The Final Tie

There is perhaps no greater emotional event for a child than a parent’s impending death. Whether adult or very young, it can only be described as a horrible experience that I can only convey from my own life’s experience. Yet when it was over, I would say it was one of the most profound and spiritual events that I ever had.

My mother was diagnosed with cancer at a time when medical treatment was limited and, although remission lasted a number of years, I was not prepared for the final decline that would last approximately 6 months. I was in my mid to late twenties when that occurred.

Since my father had also faced numerous cardiac conditions and subsequently died at the age of fifty-one, some ten years earlier, I was left to deal with the whole issue of my mother’s progressive deterioration. As is usually the case, the responsibility falls on one of the children.

My relationship with my mother was difficult and complex but I found myself totally unprepared to deal with her increasing dependency on me. The pressure placed on me by both her and hospital bureaucracy – which made me financially responsible for all her treatment – was enough to cause me nightmares and took me closer and closer to my breaking point.

I was on a roller-coaster with no end in sight. The ride was so extreme that life seemed to hold nothing for me but the promise of a burden around my neck that was getting heavier and heavier.

After numerous procedures, the doctors made clear that she was a terminal case that would only deteriorate. They pressured me to transfer her to a hospice because they claimed the hospital she was in was an acute care facility and not the appropriate place for someone who is terminal. When I took too much time to consider it, they transferred her from the surgical ward to the medical ward.

For those who know the medical ward of any hospital, but especially teaching hospitals, it’s pretty much the dumping ground for many terminal patients for who no further treatment is planned other than maintenance. It’s the place where the nurses don’t bother to turn the patients, change the urinary catheters or simply place the bedpans on the side of the bed and expect the patient to somehow fill it up on their own.

When I went to the medical ward for the first time and saw the bedsores that subsequently developed, or the food on the tray that was just left there uneaten because my mother couldn’t feed herself, I became angry. When I confronted the hospital staff, I was told that she didn’t belong in the hospital, but in a hospice. It finally dawned on me what message the hospital staff, including the social worker, was sending me: “If you want her treated properly, transfer her to a hospice”.

When I first went to the hospice after she was admitted, I was struck by something I had not noticed before. All the patients had a similar look. It was almost as if I could see the mark of death on them. The shallowness of their color, the thinness of their faces and the protruding cheekbones. I now saw this same “look” on my mother. It finally dawned on me that she would never leave. Although I knew she was terminal, I had not seen any of this in the other hospital. Now I knew it was just a question of time.

There were some lucid moments the last week of her life, mixed in with the almost complete sedation of the morphine that already made her nothing more than a breathing corpse. But when she was alert, I did have the chance to resolve some of the issues that were still outstanding in our relationship and to finally say the one thing that I always found it difficult to say to her my whole life: “ I love you”.

I was there when she died just before Christmas in 1979. The end of a decade, the end of a relationship, and the end of my “childhood”. I was also surprised to feel a sense of liberation mostly because no one would ever treat me like their child again, and although I felt like my life had changed, I also felt a kind of renewal and confidence that I had learned the lessons I needed to survive without my parents, and that felt good.