Thursday, June 17, 2010

Mercy

While in my hometown last week, I visited my mother a couple of times.  This is down from the days when driving to her house would have been the first destination upon reaching town.  In later years, we often 'fudged' a little on the time we actually expected to get into town, because once there there were recriminations and accusations:  "I've been waiting for you for hours," or "I thought you were going to get here at 3," when we might have said, "Sometime after 3."  It was just easier to tell her a couple of hours late and surprise her by being early than to start the visit with her already upset at us.  After all, we'd upset her soon enough anyway.  We might not have a conversation that she considered 'real', or perhaps, by the end, remembered.  We might have said something that hurt her feelings, which, it seemed to all of us, were in the ready position, certain of being hurt at every turn.  Yes, visits with her were fraught with pain, most of it hers, all of it inflicted by us, no matter what our intent.

But we continued to visit, and, while she still had her own home, even stay with her.  It was just easier that was.  Happier for her, and therefore, easier for us.

But things have changed.  I saw her twice this last trip home, for only about five minutes each time, and those were five painful minutes, five long, painful minutes.  Whatever the last stage of Alzheimers is, Mom is in it.  No decipherable language, no expression on her face or in her eyes.  She can't clothe, feed, bathe, toilet herself.  She is still put in a wheelchair daily, but no longer moves on her own, and mostly sits with her eyes closed and her arms crossed.  I don't know if she's asleep or not.  She doesn't respond to voices, touch, or even loud noises.  When my sister, the Dump, and I saw her Saturday morning, she was sitting in the dining room with her back to us.  From the back, she was entirely recognizable.  I could find her hair and shoulders in a crowd of thousands, the slightly slumped way she sits, the way her arms spread out on the arms of her wheelchair.  Yes, it was exactly my mother.  But then we walked around the table to face her.  And saw the adema-plumped face and swollen hands with polish on the fingernails--a ridiculously fatuous thing to add to my mother's hands.  Never in her life did my mother paint her perfectly oval fingernails bright red.  How dare some stranger assume such this right now that Mom can no longer object?

The facility's administrator was sitting beside her, trying to feed her breakfast.  Tipping a glass toward her unresponsive lips.  Holding a spoon of mush against clenched teeth.  It was so painful to see, I wanted to slap his hand away.  Maybe that sounds cruel, but it was my instinct. Mom was not a participant in this breakfast-feeding, she was merely the object.  And it infuriated me that again, he should be pushing food into her mouth against her will.

We walked out of the nursing home and my sister said, "I realize you disagree with this, but...I'm thinking about the shot."  And she's right.  On both counts.  I do disagree.  I know this is murky water I'm about to wade into, but I think Mom's existence is in murky water now.  I absolutely believe in life, first, last and ultimately. I believe it is God's right and responsibility to bestow and withdraw life.  To begin and end it.  And I believe it begins at the cell level and ends at the same place.  And Mom's life is a case in point.  Only the very most strict conservatives could call what Mom has 'quality of life'.  There is very little quality in the very little life she is still inhabiting.  I can hardly tell now what she feels, though I believe she still feels, particularly pain and fear.  However, my sister is completely right in understanding that I am opposed in both the idea of, and the reality of, assisted suicide.  (In Mom's case, even if I were a proponent, she has long since passed the point at which she make any kind of reasonable choice about her own ending.)

However, I also understand, from an emotional point of view, why my sister spoke as she did.  And...I feel it as well.  I absolutely feel it.  I cannot bear to see my mother in this never-never land of neither living nor dying.  It is the unbearableness of this continuing situation that makes me internally react when I watch someone trying to force-feed her.  Why? I wonder.  What is the point of trying to keep her strength up?  To what end do we prolong this torment?  Isn't the most humane, most loving thing we can do to allow her body to go the way of her brain?

See, this is my quandary as a believer.  What is left to me, or, perhaps a better way to say it is, what I must do, is actively plead for her release, exactly as I actively pray for other people, and other healings.  In fact, this is my responsibilty, my most loving commitment to my mother.  She no longer can pray for herself.  But if she could, she would certainly pray to be freed from the empty prison of her brain.  I might not believe in mercy killing, but I do believe in mercy.  Will you pray with me?

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