Dying is an essential part of living
After 65 years of a wonderful life, I find it funny that my generation and the younger generations of today cannot relate birth and death. I remember a quote, although I’m not sure who said it, perhaps Ben Franklin: “The day you are born is the beginning of the last day of your life.” What a wise man.
I have been through both the prolonging of life and making the end decision with my parents. My father suffered several strokes after he turned 80. Medical progress was able to save him each time. What medical treatments couldn’t bring back was his eyesight (he loved to read), his hearing (he lived for vibrant conversation and music), and his memory. The last two years of his life he didn’t recognize any of us. My mother was the “nice lady” who came to feed him, and I was the “stranger in Joann’s bedroom.” He became frustrated and combative. He would go outside and get lost. I lived in fear that he would somehow seriously hurt my mother and there would be no one in the house to get help.
Shortly before my father’s 90th birthday, my mother made the hardest decision of her life. We placed him in a secured facility at the Palo Alto Veterans Hospital. What should happen should my father become ill? Instructions were given to keep him comfortable and let him die in peace. He passed away two weeks later from pneumonia.
If my father had had his stroke during the first half of the 1900s, he would have gone peacefully at 80 with all of his faculties intact. We would not have had to watch him lose his dignity and our memories of his end of life would have been filled with cryptic conversations, evenings of music, critical discussions of new literature and authors. Instead, he had mentally regressed to a 2-year-old in an old man’s body. I loved him dearly and miss him daily. The day after my father’s death, my mother came to me and said that the night before had been her first full night’s sleep in seven years. My mother would have done anything for my father, including putting her own health at risk.
My mother survived my father by 18 months. Four months after his death, she fell and broke her hip. Through modern medicine she was given a new hip and a new lease on life. She lived with me during her recovery, and I got to know her better than I ever thought I could. She, too, was a great conversationalist, and we had many heated discussions during the three months she stayed with me. When I was sure she could go back home and take control of her life, I returned her to her friends and home in the Bay Area. For seven years she had given up most of her outside life to care for my father; now she was free to enjoy the many activities she never thought she would ever participate in again.
Unfortunately, fate stepped in as she was preparing for her first adventure abroad – a trip to England. My mother had been struck by a vehicle and was in the intensive care unit at Stanford Hospital. Once again I found myself in the position of making a life or death decision. This occurred 10 days after the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 and getting from Grass Valley to Palo Alto was not easy. The Bay Bridge was out, and the other bridges had not been declared safe. That was the longest night of my life.
My husband and I arrived at the hospital after her attending physician had gone home. I sat by her bed and watched all of the monitors and tubes coming out of her. This was her life support. She was a very small woman, all of 85 pounds dripping wet, with beautiful white hair and a wonderful smile. The person in the hospital bed did not resemble my mother in any way. Her body was badly broken, and she was silent.
The next day I had a long conversation with her doctor. She would never return to the caring, vibrant person who had been my mother. Her prognosis was, at best, with the biggest miracle possible, that she would be bedridden and comatose.
I told the doctor that I would not hold him to his answer, but I wanted to know, “If this was your mother, and knowing what you know, what would your decision be?” He looked at me with kind eyes and said, “Let her go.”
My mother was a fighter, and after she was removed from life support she still fought. I know that she was worried about me and I told her, “Go and be with daddy, my husband will take care of me.” I kissed her gently on the forehead; she closed her eyes and quietly passed away.
If I had insisted on pursuing heroic means to keep my mother alive, it would not have been for her sake. It would have been for my own selfish reason. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. I feel that I honored my mother by letting her go. She left me with many wonderful memories. Though it hurt me deeply, there was a peaceful feeling knowing I had made a wise decision.
Five and a half years ago, I once again felt the pain of losing a loved one. My wonderful husband of 40 years was killed in an accident. Should he have miraculously survived, I would have once again been faced with a life or death decision. I was spared the choice but denied the chance to say goodbye. I am still trying to say goodbye.
We can all live life with dignity, but we do not always get to die with dignity. It doesn’t matter what religion you practice, your beliefs can’t change the end result. We die! What we can do is ensure that we go with dignity and grace when our time comes. Remember, all of the medical advancements in the world can only prolong the inevitable.
It is not just what we put the dying through, it is what we put the living through – we need to think about the quality of life remaining for our loved one rather than the quantity of days we can extend our time with that person.
There are words to a song that go something like this, “Live Fast, Love Hard, Die Young and Leave a Beautiful Memory.” I would change those words to, “Live life to its fullest, love with all of your heart, die with dignity and leave a beautiful memory.” It is what we do with our lives, and how we treat others, that leave behind the “Beautiful Memories.”
Joann Rossovich is a resident of Grass Valley.
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