By Rod Moser, PA, PhD
My elderly mother is dying. She is 91 years old and in a nursing home near my brother’s home. She has had severe dementia for a decade and is not ambulatory anymore. About two weeks ago, she developed pneumonia (again) and continues to battle the devastating effects of trying to breathe, yet she rips off any extra oxygen that is offered. Her oxygen levels are very, very low. She is refusing to eat, drinking very little; mostly a few sips of Coca Cola (her lifetime favorite).
She is on “comfort care”, which mostly consists of relatively-high doses of morphine. The morphine is not for pain. The morphine slows her respirations, gives her some dream-like euphoria, and helps her die more peacefully. I have watched her on Face Time today and she is resting. Looking at her ancient face now, it is difficult to remember the feisty woman that raised me. In her younger days, she could swear like a sailor, clean like a white tornado, and cook for an army. For the last six years, she has resided in a nursing home where she laughs, sings, holds her beloved doll (Larry), and eats candy usually pilfered from others.
My father died of lung cancer when I was six. My father was 39. He wanted to be a doctor, but he never had the opportunity. I only remember a few things about him since I was sent to live with my uncle when my dad was dying at home. While I was cleaning out some old books at the medical museum over the weekend, I came across a book called “Lung Cancer Treatment” written in 1957; the same year that my father died. The treatment of cancer has changed so much since those early days. I have always wondered how life would have been different for me had my father lived a normal lifespan.
My mother grew up in a three-bedroom, no bathroom home with 15 people in rural Appalachia. This experience can change a person. When she had a family of her own, it was very important that we not be hungry. I suspect that she experienced hunger many times as a child. While she had a limited array of things that she was willing to cook, we were always well-fed even though we were poor. Dinner was promptly at 5 PM. If I came home at 5:30 PM, she was finishing up the dishes. Any leftovers were in the refrigerator.
Cleanliness was another obsession. She changed our beds with fresh, sun-dried, ironed sheets every day. Daily baths were required and towels were only used once. She washed clothes every day and hung them out on clothes lines in the back yard. In sixth grade, I decided to wear a white dress shirt every day to school (don’t ask me why), so I always had a clean, ironed shirt in my closet.
Her style of parenting was more free-range. Sadly, she was not very involved in our lives. She only came to my school once when I graduated high school. She would secretly brag about my accomplishments but never once said that she was proud of me or my brothers. We could do what we wanted; go where we wanted, so we did. I was hitch-hiking long distances by age 12. She would often give me a lift to the main road so that I could catch a better ride. My friends considered her “mean” since she was always yelling at me about something. The staff at her nursing home loved her as always being kind and pleasant. Her longevity had given her the opportunity to be vindicated.
She was not the type of person who showed overt love to her three sons, so full-bellies, clean clothes, and clean sheets were basically her parenting contribution. She had a lot of siblings in our little town as you can imagine, but she would only associate with one or two at a time. I suspect she is dying with a lot of painful secrets of her troubled youth; secrets that she would never tell us. Of her twelve brothers and sisters, there are only two others still alive. She also outlived two husbands and a near-third husband. She survived the Great Depression and World War II. She raised three boys on what she earned from tips as a waitress. She was really more amazing than we realized.
I just got another Face Time call. I can see my mother lying in bed with her beloved doll that she named after my older brother. She is now unresponsive and breathing erratically. During our video chat, several of the nursing home staff came by to see her. My brother refers to them as Angels. Being 3000 miles away, I can’t reach out and touch her wrinkled hands. My brother said they are cold now. My brother is working on a video of my mother’s life. He plans on using the music, “Coal Miner’s Daughter”, since she was.
I started writing this Blog three days ago. I got the call this afternoon at work; my mother has died.
Life has a beginning and an end, but it is the time in-between that really matters.