives. It gives us that sense of urgency that leads to much of what is good in us. My mother is dying, imminently it would seem. Yesterday, I brought my younger son to say goodbye. The person is there, but their body has failed them. She's had a long, good life. Yes, there are regrets I'm sure, but on the whole she's done much of what she wanted. She's lived her way. Was it the way that was easiest or best for me, or for my siblings? No. I think that's safe to say. She was an admirable woman, a role model for me, but she wasn't a great mother. She was alternately kind and cruel, needy and generous. Yet I love her, and I loved her as she was.

What I don't love is what it's meant to watch her die. It seems wrong that this is what our end is. That we're left to suffer, to linger, to have no quality of life at all. She's lain on her couch in the living room of her house for months now, obviously ferociously attached to life even when she hates the minutes she's living it. I can't bear to think that someone so full of life has been reduced to this. But that's what's come of her life, this is its end. She has no control, someone who tried to control literally everything and everyone around her. I suppose that it's a form of poetic justice, but it's also horribly unfair. And she's unfortunately managed to reap what she sowed, a dysfunctional family. We siblings do our best but we aren't exactly close and our communication skills are wanting. Her end would have been so much easier if that wasn't the case.

When my father got sick and died it was different. The intimacy my brother and sister felt with him created a different kind of war zone. They fought over him in death as they had in life. I gave up trying. He and I never really got along, so what was the point? With my mother, it's different. I was the one who she was closest to growing up. Over time my sister seems to have taken on that role, or at least imagines herself my mother's fierce protector. My brother does what he can, given that he and my mother fought bitterly. And my sister in law does so much, it's as if my mother is a stand in for the one she left behind and visited once a year. Today I call hospice, and who knows, will she live out the weekend? Will she surprise us and continue to hang on to what isn't life as anyone should live it? Or will she finally die and be done with it? For her sake, I hope she does die, because then we can grieve and remember her in our own ways and she can find relief.

What I wish for is a better way. I wish our culture embraced death the way it does life. I wish it gave us more support and more options, and I wish we talked about it more freely before it became an issue. I wish it wasn't a topic for self help but something we came to understand long before it was thrust upon us.


  1. As a former student of anthropology, I've often thought there would be value in introducing cultural anthropology into high school curricula; it would cultivate a mind-set that looks for ways to improve our society instead of just accepting what is. It would give us a sense of there being more options. I certainly agree with you, we do need more options. Maybe if we had a broader understanding of how other cultures embrace and prepare for death, we'd stop treating death as something to avoid thinking about until the last minute. Unfortunately, the embracing and preparing is most often of a religious nature, and I don't think it's desirable for our country to become any more religious than it already is. There's too many downsides to supernaturalist thinking.
    I don't know that I'm making any particular point here. I'm just thinking out loud, or on keyboard.

  2. Well I think it's an interesting idea. Our culture seems to have a perverse, magical thinking way of dealing with death . . . as in, it will be all right. Or perhaps the Lost vision, that there's a white light we all walk into, some alternate universe that awaits us. But what surprised me was that my own parents who had no religious bent at all, were avowed atheists and eminently practical also avoided the reality of what happens at the end of life. Not the very end as much to the lead in to the very end. And that's what a lot of old age is about, leading in to death. It's tough to look at in a culture where it's not made into a natural part of one's life. Perhaps that's why.

  3. Wow- your words are gripping roseduncan. I read this post at work but was unable to respond on my work computer, and I have been thinking about you and your mother all day. I recently heard of someone who died in his 20's a hideous, painful death over many months from malignant melanoma, and palliative care did not relieve his pain. He and his family advocated for euthanasia to be legalized, and this does make sense perhaps. I've worked in hospitals and seen so much agony as people screeched for death to please take them, but they had to wait for the "natural" death- which could be some gruesome event like suffocation or hemorrhaging.

    I'm sorry I'm probably not helping at all as you go through this excruciating process of watching your mother die. If I were in your mother's situation I'd probably want to die with some kind of dignity and comfort, say good bye and drink the hemlock. But that doesn't seem to be an option, there is just this torture of waiting and hoping that death will come soon and be merciful. Surely there are ways that death could be less of a nightmare.

    I'm glad you have called hospice and I hope the hospice workers will bring some peace for your mother and for you. I am thinking about you and your mother and sending heartfelt caring. Please keep us posted. I appreciate your bravery and candor and questioning as you go through this intense experience of watching your mother die.

  4. Thank you so much Colleen. As someone who works in the health care field you know much of this first-hand. I have no idea what the right answer is for us as a society, but I know that what we have now isn't working. Death with dignity is a well worn phrase, but it's hard to achieve in reality. I wish we were closer to it as a culture.