It took a lifetime to get here. Here is where a body no longer exists, but the impact of the spirit that thrived in that body lives on. Here is the moment when I no longer have a mother to greet when I walk through her door, but where seeing her eyeglasses lying on her dresser brings tears to my eyes. Here is sad and happy, angry and peaceful, hollow and full, all at the same time. Here is both mourning and gratitude for a life well-lived.
My mother lived and died on her own terms, sprinkling her brand of righteousness from Minnesota to Japan to North Carolina. Strong-willed and daring from a very young age, mom exerted her Free Will with a force and spirit that could not be ignored. At the age of nine, she skipped school for two weeks by sitting on a rock pile in a field near her rural Minnesota home (convincing her big sister to keep her secret) because she “was smarter than the teacher”. When her mother found out about her truancy, she accompanied my mom to school see what was up. Discovering that mom’s teacher consistently mispronounced spelling words and could not even define them properly, my grandmother understood mom’s protest and began teaching her spelling words at home.
At 13, mom left home to attend high school in the next town. She and her sister lived in a boarding house during the week and went home to the farm on weekends. Being smart and precocious, she graduated at 17, but it was wartime, and her family couldn’t afford to send her to college or law school as she would have liked. With World War II in full swing, mom worked at the high school for a while but became restless and moved her adventurous, independent self to the south side of Chicago. Later, she signed up for the Civil Service and moved to Japan for three years.
After Japan, mom returned to the states and ended up in Georgia, where she met my dad by yelling at him for making a mistake on a purchasing order at the army post commissary. He must have appreciated her fire and candor, because he married her four months later (at her roommate’s wedding! – same guests, no expenses). Always daring and unconventional, mom called her mother up AFTER the wedding to tell her about the nuptials.
In the mid 1960’s, she started work at IBM. During her 20+ years there, she rose in the ranks to become their first Equal Opportunity Manager and a driving force behind policies that allowed women to wear pantsuits to work and banned smoking in meetings on the IBM campus. She could (and did) stand toe-to-toe with any man in an era when women were mostly seen as lesser people and had few opportunities as equals. She worked hard to make life better for others in the workplace.
Even after her retirement, mom lived life with grand determination. She delved into genealogy and researched our family history, discovering that we were from a family whose surname was actually different from ours. She spent 30 years tracking down thousands of dead-end leads trying to find the true identity of her orphan-train grandmother. She and dad traveled the world and nurtured friendships near and far. Even people who didn’t know her well, knew her strong personality. When I walked into the bank and told the bank manager of mom’s death, her first comment was, “I can’t believe it. She was such as FORCE”! Yes, indeed, she was.
During mom’s final years her memory began to fail her, but her zest for living and her will to live a meaningful life remained strong. Family was everything to her, and for decades she orchestrated the annual extended-family Thanksgiving gathering, stuffing more than 50 people into her welcoming home. She expected everyone to put family first, no matter what, even when that was difficult to do.
Mom’s last three months were filled with pain, disappointment, unpleasant medical issues, and tough decisions, but those months will not define her life. When she began to need medical care weekly and had to rely heavily on others for her daily needs, she made the most difficult, but important, choice of her life – to stop seeking treatment, to end the doctor and hospital visits, to alleviate the stress put on her family, and to stay at home and die in peace. At her last visit with her primary care doctor, she handed him a note asking him to work on making it legal for people to voluntarily end their lives when they knew they were near death. The note ended with, “Shouldn’t people be allowed to die with dignity as well as live with dignity?”
Four days before her death, mom became unable to get out of bed. She knew this was the beginning of the end. If she had been given the legal opportunity to end her life that day, she would have. But she didn’t have that choice. Instead, the family called Hospice for help. We were taught how to manage her care and deliver pain medicines, told what to expect as she neared death, provided equipment and supplies to keep her as comfortable as we could, and offered the services of nurses, social workers, and chaplains as needed.
For three long days and nights, we watched as my mother refused food and took in very little water. Sometimes lucid, other times delusional, she hung on to the thin threads of life as we watched and waited, administering assistance and comfort as best we could. It was pure agony for us, probably more so for her, knowing that this was exactly what she had hoped to avoid at the end. And yet there was a deep satisfaction in knowing that she had willingly made the choice to stop going to the ER and the doctors’ offices and had made her point about the Right-to-Die to everyone she met during her last few months of life. In the end, she was able to remain at home, as she wished, and to have family near during her final days.
Since her death I’ve heard from many people who also believe in Right-to-Die laws / Death with Dignity. Others are beginning to do their own research and change their thoughts about this issue. Out of my mother’s death, activism is emerging from within her circle of influence. Her strength and determination live on in us and compel us to act on her behalf and work to promote Death with Dignity laws in every state. Here is the moment we get to make a choice – to work on her behalf to change the law – or not. Here is the moment when we can honor her wishes – or not. Here is the moment where we find out just how far mom’s strength of will and influence reach beyond her life and death. Because now it is our choice, and our legacy, and I know she is watching.
Rest in Peace, Mom.
Note: If you wish to know more about Death with Dignity laws, go to DeathwithDignity.org. Should you feel compelled to act, you can send a letter right from that website to your state legislators requesting them to pass Right-to-Die laws or you can donate to support their work.