April Column Winner

Understanding the choice for peace

PATTI MARSHALL, The Countywide & Sun

My mother died in a hospital bed in her and my father’s Florida living room. At 69 years old, she had decided to accept a natural death rather than a second operation less than five months after the first surgery to remove an aggressive brain tumor. Her decision not to live confused me. We all loved her, so why wasn’t she fighting for her life? For a few months, I flew back and forth to visit my parents and witnessed the deterioration of my mother’s mind and body, and my father’s spirit as he cared for her. My mother knew what was coming and tried to comfort us. She told us she was dying and we didn’t listen. Even though she told us it would come fast, we insisted she would be well again. She had accepted her own mortality even though her family could not. Finally, the tumor stopped her words altogether and she couldn’t help us understand. Her heart beat on.
My brother drove down from New York as I trundled southeast from Oklahoma. We kept a death vigil for seven days with hospice ever present. I spent most of that time sitting by her side, holding her hand with its tissue-paper skin while recalling a lifetime of wonderful memories.
In her morphine-induced painlessness she smiled as I thanked her for loving me from infancy through adolescence and puberty into womanhood. It could not have been easy. I asked for her forgiveness for anything I ever did to disappoint her … and I know there was plenty. I forgave her for banning Christmas from our home after her youngest son was killed at age 20 and buried on Christmas Eve. I told her I loved her … and then, I told her good bye. She smiled again with her eyes closed, breathing deep and slow enough to scare me. I still wasn’t ready.
During this time, hospice nurses ministered to all of us, and I was grateful. Even though I asked, there was no expectation as to when death would come, except that it would come. And by my mother’s choice, it would come gently and unobtrusively. I was grateful again. It’s taken twelve years for me to finally realize that family and friends of a dying loved one tend to place too much hope on the uber-technology that prolongs life far past the time when our bodies are ready for it to be over … and my mother was ready. For five months the neurons in her brain ceased to snap, one by one, eventually giving way to nothingness. She died a hundred tiny deaths as her speech, balance, independence, memory and personality dropped away. She’d made her choice, and yet again, I was grateful. Not because she was dying, but because she was dying with dignity. She was the strongest person I knew in life; she became the strongest person I knew in death.
It’s taken me so many years to fully comprehend that final and most important decision of my mother’s life. She chose not to prolong life with another invasive and extremely debilitating surgery. She chose not to die in a cold hospital cubicle plugged into churning machines. She chose not to put my father through years of care giving turmoil as the tumor took her intelligence and led her into the depths of constant confusion and dementia. While still capable, she chose a natural death in the home she loved with her family surrounding her. My mother chose peace.

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