[EDITORIAL NOTE: If by the time we reach our 50s or 60s, we have not buried a parent, we will. And when we do, in addition to our grief and in addition to the shock sometimes of becoming the oldest generation, it speaks also to our own mortality. The death of a parent is one of the great passages of life.
It is a blessing when there can be a "good death" whatever one's definition of that may be. In my case, caring for my mother during the last months of her life remains the most profound experience of my life; 15 years later, nothing has yet matched it. A blogger who I've known since my earliest days of blogging, Jill Fallon of Legacy Matters and The Business of Life, recently traversed this milestone and has written eloquently about it in three parts. Below is part one, My Mother is Dying. There are links to parts two and three at the bottom of this story. I urge you to read them all.]
This is a hard post to write because the words themselves have a certain finality that's not here yet. My 85-year-old mother last fall had abdominal pains that, after a visit to the emergency room and a CAT scan, turned out to be colon cancer. Surgery followed a couple of days later and we were encouraged to think that the tumor blocking her colon had been completely excised and her colon stitched back together.
Recovery was slow but seemed complete and while she had lost lots of weight despite my cooking, she was back bopping around in her sports car. About a month ago, she began having abdominal pains again. It was the cancer back. She doesn't want chemotherapy at her age which seems to me to be quite sensible, so the focus has been on reducing her pain.
My sister Colleen is a nurse and immediately took medical leave from her job to come out for the duration which she counts as a privilege and a blessing to be able to do since her two daughters, my nieces Jessica and Chrissy are away from home, in college. My brother Kevin, his wife Melinda and two daughters, Taylor and Lucy, live in the same town as my mother as do I just two blocks away. For Mother's Day, Colly's husband Robin came, brother Billy came from Switzerland and brother Robby and his wife Jennifer with their two baby girls, 21/2 and 4 months, Zoe and Adia from California.
We all had a lovely time, my mother included, playing with the babies and looking at old family and childhood photos, about 1200 of them that I had digitized so every one could have a copy and telling stories. Now numbering about 16, we had a delicious Mother's Day lunch at a local restaurant.
In many ways we are very blessed. Mom -we call her Ruth - is completely herself, if much frailer and more tired. She laughs, makes jokes, gives orders, goes through her mail, makes calls, gets her hair done, and is forever putting Vinny her beloved Jack Russell terrier out when he's in and bringing him in when he's out and making sure he gets all three of his dinners. She carried long term care insurance for in-home care because she hates being in the hospital even though she too is a nurse and never wanted to go into a nursing home. Now the benefits are apparent because she's home where she wants to be and Colly is even being paid, making up for some of her lost income. Colly got a new MacBook, put in wireless, got a new bike and is testing some of Ruth's best, baking recipes and I'm going to make a book out if it.
We have an elevator in the house which my parents put in about 15 years ago when my sister Debby, wheel-chair bound with multiple sclerosis, was living at home. So Mom still uses her bedroom and bath but can come down easily to the kitchen, the living room, office and yard during the day. Heat gives her the most tactile relief for her abdominal pains so she sits with a heating pad at her back, holding a hot water bottle against her stomach, a heat sandwich.
Two weeks later it's a different story. Hospice has started and they have been wonderful, delivering my mother's exponentially increasing pain medications, an assigned nurse, Peggy, who visits several times a week to check on her status and making sure we have everything we need. Since Ruth was only eating about 300-500 calories a day, she was becoming even thinner although her pain does seem to be under control.
"Two to four weeks" we were told in one of Colleen's daily emails to all concerned. In just a few days, Robby was back from the West Coast, Billy from Geneva, and Julie, my youngest sister, due in Tuesday.
Her affairs and finances are all in order so there's nothing to be done there. My mother is enjoying lots of visitors, family and friends alike, basking in all the love and banter, sometimes glowing. The weather is beautiful. My brothers have found projects to do around the house and yard. Patty, Colleen's dear friend from Florida is visiting for week and cleaning up gardens, planting the window boxes, and impatiens in every corner. We all eat dinner together that one of us makes or takeout and we have cases of beer in the garage so we'll never run out. These are wonderful times for the family. The loss will come soon enough.
This is the way to go, a vigorous old age and a fast decline, at home surrounded by family and people who love you.
[Today at The Elder Storytelling Place Ronni Prior has a funny story you'll enjoy titled Community Theater.]