By: Donna Cameron
She knew we were saying goodbye. I didn’t.
“Go home now,” Mom said abruptly. “I want to rest. Come back after dinner.” My sister, Kim, and I had been reminiscing with our mother about our school days.
The late afternoon sun streamed through the window. It illuminated her creased face and short blond hair with inch of dull gray at the roots—an imperfection never before tolerated. She wore the same floral print nightgown we’d fetched for her ten days earlier. Once a statuesque
six-feet tall, she appeared shrunken in the narrow hospital bed.
As I followed Kim out the door, I paused to look back. Our eyes held for a moment. Hers bore an expression I didn’t recognize. They shone with love, but there was something else. Something that almost made me stay. Only later, after I understood her haste to get us out of the room, did I start wondering about what I saw in her eyes that afternoon. And three decades later, I still wonder. What did she see? Was it a light, a summons, a presence? How did she know, at that moment, to send us away?
Mom was ready for death. She had been for nearly thirty years, since the death of her husband, our father. And it was finally upon her. But, was there more to it than mere readiness? My mother was a lifelong atheist. It’s a stretch for me to conceive that she rushed us out of her hospital room because of a vision or a voice, or a heavenly apparition. Perhaps because I am my mother’s daughter and hold beliefs she raised me with, I remain skeptical that something otherworldly visited her on that spring afternoon. That she had a deathbed revelation.
More likely, her moment had come at last. Finally, let’s get on with it! As other people anticipate weddings, graduations, and anniversaries, this was Mom’s long-awaited day. It’s easier for me to attribute her radiant expression to simple completion than to a sudden light summoning her to an eternity she actively spurned.
A few days earlier, the hospital chaplain had tapped on her door. Young and good-looking, dressed casually in dark pants and a green cardigan, his were the clean-cut looks Mom once hoped her girls would be attracted to. Except for the stiff clerical collar.
“I’ve come to offer you comfort and conversation,” he said, a warm and confident smile on his face.
I glanced at my sister. We winced in unison at what we knew would come next.
“No, thank you,” said Mom pleasantly. “Your god has never done anything for me or my family. I don’t believe in him, and I’m certainly not going to start now.”
The chaplain’s face reddened, but his smile faltered only slightly. He backed out of the room quickly, with a murmured apology, as if he had walked in on Jesus getting dressed. Mom nodded once, smiled, and turned back to us.
She had raised us with fierce atheism and the assurance that this meager life was all there is. I can only imagine how disappointed she would have been to discover in her last moments that she was wrong.
When she sent us away that afternoon, I took her at her word. She was tired. We would see her again that evening. There was still time.
Forty-five minutes later at Mom’s condo, my sister and her fiancé napped while I read at the kitchen table and sipped a cup of tea. The phone interrupted the welcome stillness.
“Is this Donna or Kim?”
“This is Donna.”
“Donna, this is Dr. Shepherd.” Something clutched at my heart. “I’m sorry to tell you that Connie just passed away.”
I don’t recall what else he said. I thanked him and told him we’d come right down to the hospital to pick up her things and sign the necessary papers.
When I hung up, Kim and Jim were standing in front of me. “She’s gone,” I told them.
I stood to hug my sister, and Jim wrapped us both in a tight embrace, evidently unaware that we were not a family accustomed to such effusive displays. The hug went on far too long. I needed to get away and be by myself. I had to clench my teeth not to scream, please don’t touch me right now. I managed to tolerate the hug just as I bear my semiannual dental appointment: It’s almost over. It’s almost over.
I shouldn’t have been surprised by Dr. Shepherd’s call, but I was. Was it because I had been so certain I would see her again, or was I just not ready to imagine a world that didn’t contain her?
Two weeks ago, Mom had refused to have any more dialysis—her thrice-weekly lifeline for the past eight years. Without it, Dr. Shepherd told us she would likely live a few more days, but he also said that if she resumed dialysis, she could live many more years. I thought I could
convince her to restart dialysis, but one look at her determined face told me she wanted this and would not be dissuaded. We were now at day fifteen, and she was as alert as ever. Her body was weak, though, and she was increasingly impatient.
“I am ready for this to be over,” she groused to us, to her doctor, and her nurses. She wanted some sort of remote-control device she could just click to “off.” She seemed annoyed that death wasn’t that simple.
At the hospital, we were greeted by Sandy, Mom’s favorite nurse. She gave me a quick hug. I hugged her back.
“I’m so sorry.” She took my hand. “If only I had stayed a few minutes longer.” Tears streaked her face.
After we’d left Mom, Sandy had sat down with her. It was the end of her shift, but she stayed and held Mom’s hand. They talked for a few minutes.
“Then your mom said, ‘Don’t sit here with me. You’re done for the day. Go home to your family.’ I told her I wanted to stay and chat with her, but she insisted I leave. So, I went and got my coat and my purse, and spoke for a minute with another nurse, and I poked my head in to tell
Connie I’d see her in the morning. But she was gone. Just in those few moments—it couldn’t even have been five minutes!” Sandy’s voice was heavy with regret.
“If I had just stayed five more minutes,” she lamented, “I would have been with her. She wouldn’t have died alone.”
I squeezed her hand and looked into her kind face. I was crying, too. So was my sister, but when my eyes met Kim’s, we both started to laugh. Mom had been Mom to the very end.
“No,” we both assured Sandy, “she would have just waited ‘til you left. That’s why she sent us home. She wanted to die alone. And she was stubborn enough to hold out as long as it took.”
Standing in that hospital hallway, I understood that my mother needed to die alone. She had always been a private person—reticent to share her thoughts, her feelings, her story—and she raised us to possess that same reserve, even though I sometimes chafed at it. This last determined choice was her ultimate act of control in a life that had rarely gone the way she hoped. She was neither depressed nor unhappy. Quite the contrary. Once she made the decision to discontinue dialysis, she was happier than I had seen her in decades.
She’d wrapped up everything she needed to do. She had finished raising the eleven- and fifteen-year-old daughters left in her charge when cancer took her husband. He was the one who wanted children. She had not. Having been raised without a mother, in a home absent of love, she felt neither drawn to, nor prepared for motherhood. She assumed she would be a partner in raising children, not a sole proprietor.
Yet, with her husband gone, she accepted the responsibility to raise us girls as best she could, aided by always dependable vodka and our helpful instructions as we observed how our friends were parented. “I think we’re supposed to sign up for PSAT testing, Mom.” And so, we
did. “We’re supposed to submit college applications now.” She wrote the checks to accompany them. We neglected to tell her about enforced bedtimes or, later, about midnight curfews, thus sparing ourselves many rigid rules to which our friends were subject.
Now we were grown, in committed relationships, and living far away. Mom watched her friends embrace their new roles as “Grandma,” “Nana,” or “Gammy,” and found the prospect horrifying. She had not signed up for that. She didn’t especially like children—though she was always quick to exempt us from that blanket disdain. She often cautioned us against having kids. So far, we had not disappointed her, and—with me in my late thirties and Kim in her early forties—the clock ticked toward the likelihood that we never would.
In her late sixties, with lungs compromised by a half-century of smoking, and an equally long dedication to liquor, Mom wouldn’t consider her doctor’s recent suggestion that she move in with one of her daughters, or to an assisted living facility. Having been raised in the foster home of a dour elderly couple, she did not like to be around old people. And she was adamant that she would never be one of those mothers who became a burden to their children.
Silently, and somewhat guiltily, I concurred.
And yet, all these years later, I feel cheated that I wasn’t allowed to be with her when she died. Sometimes, I imagine what the scene might have been like:
Kim and I are at her bedside, each holding one of her hands. She looks at us in turn, adoration shining in her eyes. We gaze back with the same devotion. As she grows gradually weaker, we talk soothingly to her, express our gratitude for the richness of our lives. She is radiant in her dying. In a faint voice, she tells us she loves us and then offers one last nugget of wisdom and one final, sage, and cryptic observation—perhaps about the ultimate mystery that is about to claim her—and then she falls still.
That might happen in the movies, or in some other family, but not in ours.
It’s easy to say that’s how I wish she had died, but back then, I was not equipped to navigate my own fears and witness the letting go—Mom’s or my own. It was too paralyzing a prospect. I was relieved to get Dr. Shepherd’s call and relieved not to be with her when she died. I can admit it: her choice was also mine.
No, ours was not a family that would ever enact the emotion-laden deathbed scene. We had all mastered the art of stoic detachment. Emotions were to be kept in tight control and never displayed in public.
I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t so.
In fourth grade, I fell during morning recess and badly sprained my wrist. I told no one and didn’t cry, trying unobtrusively to cradle my arm until the afternoon bell. Then I walked the mile home, clutching my wrist to my chest. I began crying only when I came in sight of my house.
My parents were unsurprised that I hadn’t made a fuss. Mom fashioned a sling out of an old scarf. My dad concurred that having a doctor look at my arm was unnecessary.
“It’ll be better in no time,” he assured me.
Two years later, when he gave us the news that his colon cancer had spread to his liver and his diagnosis was terminal, he asked us please not to cry. We did our best never to weep in his presence. There would be no conversations about death, no goodbyes. We pretended all would be well until the very end, even as we watched him waste away and suffer unremitting pain in silence.
In the hours after his funeral—a “barbaric ritual” Mom agreed to only at the insistence of her grieving mother-in-law—she sat us both down and told us that she wanted no funeral and no actions to extend her life should she ever be in an accident or seriously ill.
“No valiant efforts. No needless surgeries. No machinery. No prolonging. Just let me go.”
She repeated this instruction hundreds of times over the next twenty years. Each time, I told her I understood and promised to abide by her wishes. Right up until the night I received a call from Marin General Hospital informing me that Mom had been brought there by ambulance after a neighbor found her unconscious in her condo. She had suffered kidney failure and they needed my authorization to begin dialysis.
I explained to the emergency room doctor the promise I had made to her. “I don’t know if she would want dialysis, if she wants to be saved.” It sounded callous even to my ears.
If he thought so, too, he didn’t let on.
“Dialysis isn’t an extraordinary measure,” he explained. “It’s routine in cases of kidney failure. If we can clean the toxins from her blood, we can stabilize her and she’ll live many more years. But I need your authorization before we can begin.” He paused and waited.
I gave my consent, still not certain, but knowing I could not do otherwise.
Two days later, Mom was awake, and Kim and I stood at her bedside in the intensive care unit. Her new doctor—a kidney specialist—came by to orient her to her new life on dialysis.
“We placed a temporary shunt in your arm after we got your daughter’s permission,” Dr. Shepherd nodded at me, “and we’ll be surgically inserting a permanent one soon.”
Mom glared in my direction and I felt the full force of her displeasure. Misunderstanding it, Dr. Shepherd quickly added, “Don’t worry, it’s a very minor surgical procedure.”
Perhaps I misread the accusation in her eyes at that moment. Though I think not. We never talked about it, about whether I had violated the prime directive.
Not then, nor eight years later as she lay dying, did we dare to share truths and reveal our deepest thoughts. If, after decades of choosing restraint over substance, we suddenly spent those last moments together with Mom plumbing the depths, it would have felt like we had chucked it all to join the circus.
I have accepted, but still ponder Mom’s decision to die as she did, when she did. The loss of her independence weighed against the promise of a few more years . . . is that what finally tipped the scale?
As I approach the age at which she chose to die, I am still greedy for life, eager to rise each morning and see what the day holds for me. I think about the people I love, the places I haven’t seen, the books I still want to read, and I wonder if there will be time and vitality for it all. Forsaking it before I have no choice is unthinkable.
Mom had a different view, though. Once an avid reader, she’d lost interest in books. There were no places she wanted to go, nor people she especially cared to see. The only thing left on her bucket list was the bucket.
Though advanced medicine had kept her alive for many years, Mom retained ultimate control over her life. She had simply to say, “Stop. No more.” She made that call.
Afterward, some of her friends, who had seen her in reasonably good health only days before, said they were baffled that Connie chose to die. Some called it suicide. Having known suicides, I resisted the word then and still do. Suicide is a gun to the temple, a leap from a bridge,
a bottle of pills, a razorblade. Each method speaks of a desperation and desolation that was absent for Mom. She was finally happy.
For her, what mattered was not the breadth, or even the depth, of life. What mattered was ending her story on her own terms. As she hurtled headlong into presumed oblivion, she brandished this last measure of control.
There are moments when I perceive in Mom’s decision a logic and a steady certainty to which I nod in recognition, even as I recoil. Today, I move at a slower pace than I once did. Where once I ran, I now walk. Where once I filled my days to brimming with obligations and activities, I now leave spaces. I see the beauty of my new rhythm, and of the sights I would once have overlooked or ignored: chickadees hopping through the bare branches of a winter birch, the shadows of clouds on the hillside, the dogged persistence of hyacinths. I’ve learned not just to notice, but to savor. Did Mom ever really savor life? I don’t think she did. Though, oddly, I can imagine her savoring death. In a way, that was her gift to me.
I will never know what it was my mother saw in those final, solitary moments of her life. Nor can I know today whether I will die alone, attended by caring medical professionals, or in the embrace of my beloved. What I do know is that I want to be—as she was—fully present in that final moment. I want to exhale into completion, and succumb, perhaps, to astonishment.
About the Author
Donna Cameron is the Nautilus award-winning author of A Year of Living Kindly. She considers herself an activist for kindness and civility, though admits to occasional lapses into bitchiness. Her articles and essays have been featured in The Washington Post, Seattle Times, Writer’s Digest, Dorothy Parker’s Ashes, and many other publications. She lives in the Pacific Northwest where she loves outdoor activities that require little or no coordination.