“DO YOU WANT YOUR MOTHER TO DIE?”
MY FRIEND ASKS ME. “YES,” I SAY.
I have, of course, voiced the unspeakable, put into words what no one should ever think, let alone admit, but my friend Jane is not shocked. “So do I,” she responds huskily. “Every time I call my sister in St. Louis and ask, ‘How’s Mother?’ and she says, ‘Fine,’ my heart sinks.”
Jane’s mother’s heart still beats and her lungs still pulsate, but “fine” is a tragic misstatement of her condition. For the past year she has not recognized her daughters, has not known where she is or seemed to care.
Does Jane’s mother realize that she is incontinent and needs to have her diapers changed? Does she, in some locked inner recess of her being, long to escape the imprisonment of a body and mind that do not let her live but do not offer the release of death? No one knows what she thinks. No one knows if she thinks at all.
But everyone who has known my mother in her last few years knows how painfully aware she has been of all that has happened and is happening in her life. Bitter, uncomprehending tears still spring to her eyes as she remembers the two sons she lost—one to a fatal heart attack at the age of 43, the other a suicide following a disabling stroke at 44. She weeps often, too, for my father, who died two and a half years ago.
Not only does she recognize me when I come to see her—I am in her thoughts constantly. “You’re all I have to live for now,” she tells me often. “No!” I protest, unwilling to assume the responsibility for her will to live. Because if I am all she is living for, I have to be with her often enough to make her continue to want to live. I have to leave my husband, my children, my work, my home in New York to bring a reason for living to her in Philadelphia. And I am unwilling to give up my life to prolong hers.
So I compromise. I visit her about once a month, when she is well enough to be in her own apartment, a day or two a week during her increasingly frequent hospital stays. It is always too much—and never enough.
Too much because of the disruption my thoughts about her, my visits to her, my guilt over not being with her more often bring to my life. She is with me when I sit at my typewriter, when I step onto the tennis court, when I make love with my husband. (What right do I have to work, to play, to love, when she is in such misery?)
For this past month and a half that she has been hospitalized with agonizing abdominal pain, high fever and debilitating weakness (none of which her doctors can explain), I have visited her in Philadelphia every week. I have been in daily touch with her and with her internist, and almost daily with my aunt, who is doing my job, being with my mother every day in the hospital.
Never enough, because still I feel guilty. And still she feels lonely.
All her life she has loudly proclaimed her independence: “I would never live with any of my children. It wouldn’t be any good for them, and it wouldn’t be any good for me.” And yet last week she tentatively suggested moving in with me.
I looked at her, lying in a welter of tubes and pipes in a white expanse of bed. She had spoken with her eyes closed, tiny half-moons rising above a mountain of a nose. I had never seen her eyes looking so small, her nose so large, the bones of her body so starkly evident. Now that she weighs 90 pounds and her flesh, cross-hatched by 79 years of living, hangs from her bones, I try to conjure up the round woman I knew in former years, the woman who had always struggled against stubborn pounds. (“I used to wish,” she told me one day, “that a doctor would say, ‘You have to eat. You need to gain weight.’ But now that one finally has, nothing tastes good to me.”)
My guilt rose into nausea as I answered her: “First you need to get well enough to get out of here. Then we’ll talk about it.”
Of course she knew I was saying “no.” Sick and old as she is, she is as sensitive as she always has been to every nuance of vocabulary or inflection. “Daddy always told me,” she said, “Leah, doll, don’t worry. If I go first, I know Sally will always take care of you.”
“I *will* always take care of you,” I insist, trying to reassure her even as I withhold the care she wants. “You’ll never want for anything. I’ll see that you have the best help you can get.” Except the help she wants. Me, in my home.
Somewhere, deep inside her, I feel sure she knows it wouldn’t work. I certainly know it. The love that has coursed between us over the years has been close, intense—and intolerant. “Other people can say anything to you, but when I say the exact same things, you get angry,” she had once accused me. She was right. “If you really loved me the way you say you do, you would make the children clean their rooms before I come, because you know how all that disorder upsets me,” she would charge. “If you really loved us, you would ignore their rooms,” I would answer. Point counterpoint.
Despite the laughs we’ve shared, despite the love I could always count on, despite her joy in my family, there has always been enough tension between us so that a week-long visit was sure to hold at least one argument complete with angry words, tears, hurt feelings. How much of this has been due to her personality, how much to mine, how much to classic mother-daughter conflicts, I’ll never really know. All I do know is that if we were to live in the same house, our love for each other, which has always overcome the strains between us, would be sorely tried. My work would suffer, my relationships with my husbands and daughters would suffer, and my mother would surely suffer.
And yet what other solution is there? Even if my mother leaves the hospital, she will never regain her health. She, who has always treasured a fierce independence, who was always proud of earning her own way, has been dependent on the kindness of paid companions for the past year. Now even their help may not be enough. Her greatest fear is having to go into a nursing home. My greatest fear is deciding she has to.
I hate feeling constantly torn. Torn between being at home with my youngest daughter who, at 17, is recovering from injuries sustained in a frightening car accident, and being with my mother, who will never recover from growing old. Torn because the energy I invest in my mother’s illness robs me of my ability to do the work I love: the writing that shapes my days, infuses me with strength, gives me voice. Torn because my husband and I are distanced by our separate depressions, brought on by this summer of injury and illness.
I hate most the darkness at the end of the tunnel. The knowledge that, even if my mother leaves the hospital alive, she will never again be the woman she was. Never again come home from work, her high heels beating a tattoo on the sidewalk under my window in a rhythm I always recognized. Never again arrive jauntily at Pennsylvania Station, holding a suitcase with surprises for the children and incomparable cakes she had baked just for me. Never again be the 60-inch-tall source of power I would clash wills with in my struggle to assert my own identity.
She holds this knowledge, too, which is why she begs for death even as she fears it. “Don’t feel sorry for me after I’m gone,” she murmurs to me as I run a comb through her fine wavy silvery hair. “I’m tired of the whole bit,” she whispers wearily. “Why don’t you leave me alone and let me get it over with?” she rails at the bearded young resident when he suggests still another test.
“What? You want to *repeat* those tests?” I cry.
I remind her doctor how much each trip down to X Ray or Radiology takes its toll of my mother. From the top of her ache-wracked head to the tips of her edemic toes, she is a mass of discomfort. Her medical file grows thicker, she grows sicker, and no one knows how to help. “We have to keep trying to find out what’s wrong with her,” her doctor says. “If we don’t, she’s going to die.”
“Let her die. She’s earned the right.” I want to say it, but I cannot utter the words. They are encaged inside me. Because I want her to die as much for my peace of mind as for her own, if not more. And this I cannot own up to publicly. Only to Jane. “I guess you’ll have to run those tests then,” I say.
The day after I wrote these words my mother died.
My reaction to her death astonished me. Instead of feeling the relief that I had expected and longed for, I have experienced a deep void in my life, a wound whose pain erupts at odd moments. In the month that I have been back home, for example, an alarm has gone off in my head at ten o’clock every morning. This is the time I used to phone her doctor. I am uneasy, sensing that I should be doing something, calling someone. There is no one to call.
With it all, though, her death *has* been a release. It has released me from my constant emotional tug-of-war. And it has released many warm, loving thoughts—thoughts I wish I could have shared with her in those last dark days.
Untrammeled by the pressures of an impossible situation, by my constant and irrational anger at my mother’s having dared to become old and sick and lonely and by my frustration at my impotent inability to turn her back into the vital, happy woman who had mothered me, memories that had been submerged for the past few years are freed to bubble to the surface of my thoughts. My mother’s death has freed me to love her once again.
Originally published in McCall’s, January 1982. It received the 1983 Outstanding Article Award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors.
©Sally Wendkos Olds