Mom and Me

My Mom's Story

I think my mom was born in the wrong era, in the wrong situation, because all she was expected to do was go to girls schools and then get married and have babies. She met my father, a doctor, and they went to Harvard so he could go to medical school and it was just a very sort of predictable life. I don’t think she was terribly happy.

After my father finished his training, he wanted to move to Oregon. They had four children at that point, and I was their fifth and final child. I was the only one born in Oregon.

My mom was so excited to move somewhere where everything wasn’t so predictable and where she wouldn’t feel so constrained. She really saw Portland as a freethinking place. My mom was pretty intellectual.

After forty years of marriage my parents got divorced and my mom was living alone. She was finally making her own choices and getting to one of the happiest points in her life when she got lung cancer. She had her first bout of cancer in 1986 - they removed one lobe of her lung and without doing any chemo or radiation, she was cured of that cancer. But that surgery was really, really hard on her. It’s a pretty painful surgery for anyone. It took her over a year to recover.

She recovered and was fine, but I think she’d been kind of expecting to get it again. And she did in 1999. We spent all of 2000 on her treatment - she had multiple surgeries and chemo and radiation and a million bone scans, MRIs, CTs and PET scans. She did it all. A couple of times in that process she would say “I’m really glad I live in Oregon,” but we never really talked about the Death with Dignity Act then. I have two siblings that are physicians, and my dad’s a doctor. Everything was very focused on treatment in our family.

In June of 2000, before my mom was terminal, her sister Betty, who lived in Pennsylvania, was diagnosed with the same lung cancer, it was a very weird coincidence. But Aunt Betty’s had progressed much farther. She spent three months in the hospital before she died. My mom and I went to visit her twice in the hospital and I think that really solidified to my mom the kind of death she didn’t want to have and the death that she didn’t want her children to go through.

My aunt died in September in Pennsylvania. We all went to the funeral. My mom did fine that fall. I tried to get her to come live with us, but she would have none of that. She was not interested in that kind of dependency. She was sixty-eight, and she was busy. She had a book club and a library club and a bridge club, and she did some volunteer work for some chamber music groups. She was happy and she was active, and she didn’t want to give any of that up.

She did all of that as long as she could but it was beginning to get difficult. She started taking a lot of morphine. And then she woke up one day in December and couldn’t get out of bed because she was in so much pain. The cancer had spread to her bones. She spent three weeks in the hospital over Christmas in 2000, and she had two different pain specialists treating her -- she had a morphine pump installed directly into her spinal column.

We came home from the hospital and that was the day she said, “I want to, I want to use Oregon’s Death with Dignity law”. I think for all of us it just seemed very consistent with who my mom was. She was pretty straightforward, pretty pragmatic. She was not a super needy mother, you know. She wasn’t complaining that we didn’t spend time with her. She wasn’t like that. She was doing her own thing, and when she couldn’t do it anymore she was done. She didn’t want to linger. She had taken care of her father when he had died of kidney cancer and I think she just didn’t want us to do that.

She had had a really hard year that she had covered up and done the best she could. I think recovering from all her treatments and surgeries had been really hard and she was worn out. She was just kind of done. There wasn’t much of life left to live for her. She couldn’t enjoy the things that she used to enjoy, and I think she just saw suffering ahead of her. She had said goodbye to her friends and had spent a lot of time with her children.

The doctors were saying there’s nothing left - no more treatments left – and to go on hospice. We didn’t put her on hospice until then, which was a mistake in retrospect now that I know so much more. I think people should go on hospice much earlier, but nobody wants to admit they’re dying.
We were fortunate that Mom’s internist was a good family friend and supportive of Oregon’s law. There’s a fifteen day waiting period from the first time you ask your physician for the prescription. She was bedridden at that point and on a lot of morphine and kind of waking up and going back to sleep and waking up and going back to sleep Every one of those fifteen days she would say “How many more days? How many more days?” She was really clear. She never wavered for a second.

None of us wavered. It just was so consistent with who Mom was and how she’d approached her illness and there was never any pretending she wasn’t going to die. It was all very straightforward. She made us all sit down and go over her will with her before she died. She took us all to the bank and went through her safety deposit box and talked about each piece of jewelry from her mother… It was just very straightforward the whole time, so this just felt like a continuation of all of that.

On the fifteenth day my husband and I and her physician went to the pharmacy and picked up her medication, which is 90 Secanol capsules. We came back to the house, and the Compassion & Choices volunteers opened up each of the capsules and tapped out the powder and mixed it with water for my mom. We all sat up in her room and read some poetry and listened to some music that she wanted to hear. She wasn’t religious but she wanted to hear the 23rd Psalm, so we read that. She drank the liquid and was asleep five minutes after she drank it and died fifteen minutes after that. It was a very peaceful, very loving death.

The previous year had been awful, really awful. For months after she died I would have these sort of flashbacks to some of the darker moments and more painful and suffering moments that she’d had, but none of that was about her death. When I think about her death it feels like a gift. Like we were given a gift. Like she was given a gift. Like this is a death I would wish for everyone, every family member and every, every person that dies, you know. It’s just very loving. Surrounded by your children, being hugged and kissed and told how much you’re loved, and then a very peaceful moment of death.

I think my two siblings that are physicians had to think about it a little bit more than the rest of us. All physicians take the Hippocratic oath that says they will do their patients no harm, and I think this made them pause for a moment. But they were not opposed to my mom’s wishes, we all supported her very much.

What Death with Dignity does is allow the patient to make the decision rather than ceding control to the doctor or a family member. It gives that control to the patient.

I feel like my mom’s story is a really straightforward representation of why the law does good. Adding the personal element to it will, I hope, help people understand and not be scared of it.

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