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    Death observed: Honoring a parent's directive

    A mother, 94, shows her children how to leave this life for the next.
    Wallowa Lake

    Wallowa Lake Dezz via Creative Commons

    I wasn’t there for my father’s death 10 years ago. It’s not so much that I feel guilty about that, though I do. Mostly I feel sad. I wish I had been there. He’d had Alzheimer’s for several years. He shouldn’t have been alone.

    This time, with my mother’s death, I was there.

    Or was I? Death came so silently, so unobtrusively, that we missed it, I think. My sister held my mother’s left hand. I clutched her right. When I noticed that my mother’s face had been unchanged for a minute or so —  jaw slack, eyes open — I checked her pulse. But I couldn’t find it.

    “I’m not getting a pulse,” I said to my sister, who moved her hand to my mother’s neck. “I’m not either,” she said after a few moments.

    We did not panic. We were not — and more importantly — my mother was not wanting “extraordinary measures.” No “code blue” with all that noise and commotion. Still, I pressed the “nurse call” button. “Yes?”

    “We’re not getting a pulse.”

    “We’ll be right there.”

    In a moment a nurse was with us. She uncoiled her stethoscope, like a snake, from around her neck. She pressed its listening end to my mother’s chest. “No pulse,” she confirmed silently. Death had come. After almost 95 years.

    And it  death  came as it always does, even at this late date and no matter how prepared we imagine we are. That is, it came as a surprise, a shock, as an intruder. A door had closed. It would not be reopened. She had gone where we could not follow, at least now.

    I wanted to give her a gentle shove, to say, “Okay, we’ve done that now. Time to come back. You’re supposed to be here. I’m not entirely sure why we need you, but we do. So, let’s go."

    My mother was 94 and a half years old. She was the last of our (mine and my wife’s) four parents still living. Just last August, we had gotten her to the family cabin at Wallowa Lake in northeastern Oregon, as was her summer custom and delight.

    To be honest, we were a bit tense about her visit. Earlier in the summer we had added a new bathroom to the cabin. After 85 years with one small bathroom, we had added a second one. Moreover, the new bathroom had a shower. (Prior to that we had gotten along —  all of us — with a small bathtub.)

    In the real world, this is of course hardly remarkable. But when you’re dealing with a family cabin, handed down from one generation to the next with the implicit charge to exercise museum-quality preservation, an addition as major as a new bathroom with a shower was, well, a really big deal. What would my mother think? Was it delight or desecration?

    On the last day of her time with us this past summer, and just before we got in the car for the long drive back to the west side of Washington, I said, “Probably a good idea to go to the bathroom before we go.”

    Dutifully, my mother lurched to her feet, grabbing hold of her walker. Like a migrating swan — okay, duck — she headed to the old bathroom. “No, let’s go to the new bathroom,” suggested my wife. There the toilet had been adjusted for my mother’s diminished height and mobility.

    Though she had been there a week, dementia meant that every trip to the “new bathroom” was a brand new experience.

    “The new bathroom?” said my mother. To which Linda (my wife) responded hopefully, “Well, a year from now it won’t be the ‘new bathroom’ any longer.”

    Suddenly, my mother stopped. She pulled herself up to all that was left of her full stature. At that moment she was as lucid as a red-tailed hawk on the hunt. She gripped the handles of her walker as firmly as an 8-year-old grips the handlebars of a bike she is riding for the very first time.

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    Posted Fri, Nov 16, 10:08 a.m. Inappropriate

    My condolences on your mother's death.

    I was there for both my parents' deaths. My mother was 60; my father, who passed away a few months after her, was 79. You've managed to write an eloquent piece within a week of your mother's passing; one day I hope to be able to do the same about my experience, even though in my case it's been over 12 years.

    I think you are right — death is in many ways like birth. The end of life is in many ways like the beginning. And our parents' deaths are often inflection points in our own lives. I know they were for mine, as their own parents' were for my parents.

    Thanks for this piece.

    Posted Fri, Nov 16, 1:01 p.m. Inappropriate

    Mr. Robinson, that was a very good piece. Thank you for sharing such a personal story.
    Congratulations for honoring her wish and finding a hospital that did the same.


    Posted Fri, Nov 16, 4:32 p.m. Inappropriate

    Yes, thank you for sharing. It brought back memories.

    My dad cleverly waited to die until I left his hospital room. I was told this was not unusual. With my mom, the experience was very similar to yours. But she kept her eyes closed and I knew she was anxious. I watched her face intently hoping to see a slight smile at some point, a sign that she saw or heard something that I could not, that put her at ease. Didn't happen.


    Posted Fri, Nov 16, 4:50 p.m. Inappropriate

    I just remembered... a book I found VERY enlightening and comforting soon afterward was "How We Die", by Sherwin B. Nuland, a surgeon who taught surgery and the history of medicine at Yale.


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