“The only two things that are certain in this world,” my dad was fond of saying, “are death and taxes.”
I’ve been thinking about both lately, but now that tax season is over, I’ve mostly been thinking about death. Not in a macabre, sad or depressing way. Not in a “woe is me” kind of way for having lost both my parents before their 80th birthdays. I’m thinking of my mom, and how she gave us a great gift by dying when she did and the way she did. By dying on her own terms while she was strong, willful, powerful, able, independent, and still able to tell me I was acting like an idiot.
Over the last several weeks, it seems like parental issues have been haunting so many of my friends: a mother who can no longer live alone in another state, a mother and father who live independently but can no longer care for each other, a father suddenly passing, leaving his loving wife with dementia. There is a new story every day. “What am I going to do about my mother?” seems like the most common question that is asked at midlife, hands down beating out “what am I going to do when my last kid leaves the nest?”
None of these stories will have happily-ever-after endings. Elderly parents are the greatest treasures and greatest challenges of midlife. Every story presents a unique set of challenges, and there are no easy answers. No parent wants to become “a burden” to their children, but most of the time that is exactly what happens—at least to some extent. Caring for an elderly parent is often challenging emotionally, physically and financially. It can take years off your own life. It can add strain to even the best of marriages.
But I don’t have any of that stuff any more. My mom and my dad are both dead, and in many ways, although I realize it is politically incorrect to say so, it is very freeing.
“You know, in a way, we’re lucky,” I hesitantly told my brother the other day, “Mom and dad are both dead. We don’t have to worry about caring for them any more. That’s huge.”
“You’re absolutely right,” he agreed, “mom really gave us a gift.”
And quite a gift it was. My father died in 2011 after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. My mother cared for my father for decades as his illness progressed, while caring for her own elderly mother as well. She knew first hand how difficult it was to be a caretaker, she could see the ravages of a degenerative disease and what it could do not only to the person affected but to their loved ones as well, and she was going to have none of that. Not for her, not for her children.
My mom spent a good half of her life living with a Myelodysplastic Syndrome, a degenerative blood disorder that caused her to destroy her own platelets. For the last several years, in order not to bleed out, she required regular platelet transfusions, which became increasingly frequent. For years, she insisted on driving herself down to Dana Farber Cancer Institute, where she received her platelets and white blood cells, and then she drove herself home. In between treatments, she led a very full life that could be considered active for anyone, at any age.
But by 2014, my mom required transfusions every few days. When she felt she had “no life” according to her own very personal standards, she decided to end treatments. Many of her friends and family felt it was “too soon” and told her so. I did not.
My mom made sure there was a brisket in the freezer and plenty of mandel bread for the shiva. She met with her doctor and informed him of her decision. She told her children and friends. She called hospice and made her own arrangements for hospice care. A few days before she died, she actually drove the hospice worker to Wegman’s (there was no way she was going to allow anyone else to drive) to show her how to pick out the best fresh fish. The night before she died, she yelled at me, “What are you doing here? Don’t you have a husband that needs you? GO HOME!”
And then she died.
My mom was lucky in that the decision that she had “had enough” was in her hands. But she was also exceedingly brave. Nobody wants to be a burden to their kids, but who among us would be brave enough to actually end their life while they still had life to live…before they actually became a burden? I’ve never met anyone else who lived out her convictions to her own death. It was pretty impressive, truth be told.
I want to make it clear that I am not happy my mom is dead. I once wrote a post titled “The Dog is Dead and That’s OK” and since then, if I have learned anything at all, it is that I should never title a post, “My Mom is Dead and That’s OK.” I loved my mom. But if there is a choice between a. having a mother who is not really my mother in any sense of the word who I would no doubt have to care for, or b. having a dead mother, I would opt for the latter. Sorry, but I would. I hope that someday (not too soon), I can give my kids a similar gift.
I think I’ll go out to the cemetery this afternoon and tell her thanks.