caring conversations

 “Mom tried to call you four times last week at your old number,” my dad said to me in a stage whisper from across the living room. “I think we made a mistake not moving into assisted living when we had the chance.”

Later, mom asked, ”how old are the dogs?” From the viewpoint of an outsider, it looks like my mother and I are having a perfectly normal conversation. Only I know that it’s a repeat, and she’ll ask again in a couple of hours.

I’m in Pittsburgh for the weekend visiting my folks, hoping to have some conversations with them about the future.  At the hospice provider where I work, we have signed on to the conversation project. It offers tools that help us have conversations with family and loved ones about our end of life wishes – and theirs. It’s never easy talking about the end, but ask anyone who provides hospice or end-of-life medical care, and they’ll tell you it’s crucial to do so.

I knew that many years ago my parents had created Living Wills that made clear what end-of-life medical treatments they wanted. And I understood that with my mom’s declining memory, she might be unable to dictate her own medical care. If my dad was also unable, others would make decisions for her. I needed  healthcare power of attorney so that I could speak for them if necessary, but that meant asking my parents to face the possibility that they will die. That seems easier to face when one is twenty and death seems an impossibility, than when one is 87 and facing recurring cancer and dementia. Death hovers all too near.

And yet I find that the older I get, the less I fear death. For me it’s not a matter of faith, or at least not only faith. Rather, if feels as if Creation itself is preparing me (and perhaps all of us who live into middle and old age) by allowing the gradual breakdown of the body, despite exercise and good nutrition. Watching my parents face the end is helping me face my own end.   

An ad for a hospice provider in Great Britain says, “your last moments should mean as much as your first.” Now is the time to consider what will make their last moments bright and pain-free and filled with love. Perhaps what I learn from their experience will help me face my own death. I don’t expect any of this to be easy. But when my grasp fails, I am forced to let go.

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2 Responses to caring conversations

  1. Betty Kondrich says:

    I find facing my own mortality something that feels natural, definitely inevitable, but also something that I fight. I don’t think so much that I truly believe a healthy lifestyle will fend off death. Rather that I will spend my last years more comfortably if I take care of myself now. I do realize though that there are things I will never do, places I’ll never see, things I’ll never experience. I may not live long enough to see my grandchildren grown. That’s a little sad to think about what I’ll be missing in the future.

    • My parents stopped traveling about five years ago, after my dad’s heart surgery. They stopped going on long trips to their beloved Scotland probably ten years ago, maybe longer. I think about what that will be like, giving up those things that I love, the things that make me who I am. Maybe that’s where the fight comes in — keep going, keep striving, keep being active in the world, until you can’t take another step. You may not see your grandchildren grown, but they will remember the lessons they learned from you. That just made me think of a wonderful quote I heard the other day from the founder of the modern hospice movement, Dame Cicely Saunders. (I will have to write a post around this quote!) “You matter because of who you are. You matter to the last moment of your life, and we will do all we can, not only to help you die peacefully, but also to live until you die.” To live until you die — what a worthy goal! Best wishes, Betty!

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