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

I caught myself and stopped. “I did bring you something from my garden that you can enjoy,” I said as I rose to my feet. I brought out a small plastic bag of lavender that I’d picked just before leaving for the airport and rolled some between my fingers, then held it up to my mother’s face.

“Lovely,” she murmured.

Though Claire and I guarded our mother from the sight of food and even any mention of it, I did make one mistake. I’d put a bowl of peaches on the living room coffee table, thinking my mother never went there, but she saw them through a doorway as Claire wheeled her to her room. “Yum,” she said playfully. Claire shot me an accusing glance. Like a child trying to hide something too late, I grabbed the bowl, turned my back on my mother to screen it from her and scurried out into the adjoining room to thrust the peaches into a pantry closet. When we were young, my mother would sometimes play along with this type of awkward pretense, silently giving us a second chance. I hoped this would be one of those times and felt a wave of relief when she looked up at me with a conspiratorial smile that seemed to say the incident was officially forgotten.

The next day, when Claire was out, the home health aide came to see me.

“She’s talking about peaches,” said the aide.

I went to my mother’s room, sat next to her on her bed and swung my legs up, so we were sitting side by side, leaning against the headboard, as we had not done for decades.
“I was wondering,” said my mother. “Can I keep my promise?”

“Of course you can,” I said, sounding too hearty.

“ . . . and have a peach?”

I wished Claire were there.

“Well, Mother, you can have what you want,” I said. I paused, hoping she would ask for the peach directly, insistently, so I could just give it to her. But she said nothing. I knew what I had to say next. I had made a promise, too.

“However, anything you have is going to slow down the process,” I continued, keeping to the script and hating every word. “Is that what you want?”

She sighed.

I did not have the guts to push for an answer, the way Claire always did. I couldn’t bear to hear her say one more time how eager she was to die. And I couldn’t stand that calm voice coming from my mouth, the voice that seemed not to care which choice she made.

Instead, I stroked her short silver hair, gently massaging her scalp with the tips of my fingers, and sang a French song from my childhood:

I have loved you for a long time
Never will I forget you

But my voice broke, so I switched to the other lullabies she had sung. I sang more and more quietly, then paused. My mother seemed asleep.

“Nice,” she murmured.

I hummed until I heard her snore softly. I tiptoed from the bedroom, boiled water for an enormous pot of tea and drank four cups of it.

By Day Seven her lids opened only halfway, and her hands lay limp next to the puzzle she had been doing. At any moment she could have chosen to eat and drink. We could have put food in front of her and urged her to eat. Instead, that day and the five days that remained of her life, we watched as she drifted in and out of consciousness. We swabbed her mouth, cradled her fragile shoulders, cupped her hands in ours and told her we loved her.

I longed to bake for her instead. It would have been so much easier for me to stand before her with flour smudges on my jeans and oven mitts on my hands, smiling and holding out a bubbling rhubarb crumble. But what my mother wanted from me now was that I stand back and watch her destroy the body she’d always cared for, the body that had given us all life.

I did what she wanted. It may not have looked like love, but it was, for once, entirely about her.

 

ANNE-CHRISTINE STRUGNELL bakes a cake each year on her mother’s birthday.

 

 

Click here for another amazing story: Adopting at 55.

 

First Published April 14, 2011

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