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On being mortal

When our future son-in-law proposed marriage to our daughter, my husband and I were there. We weren’t literally with them the moment he asked her to marry him, but we were on the Sausalito ferry knowing that he would ask her to take a walk with him. When they came back we were lucky enough to experience her tears of joy. It was a very special day.

Later that week Tony and I drove to Carmel-by-the Sea for a short getaway. This picture was taken on our drive down the coast. Although he had survived heart surgery to repair his mitral valve two years before, I never thought we would lose him so soon. We remembered him this month on the first anniversary of his death.

I was blessed to welcome the birth of our grandchild four months after Tony passed. Blessed in the sense that this baby boy brought more joy than I could ever have imagined. He was and is a magical distraction. Yes, I still wish he could have known this grandfather and I still have moments of heartache, but time is healing.

I don’t know how long it was after Tony’s death that I read Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. It couldn’t have been more than a month. This wasn’t a book I was searching for or even knew anything about. It was sitting on the steps in my mother’s home waiting to be returned to her friend. My mother hadn’t thought to mention it to me and I didn’t recognize that reading it could be fortuitous.

Gawande is a surgeon who has written about the power of medicine to keep us alive and how medicine can also jeopardize our end of life quality. It haunted me to read about the dire conditions in so many of our hospitals and nursing homes where the inevitable push to keep us alive can also damage the human spirit. The author talks of finding ways to make the end of our lives more comfortable and meaningful.

I spent nine months watching my husband suffer in the hospital under the worst conditions. I try not to blame myself for urging him forward, not wanting him to die, because I know he wanted to live. But at some point, after watching him struggle, I wish I had had the presence of mind and the guidance from his medical team to consider hospice. If it is what he wanted,  I would have stopped the constant assessments, the procedures, the ICU runs. I would have set him free. But we never had the conversation.

While I did not have Being Mortal to educate and guide me in the most emotional period of my life, I am now more informed about how medicine can enhance the end of our lives. I now realize the dying have a choice. Regardless of how devastating it might be to discuss death with a loved one, it can be a precious conversation and a gift. If the situation warrants it, counter the caring doctors who do everything in their power to keep us alive, and advocate for the wishes of your loved one.

In hindsight, of course, we can clearly think through what was a blur of emotion in an earlier moment. If I’m honest with myself, I don’t think I could have talked with my husband about dying. I just couldn’t imagine life without him. Our daughter, who is a doctor, couldn’t watch him suffer anymore. She talked to him and told him we knew he was getting better, but if there was ever a time he couldn’t go on, we would support him. He thanked her and told her he would be thinking about their conversation. He died a month later.

I now know how important it is to give someone you love the opportunity to express themselves, to share their fears and wishes, even in the midst of emotional turmoil. Have the conversation so you both know how you think about this inevitable part of being mortal.



This entry was posted in: Journey

1 Comment

  1. alisonspinney says

    hey marg…. very powerful. and very good advice. What a wonderful picture of Tony. Chuck and I each have a medical directive/living will in place, which may or may not have been relevant in Tony’s situation. However….. during the actual time of dying, the emotions may make the actual “no resucitating/no artificial means etc.” decision a whole lot harder. My 67 yr old mom had one in place, but when the time came in the emergency room, I couldn’t just let her go without trying 1 more time. As she was going under a medically induced coma, I promised her that I’d only let her go into a coma for a few days…. just to see if her body responded positively. It didn’t. 4 days later, we unplugged her. This sounds like a good book to read. Thank you for posting.


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