To accept what cannot be helped

Charles Cowling

A very good account here by Ann Hulbert of her mother’s response to being told she had an incurable cancer:

Two years ago this coming June my mother—“an 80-year-old in a 60-year-old’s body,” the pulmonologist told her—was ambushed by a diagnosis of Stage IV adenocarcinoma of the lungs … In the windowless examining room at the hospital in Brooklyn, my mother said sadly yet matter of factly, “Well, I guess that’s pretty much what I’ve been expecting to hear. We’ve all got to go somehow, don’t we?”

In her case, facing it meant ruling out treatment—the chemotherapy and radiation that the pulmonologist urged to ease pain and eke out a few more months. “If geezers like me have lots of tests and treatments,” she told the doctor, “there isn’t going to be enough money to spend on the other end. This health-care mess isn’t going to be fixed if we aren’t ready to get out of the way.”

[S]he was a rarity—a grandmother in favor of having the plug pulled and ready to live, or rather die, by that all-but-taboo vision of the end of things. But right then, in that airless room, she needed most of all to rise above an abyss. Look at me, a very lucky old lady who has made it to 80; tell me it makes any sense to rack up huge bills trying to add on an extra couple of months (at best) to a life that isn’t likely to last out the year.

As soon as she’d gotten the cancer verdict, she wanted to dispense with the probing, so expensive and so intrusive. She wanted to escape the dingy hospital corridors, the endless waits, the nurses who dragged their feet and addressed her and my father as though they were dim children, the doctors who urged procedures knowing she was a patient with top-notch health insurance.

All of us wanted what she wanted. Or so we had been saying. We had mostly been believing it, too, and admiring her consistency in sticking to her pull-the-plug approach. How it cut through the confusion, the indecision about competing options, the intimidation in the presence of doctors who had plainly never paused to consider that a patient might simply opt out of their white-coated realm. How it pulled us together—that alone recommended her way, we had been saying, anxious to reassure ourselves that respecting her desires wasn’t just right, but wise. Her clarity didn’t come so clearly to us four. Reared on more than our mother’s staunch Swissness, we were baby boomers, accustomed to intervening and only distantly acquainted with death.

Read the rest of Ann Hulbert’s account of her mother’s dying. It’s a wonderful piece of writing full of things to reflect on. Click here.

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