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Accepting death as part of life

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Last week, my mother was recovering from a stroke. This week, she is dying.

As her daughter, it is hard for me to accept how quickly things have changed. But after seeing her in this condition, I do believe it is my responsibility to accept that she is leaving us — that my job now is to help her on this journey through death, and not to resist it.

Still, it happened so fast. Last week, she was doing speech therapy, learning to walk with a walker, trying to feed herself, looking to the left, out the window at the bird feeders my sister put up outside.

Today, she is rarely aware of those around her. She is on a regime of morphine every four hours, and changed bed positions every two.

Last week, she was in a rehab facility, getting daily visits from my sister, my brother, and Diana and Curtis, who became her guardian angels.

Today, she is at "home," surrounded by family and friends.

When the doctors told us on Wednesday that my mother's condition had worsened — that she had aspirated and would likely never get better — we made the decision not to put her on antibiotics even if she has or gets pneumonia. We decided instead to bring her "home." That is, Diana and Curtis invited her to come back to their house to live out her days, and she nodded her head, 'Yes!" This is where she was living when she had her stroke, and Diana was her caregiver, and soon became her best friend. I was at home in Washington, and my sister and Diana asked her if she wanted to go home. She nodded her head, "Yes." The nurses asked her. She nodded her head again. It was settled, they would move her back to Diana's on Thursday morning.

But by Thursday morning, the rehab facility told Diana and my brother that there were several things that needed to happen first. It would probably take 2 or 3 days. If you know Diana, she doesn't take "No" for an answer. Especially when she has promised someone something, like telling my mother she would be coming home tomorrow. She went home, made several calls, arranged to have a hospital bed delivered, and have visiting nurses come regularly. By afternoon, my mother was resting comfortably in the room at Diana's that had been her home.

Meanwhile, I was in Washington, making arrangements to fly east. I am so grateful to my editor and my HR director, who both immediately said to take as long as I needed, offering condolences, and any other help I needed. By Friday evening, I was in New Hampshire with my daughter, and we were hugging my mother, kissing her cheek, stroking her hair, and even getting her to smile at us once. I don't know if she recognized us. But I do know that it was the right thing to come.

Since then, we have been staying at Diana and Curtis' house. There's a double bed in my mother's room, and one upstairs, and a big couch, so my two sisters and brother are often here as well. A half dozen other people have already stopped by to hug us and say hello to mother, and tell her the impact she had in their lives. Diana and Curtis have never hesitated to welcome those friends as they call or visit. What a gift they are giving us — not only opening their home to my mother and her children, but to all of her friends who want to come by and visit.

We've talked about many things in these past few days. One is how our society has gotten away from accepting death. We used to experience it more often, before we started going to a hospital to die. Back when we had extended family who all lived near by, or many generations in the same household. We saw our grandparents die, and our parents, too. And often, they died at home.

Today, we've almost come to expect doctors to fix everything. It's understandable that we want the people we love to live forever. Even an 86-year-old woman with dementia who just had a stroke should be given every opportunity to recover. At what point do we say, the quality of her life will not be what she would want it to be?

We are fortunate. My mother left clear directives in a living will that asks for no extreme measures to be taken to keep her alive. We know that she would not want to continue in this condition, or in the condition she was in when she stopped making progress at the rehab facility. She expressed this to us many times, before she had dementia. Before she had her stroke. Before she was old, even. She belonged to the Hemlock Society some 30 years ago. We are all so grateful to her, that she left us directions. Now, we can only pray that the life she has left on this earth passes peacefully, and without pain. And we can be here to help make that happen.