Dignity Project: Linda C. Robinson: Deaths of parents 17 years ago instructive to city woman
NORTHAMPTON — When my parents, Harold and Betty Harlow, were in their 60s, they asked their three adult children to sit with them while they discussed their plans for dying. My sister Bonnie is the youngest, my brother Dick is the middle child and I, Linda, am the oldest.
We have always cherished the family value of openness in the context of respect and love — and in that vein, my parents told us they intended to take their own lives when the time was right for them.
They showed us a booklet purchased from the Hemlock Society which contained 10 or so methods of taking one’s life at home. We were not shocked. My mother had multiple sclerosis and had been wheelchair-bound since her 50s. My father had worked hard as a professor to support us and my mother’s increasing disability. He was exhausted.
But as time went by, the issue of their decision was not discussed again.
We visited Mom and Dad regularly. As they entered their 70s, Dad was getting thinner and played with his food instead of eating.
Mom remained strong and willful, typical of her lifelong character. She would say, “Hal, I love you.” Dad’s chair was next to hers. Dad often didn’t respond because he was deaf.
I challenged Dad to eat more by telling him we’d have to send him to a nursing home. He was momentarily startled and said he would try to be better, but in his weakened state forgot almost immediately. He had been a lover of books, but now most prominent on the coffee table was the Hemlock booklet, pressed open to the chapter on starvation.
Dad went in and out of the hospital for a variety of reasons. I was living near them and would go to his bedside, then home to make sure they were being well looked after by their caretaker.
During the last visit to the hospital, Dad’s doctor (God bless him) said there was nothing more he could do and sent Dad home. Dad died in his chair next to Mom at the age of 76 in 1997 in their home in Hampden. He weighed 90 pounds.
The next year, I moved Mom to a nursing home near me in Northampton. I was still raising my own family, working full time and visiting her three days a week. She was in terrible physical condition, unable to move or even eat on her own. But her will to live and see her grandchildren and her children active and thriving was unstoppable. She lived another three years, until she died in the nursing home in 2000, with my sister Bonnie and me by her side. Her plan to die with Dad was never discussed.
Now my husband and I talk about our own deaths. We are in our early 70s, and fortunately still in good health. We visit older friends who are ill, or living in retirement communities or moving out of the homes where they raised their children.
We remember the nursing home filled with older men and women bent over in their wheelchairs, either sleeping or staring at their hands. My mother had begged me not to put her in a nursing home. With all my heart I didn’t want to do this but I still had a family to raise and couldn’t care for her. Like my mother, I don’t want to be lined up in a beige-colored hallway staring at my hands, unable to lift my head, unable perhaps to hear.
What are the choices? Starvation seems OK. It’s something I can control.
I often think back to the death of our favorite dog, Smudge, He was a long-haired black Lab and shepherd mix. Among other things, he loved to fetch a tennis ball that was perpetually at our feet. Smudge fetched that ball even when we tossed it far into the waves or up the beach on Martha’s Vineyard. When he was only 8 he began to cough a lot. The vet said he had a serious heart condition.
My family and I took good care of him until he lost interest in the tennis ball and couldn’t walk any more. With great sadness we decided to put him to sleep. We held him in our arms while the vet gave him the shot. Smudge gave us a loving look while we hugged him and cried. Then he died. It took seconds.
I wonder why we humans are so humane with our animals, not wanting them to suffer, and providing them with a quick end to their pain, yet we cannot do the same for ourselves. If we choose to die it seems to have to be done in a furtive manner, without the opportunity to be held by our loved ones.
Suppose that decision could be made by everyone involved in our care — family, friends and doctors? How lovely that might be to have a community involvement, helping to decide the time, place and method. We are so afraid of death. This could be a way for the subject of death to come out in the open, to be talked about, to be shared and to use a phrase that sums it up well, “to have a satisfying end” to our lives. I’d like that.
Linda C. Robinson is a social worker in private practice in Northampton.