Death observed: Honoring a parent's directive

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

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

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.

Her dementia had, it seemed, vanished; with an astonishing lucidity and wry humor she said, “No . . .  no, it will be ‘the new bathroom’ for a long time, for a very long time.” With that, she pushed forward to the “new bathroom,” which she indicated, as she did each time she used it (such is the upside of short-term memory loss), “A new bathroom? Really? When did we do this? This is so nice — really very nice.”

When my sister called on Friday last week to say Mom wasn’t doing too well, I was concerned, but not alarmed. But when she called again at 3:30 a.m. on Saturday, we did not hesitate. With little more than a moment for pulling on our clothes and a stop in the bathroom, we got in the car and headed north.

In her room at St. Joe’s Hospital in Bellingham, Mom labored to breathe. But she knew us. She knew who we were, who I was. She took my hand — grabbed it really —  as she labored at the hard work of dying.

It seemed that she had a sudden onset pneumonia — what proverbial wisdom calls “the old person’s friend.” My mother had insured that this friend would be welcome by including in her advance directives this one: “No antibiotics.” How in the world did she manage to live to almost 95 without antibiotics? Well, I shouldn’t have been surprised. At her advanced age she took no medication at all, save vitamins.

In the hallway conversations, we wondered, “Should we respect her wishes, or should we ask for antibiotics?” Without ever quite articulating it, we made a decision. We would abide by her wishes. At least this time, we would follow directions: No antibiotics.

When my wife kissed my mother’s forehead for the last time, after she had died, she said, “It was salty. She had worked hard.” Was death, she wondered, like birth? Something that requires some considerable effort? Some labor, that we may pass from one reality to the next?

Here, we who are left behind, ponder a passing, a death, a vanishing. For us, the world has changed, shifted on its axis. And yet, in her dying, my mother gave a great gift. She showed me how to do it, how to die.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.