THE END OF UNBELIEF
A New Approach
to the Question of God
the Problem of Evil
Her Last and Finest Hour
(Written the day after her death on June 3, 1988)
"I've had a good life," my mother sighed from her hospital bed, the night before she was moved to intensive care. "I really shouldn't complain." She was struggling for breath when she said it, with pneumonia in both lungs.
And it had been a good life, on the whole. Anne Hayes was 82, happily married for 56 years. Her husband (my father) is alive and doing pretty well at 88. She had raised two children and -- because her daughter died young -- one grandchild. Her home, though modest, was beautiful inside and out, a reflection of her character and her taste. She had enjoyed many summers at the shore, trips to Europe, and an active social life that included much entertaining of family and friends.
She was a person of unusual vivacity and warmth who tended to make an impression on people that they didn't quickly forget. Her former employer had sent her a box of candy on her birthday each year till he died, more than forty years after she had left his employ to marry my father.
Though never beautiful, she had kept a girlish figure into her late sixties and always made an attractive appearance. ("It gets harder and harder," she'd say when complimented in later years.) And she had a self-deprecating sense of humor. She often told of a well-intentioned remark made to her at age l6 by a boy who was charmed by her warm personality: "Anne, I'd rather go out with you than a pretty girl," he had said earnestly.
The last ten years of her life were a protracted series of broken bones, operations and painful convalescence. The adjustment was hard: no more trips to town with friends, no more entertaining, no summers at the shore, no travel. And then, when her last illness struck six months ago, even eating and breathing became difficult.
Usually, in obituary writing, little or nothing is said about the circumstances surrounding death, or even the cause of death. I'm going to violate that rule here because I think my mother's last hour was perhaps her finest.
She was acutely aware of the torment and futility of dying by degrees over a long period, when there's really no hope of recovery. My sister Eileen endured that -- starved to death over eight months because her body could no longer absorb nutriment from food. My mother had been with her every day of those eight months; watched the girl shrivel to a skeletal 57 pounds before death released her. For both of them, the emotional pain had been almost as searing as Eileen’s physical pain.
The ordeal left a profound impression on my mother. "If I get terminal cancer or something hopeless, don't keep me alive," she said. "Don't do anything to stretch it out. Just give me lots of painkiller and let me die." And she said that not just once but many times.
Her doctor called me -- eight days ago as I write this -- and said her condition had worsened; they were moving her into intensive care, and he wanted my permission to put her on a respirator, if necessary. She had advanced pneumonia and might soon be unable to breathe on her own. Her mind was not clear enough to make a decision at that point. I agreed reluctantly, on the understanding that it would be a short-term measure to get her over the crisis and see if new antibiotics would reverse the decline.
Within a half hour they had her on a respirator. It was a grim sight: a tube half the width of a hose stuffed down her throat, pumping sharp gusts of wind into her chest; her mouth wide open, gagging and coughing on the tube; a thinner tube in each of her nostrils and another cut into each arm. She was suffering terribly that first day, and I felt weighted with guilt. "She's in hell," I said to my wife, "and I want her to be in heaven."
The second day I had the doctor withhold her painkiller long enough for her mind to clear. When her eyes were open and alert, I said, "Mother, I know you hate this tube in your throat, but if they remove it... you'll stop breathing... and you'll die. Knowing that, do you want them to remove it?" I thought she shook her head, but I wasn't sure. (She couldn't talk, of course, because of the tube in her mouth and throat.) Then my wife Jill, standing beside me, said, "Do you want to go on fighting a while longer, Anne?" My mother nodded; definitely yes.
With heavy sedation, she was awake only intermittently during the next week. Her condition worsened until there was only one chance in ten that she would survive. If she did, she would always have to eat through a tube in her stomach and breathe through a tube in her throat, attached to a respirator.
On the seventh day in intensive care, she was awake and lucid. She managed to communicate to her nurse and then to her doctor that she wanted the straight facts about her condition. The doctor squared with her. Through his questions and her nodded responses, she made it clear that she wanted the tube removed, though that meant she would die. The doctor agreed, and my mother -- to his surprise -- reached out a hand strapped to a board and tube, and shook his hand to express gratitude. The nurse was in tears; my mother reached out, brushed them away and indicated that it was all right; it was best.
My wife, who witnessed all this, summoned me and my father by phone. We came at once, confirmed with Mother through questions and nods that she wanted the tube pulled, though she knew the almost certain consequences. I asked if she had prayed. By an eloquent expression and an emphatic nod, she assured me she had prayed and prayed plenty. I read two appropriate verses from scripture (“I am the Resurrection and the Life” and “This day you will be with me in Paradise”).
My father kissed her goodbye. Among other things he whispered, "I'll see you soon in heaven." My mother gave him as much of a kiss as the tube permitted. My wife and I said our farewells. I held one of my mother's hands and my wife held the other while the morphine made her drowsy. She fought the drowsiness, intensely aware that when sleep came, she would not wake from it. Not in this world.
But sleep did come. We held her hands and stroked her arms and prayed for her -- and wept for her -- until, four hours later, she had drifted from us -- and the doctor said finally, "She's gone."
Gone. My mother, friend and mentor. She taught me not only how to live, but how to die.
Copyright © 2013 by Shane Hayes