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"Death with Dignity"


My ninety-two-year-old mother raised the crystal old-fashioned glass which was half-full of her favorite brand of scotch splashed over a few ice cubes. But then, she immediately set it down again on the circular coffee table before us. “I want death with dignity,” she said. “But will I experience that? From what I’ve seen in this retirement community for almost two decades, dying isn’t pretty.”

“That may be true, but I don’t think you have to worry.” I stretched my arm across the beige cushions of the sofa and gave her wrinkled hand a pat. I couldn’t help but notice it wore a few new scratches—from its encounters with a rose bush while she was weeding a flower bed that morning.

My mother looked back at me with a raised eyebrow. “Why do you say that?”

“Because I read once in a book—it was about how we die—that what gives dignity to death is the dignity of the life that preceded it.” I flashed a smile. “I’d like to believe that. And since you’ve lived a life filled with dignity, I’d say you have nothing to worry about.”

“But doesn’t that assume I maintain a well-functioning mind until the end—so that I can continue to be the person I’ve always been? But in reality, who’s guaranteed that?”

I reached for a cracker covered in basil pesto—which my mother had made just weeks earlier from basil she’d grown herself. I finished the cracker and said, “Let’s assume such a fate befalls you and indeed, you do lose your faculties. Somehow, I still suspect you’ll nevertheless be loving and lovable to the end.”

My mother pressed her wrinkled and scratched hand to her forehead. “Well, I certainly hope I never experience that kind of slow demise. But if I do, I hope you’re right. After all, I’ve watched people here change and become nasty to their spouses and the staff. I don’t want to become like that anyway, but especially not since the staff have always been kind and patient.”

I scanned my mother’s face. There was a tear rolling down her deeply wrinkled left cheek. I watched as she reached up to brush it away.

I reached over once again and laid my hand over hers. “It’s probably important to have this conversation,” I said softly, “but I don’t want you to become overly concerned or worried about the future.” I made certain my eyes locked onto hers. “Remember, I moved to New Hampshire so that I could be present with you until the end. Therefore, even if you’re incapable of taking steps to ensure you experience the type of death you’d prefer—or one that meets you definition of a death with dignity—I’ll do everything I possibly can to ensure that happens.”

My mother leaned over and planted a kiss on my right cheek. “It has been a great comfort having you here these past few years, but it’s even more comforting to hear you say that—to know that you’ll step forward and advocate on my behalf.”

I moved my head up and down. “Now, let’s think about more positive things—such as you playing golf until the day you die.”

This time, it was my mother who was nodding. “As much as I love golf, I truly miss playing tennis.” Her words had been coated with sadness, but then suddenly her face brightened. And this time, her words wore a coat of excitement as she said, “I think I’ll try playing it again.”

I felt a sense of dismay shoot through me. “Don’t you remember you took a nasty fall on the court when you were eighty-eight—because you’d developed benign vertigo? Since you still suffer from it, Mother, you can no longer play tennis.”

My mother shook her head. “Oh, I’d f forgotten that.”

Soon, I found myself silently praying: Please, God, let her die playing golf or gardening—or doing something else that she loves. Don’t let her be taken away little by little—through the destructiveness of Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. That seems too unkind—too unfair to a person who has regularly found simple ways to deliver joy into the lives of others, as well as who has faced great tragedies in her life without complaint or self-pity.

I accepted the glass of wine my cousin handed me. “It was a lovely service,” she said.

I sighed. “My prayer was not answered.”

My cousin stared at me with a look of confusion in her eyes. However, it was quickly replaced by a knowing one. “You probably suffered more than she did.”

“I suspect you’re right. I believe Mom was unaware of how the dementia had reshaped her—and that while she remained loving and lovable to the end, she was about as incapable as an infant.”

My cousin placed her hands on my shoulders. “I know it was difficult for you to watch, but you handled it all admirably. But then, you lived the virtues you’ve long believed in—such as acceptance, kindness, patience, gratitude, trust, and faith.” She gave my shoulders a quick squeeze. “And the staff and others took notice of the type of person you were being and acknowledged you for it, didn’t they?”

“That’s true, but I only did what I did for my mother’s sake.”

“But in doing what you did, you benefited others in your mother’s midst—not just her.”

I sat there silently for a minute. I allowed what my cousin had said to seep into every pore of my being. Then I slowly stated, “And I came to know myself in a way I never had before—as what I believe was my highest and best self.”

Suddenly, I was aware of a soft voice within me replying: Yes, and that was a good thing, wouldn’t you agree?

I can believe that now, I thought as I raised the wine glass in a toast to my loving and lovable mother—and the unexpected legacy she’d provided me through her own sad demise.