Outliving Life

December 26, 2009 at 11:50 am (By Rodjean)

A lot of us will remember 2009 as a hard year. I will remember it as the year my mother died. I was reluctant to write about this. I’m not sure if it was simply too personal, if I didn’t want to troll for condolences, if I was too busy with Christmas and in the middle of moving houses to gather my thoughts, or if I had a hard time connecting them to my feelings.

The good news is that my mother lived to be 87, died married to the man she married 64 years earlier, was lucid until the end, suffered no pain, and faced her final passage without fear. From where I sit, that looks like about 75% of the measure of a successful life, right there.

One thing surprised me about her final days. She did not die from any acute illness, but from a weariness of life itself. This caused our family much consternation as we tried to push her to eat and drink enough to survive. Over her last six weeks I called ambulances to take her to the hospital three times and to quick care facilities twice, all for episodes of falling caused by her weakened condition. She objected each time, but each time the family wore her down. And, she had four stints in rehab facilities.

I did not realize it, but since my mother died, several friends have told me of parents who died in the same way. They just lost interest in eating or drinking, and they faded away. They outlived life. It is not that my mother did not know starvation and dehydration would kill her, she was simply indifferent to that outcome.

Our postmodern culture, with its relentless materialism, cannot comprehend not wanting to live any more (absent a painfully terminal illness) because life is seen as all there is. The religious culture which preceded modern times rejected suicide as a denial of God’s sovereignty. At the edge of life, the lines between suicide and not caring whether you live or die become a bit blurred.

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7 Comments

  1. rodjean said,

    Forgot to sign this post. It is by me

  2. michael grant said,

    I doubt it’s a matter of religion. I’m an atheist and I suppose a materialist although I don’t quite know what that means, but I don’t expect to cling to life once the point of it is lost.

    Maybe what’s changed a bit in more recent times is that we’re so divorced from death. It happens at a hospital not at home. And the body is dealt with by professionals, not prepared for burial by the family.

    Condolences, and it sounds like she went the way we’d all be lucky to go: at the end of a good life, at peace with death, making her own decisions.

  3. Rod said,

    Michael, I recognize that the materialist view should lead to a cost/benefit analysis of death. If your quality of life dips below a certain point without any real prospect of recovery, logic suggests that you should give up the ghost.

    I think that is what my mother did, and what many people who are lucky enough to live into their 80s or beyond, do. They do it whether they are theists or materialists, and whether they are of sound mind or experiencing some level of dementia, because it makes sense to them.

    It was I who did not understand. My concept of life for life’s sake made it hard for me to just let her die. It was almost as though she was waiting for me to give her permission to die, for my peace of mind. I think the professionals who deal with the very old understand this fully, and they often do not push taking the steps to stay alive as hard as family members do.

    PS. Thank-you for your sympathy. The death of a parent, even when expected and I was intellectually prepared for it, hit me differently than I expected. I was not emotionally prepared for it, and I am not sure there would be any way to be prepared emotionally.

  4. amba12 said,

    Rod, I suspect you’re right that even when you “know” it is coming, there is no way to be prepared. A wordless embrace, then, a few seconds on the threshold of altered years.

    The Chinese said that after the death of a parent one should do nothing for a year but write poetry. That was the aristocratic Chinese, obviously :-P

    I was convinced that Jacques’ mother also chose her exit, though a bit differently. She was 84, independent and strong, splitting her own wood and pumping pails of water, but essentially alone in Romania, the rest of the exended family having left. By the time we could have gotten her out she felt she was too old to emigrate. Rather than become frail, maybe fall, break a hip, she got the flu and got pneumonia. She basically died what I would paradoxically describe as a healthy person’s death — it was a struggle for a few days (we were there) because her heart saw no reason to quit. Here, she would have been brought back, probably easily, with IV antibiotics. But they didn’t do that there in 1982. They didn’t have the resources, so they let people go.

    I suspect that the timing of someone’s decision to let go of life is not just based on a rational calculation of what makes it worth living or not. We may have an instinct to die when it’s time, which some are still in touch with. Rod, your mother’s choice, despite the consternation it must have caused, is in a way quietly inspiring. We can never get enough of the people we love; leaving must be easier than being left.

    Michael, J and I were holding his mother’s hands as she died; we washed and dressed her body, tied her hands crossed on her chest, tied her jaw closed, combed her hair, sewed her shroud. There was a strong feeling that “of course” we were doing this and a feeling of peace that we had accompanied her as far down to the riverbank as the living possibly could. We even slept in the room with her body, which freaked others out — somebody asked J, “Aren’t you scared?” and his answer was, “Why should I be afraid of my own mother?” The second day they put a translucent veil over the coffin through which you could still see her (I described her as looking “tall, composed, and happy”), but at a beginning distance. The third day we walked through town behind a horse-drawn funeral carriage. I felt like Jackie Kennedy, and like I had stepped into J’s mother’s family matriarch’s role. It was extraordinary,

    What completely violated the natural order was that I didn’t go ahead and have the child we conceived a few months later.

  5. Randy said,

    The death of a parent, even when expected and I was intellectually prepared for it, hit me differently than I expected. I was not emotionally prepared for it, and I am not sure there would be any way to be prepared emotionally.

    Well said, Rod. I am sorry to hear about your loss. In October, a dear friend went the same way as you describe:, They just lost interest in eating or drinking, and they faded away. She was 96.

    It was almost as though she was waiting for me to give her permission to die, for my peace of mind. I think the professionals who deal with the very old understand this fully, and they often do not push taking the steps to stay alive as hard as family members do. I think you are right.

    Wish I could think of something novel in the way of words of comfort but all I can offer is to treasure the happy memories.

  6. Rod said,

    Randy and Amba: Thanks for your kind words.
    There are no novel words of comfort. I am so sorry for your loss says it as well as anything.

    “The Chinese said that after the death of a parent one should do nothing for a year but write poetry.” That statement makes far more sense to me know than it would have a month ago.

  7. Melinda said,

    Rod, condolences on your loss.

    And not to sound glib here, but I had a 20-year-old cat that went the same way. My husband and I brought her to the vet four times in three weeks and tried force-feeding her or increasing her meds, because we were used to being responsible pet owners and “fixing” her. But there were no parts that were “broken;” she just knew better than we did when she’d had enough.

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