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A journey to death

By AUDREY HOFFER
Published September 26, 2006


The first time Mother wants to end her life, she fails. Given a prognosis of "a few months" by the oncologist, this spirited, independent woman decides that is not fast enough. She stops eating and taking medications - and waits.

But after two weeks she is still sitting up in the Scandinavian side chair, entertaining visitors who come to offer melancholy good-byes, and she is marveling at the glorious sunshine outside her bedroom window.

Sick enough to be miserable, says the hospice nurse, but not sick enough to die.

So Mother starts to eat again. And this is the beginning of the end, the long, slow downhill crawl to death.

"How are you, Ma?" I ask on my daily visit.

"Time goes. Not fast. Not slow. It just goes."

"How do you feel?"

"I'm ready. I'm waiting. My job is done. The sooner the better. Everything is in order, the money, the jewelry. I have nothing to worry about."

Another time she says hopefully, "It's almost over now," as the wheels of her metal walker screech and grind across the black and white tiled hallway of her apartment. "I can hardly walk anymore."

A surreal calm settles on us. I am jolted by the realization that we are consciously waiting for her to die and actually talking about the prospect.

"Do you think I got sicker?" she asks early one morning.

"A drop."

"Can you make it two drops?"

I respond with a sorrowful grimace.

The pain isn't bad, but the emotional anguish cuts like a knife.

"My whole life I was independent," she says during one visit, "and now I depend on everyone for everything.

"I stay in bed. I can't get up. I can't go out. This is no life. It's terrible.

"Do you think there are other people suffering like me?"

"Yes, Ma, millions."

"It shouldn't be like this. There must be another way. Isn't there anyone who can do anything for me?"

She writes a letter to Dr. Kenneth Adler, an oncologist who is a close relative.

"Dear Kenny: I am sick now for a few weeks. There is no way for me to get better. How much longer must I suffer?

"My mind is clear. Therefore I am asking about 'assisted suicide.' I know you as a doctor are here to save lives. But my quality of life is nonexistent. I want the end, G-d willing soon.

"Give it a thought. People in my condition would sign any paper to be relieved.

"Much love from Anita."

The second time Mother desires to end her life, she fails again. The large kitchen knife lay on the pale white sheet next to the pillow when I came to check on her.

"Ma!" I screamed, "What are you doing?"

No answer, only grief-stricken eyes.

Now we are in the middle of the end.

Death is not pretty even if the sky is blue. It is sad and final, like a bird flying hard into a glass-wall reflection of trees.

I pull myself together. My modus operandi is rote attention. Eternal patience knotted with burdensome obligation.

I can practically not bear to see her anymore.

"Death be not proud," wrote John Gunther in 1949, about the courageous but losing fight his teenage son waged against a brain tumor. Please come soon.

I force myself to remember that my mother was once Mrs. Lickety-Split, Madame Posthaste, gallivanting across town to see a new film or to the concert hall to hear Viennese music or to the fabric store to buy some green thread.

Never home when I called.

Up later than me on New Year's Eve.

Even now there are opera tickets on her desk and a calendar filled with appointments. Yet on this bright afternoon, she can't make her way from the bedroom to the living room. A decrepit bundle of illness and old age. I love her. I hate what she has become.

I cope with animal-like detachment. I don't think about the future. No plans in my head, no thoughts. Work for clients stops.

I move in robotic fashion, with darting movements in and out of the car, up and down the sidewalk, a scribbled list of things to do in my hand: Wait in line at the post office. Drop off shirts at the cleaners. Buy milk and juice and bread. Do the laundry, Mother's and mine.

Visit again. Hope for the best. Make it over soon, please.

And when it is, when the end finally comes, it is merciful. Mother passes away on a Sunday morning in her sleep, after leaving me with a final note:

"Do all you can with what you have in the time you have in the place you are."

Audrey Hoffer is a publicist and freelance writer who lives in Washington, D.C.

[Last modified September 26, 2006, 09:32:59]


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