The Good Daughter

What do you do when your ­ailing elderly mother asks you to help her let go of life? Anne-Christine Strugnell answers the hardest question

By Anne-Christine Strugnell
Photograph: Anita Calero/trunkarchive.com

“You really see me,” she said after a pause, wonder in her voice. “I see you, too.” And indeed her green eyes were looking straight into mine, level and steady, as they used to before this disease took her ability to focus. Like an embrace, that gaze shifted something inside me. I was no longer here to neaten the edges of our relationship, win a declaration of love or affection and close the case. Now—and at last—I was here for her alone.

“I don’t want to disappoint people,” she said, “but I don’t want to go on.”

“No matter what you do, some people will disapprove of your choices,” I found myself saying, even though I knew full well this would take her where I did not want her to go. “Since you can’t please everyone, just focus on the people whose opinions matter to you. Of those people, who would judge you?”

“My children?” she whispered.

“Not me,” I said. “You’ll have to ask the others . . . but I think maybe not.”

“How, then?” she asked, eyes shining as she leaned forward. The energy she couldn’t summon for painting or gardening surged at the idea that she could hasten her death.

I had unlatched her cage but could not bring myself to open the door.

“There are ways, Mother,” I said, choosing my words. “Talk to hospice.”

I returned to California, hoping that my mother wouldn’t follow up on my hint but knowing her better than to believe she would let it drop. Within a week she had requested hospice services and learned that she could end her life painlessly by refusing any food or water. She announced that she would begin her fast the following Tuesday. Hospice dropped off medications to ease her passing: morphine, if by any chance she felt pain from the hunger pangs and thirst; Haldol, to control restlessness and nausea; and atropine, to stop the death rattle and so lessen the anguish of those at her bedside.

My mother had one request: Hearing that she was likely to suffer some confusion, she asked my sister Claire to stay with her and help her keep the fast. Claire negotiated: She agreed to remind my mother of her intention every time she wavered but refused to deny a repeated request for food or water.

I called Tuesday night, and Claire told me Day One had passed with puzzles, a walk around the pond with my mother in her wheelchair and conversation on the back porch. When my mother’s mouth felt dry, Claire would spritz it with a special artificial-saliva spray.

Her report for Day Two was the same. The night of Day Three, I called again.

“She’s doing good,” said Claire, making an odd sound that wasn’t quite a laugh. “The new ‘good,’ that is. She’s still fasting. Perfect record.”

“I’ll fly out tomorrow and be there when she wakes up on Saturday,” I said.

As I packed, I imagined myself cooking meals for my siblings as they came over to visit my mother, trusting in shared food to support and comfort us. I even opened my recipe binder.

“What are you thinking?” asked my husband, resting his hands lightly on my hunched shoulders.

I closed the binder. I was thinking of nourishing my mother. But the meaning of the term had changed so much that now we could no longer even eat in front of her.
Saturday morning I greeted her with a smile that trembled at the sight of her, shrunken, tired and disheveled in her wheelchair.

“Hello, Mother,” I said. “I’ve come to visit. How are you doing?”

“Lasting forever,” she whispered, her voice just a shallow movement of air in a dry mouth.

I forced a laugh and took out a knitting project I’d started just so that I’d have something to do with my hands while I sat in the uneating, undrinking silence. I picked up the pattern and started telling her about the garden I’d planted and the abundance of cucumbers and tomatoes and . . .

First Published April 14, 2011

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