Choose Life

It’s hard to believe it’s twenty years since my mother died. Twenty years since my family and I nursed my darling mum in the last five weeks of her final encounter with cancer – secondary melanoma. She was just seventy-two.

I understand for many people, euthenasia is a bridge too far. They cite improvements in palliative care.

In my humble opinion, those who have never spent each minute with a loved one dying before their eyes have little authority to judge the actions of those who help someone they love to some sort of dignified exit from the horror of a terminal illness.

When I first moved into my parents home all those years ago to nurse Mum, I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t understand the indignities and distress of enemas, and morphine-induced hallucinations. I didn’t know about melanoma and tumours multiplying (daily it seemed) – tumours I could feel through my mother’s nightdress – large and hard as grapefruits.

Or the unseen and hateful malignancies behind her pretty eyes that robbed her of her eyesight and made this lovely woman appear cross-eyed and strange.

I wasn’t prepared for the terror calls in the night to her beloved husband, or her children, and the intense anxiety and restlessness that allowed her no respite from this nightmare of her dying.

I didn’t realise that all the drugs in the world couldn’t ease my mother’s bone-deep physical pain and what was for her a truly palpable fear of dying.

I didn’t understand that the wonderful GP and heroic visiting palliative care nurses couldn’t work miracles. Not for my mother.

I didn’t know that my brothers and I would have to take turns wiping away the dreadful liquid that came out of our mum’s nose and mouth as she struggled to breathe in those last days. This was the harsh reality of my mother’s dying. And if she were a dog, we would have whispered our loving goodbyes and put her out of her misery, with dignity and compassion. 

Some people define life as mere existence, the faint breath of simply being. My definition of life includes other more qualitative attributes – ideas of dignity, animation, appetites and soul. According to my definition, the last part of my mother’s life was barely life at all.

While I am so glad it was her family’s loving hands that did the bathing and the soothing and the feeding and the toileting of my mother in those last awful weeks, and while I don’t regret our time together, I deeply regret the suffering my mother endured.

Because of this intense and confronting experience, I would never condemn the loving hands of others who use whatever means at their disposal to ease someone they love with compassion and respect into their last long and peaceful sleep.

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