My Year of Dying: Lessons Learned

Not only with the glorious birth of my own two children, but also as a pediatrician who has attended many a middle of the night deliveries, I can attest to the profoundly transformative power of witnessing a new life enter the world. In what I have come to refer to as my year of dying— when in less than nine months I saw my father, mother-in-law, and mother make the transition in the other direction —I learned the deep sense of love and connection that can come with the end of life. Or not.

The conversations I shared with my father in his final days have carried me forward and enriched my relationship with him even in his absence. We cried together with both grief and joy when he saw in print the story of his life that he had dictated to me in his last months. At 99 he knew it was time to go. A man of few words, after we talked together of our recognition that he was dying, he said, “That was an important conversation.” He validated my experience.

My mother-in-law, who at 92 was full of life until the month before her death when she developed a brutal form of cancer that left her unable to eat, similarly invited me and my husband to join her in her transition. I will always treasure the loving intimacy of the moment, the feeling of trust that demonstrated more than anything the strength of our relationship.

My mother was another story. When she was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 100, she became unreachable. To myself or anyone else she encountered she claimed  to have no understanding that her life would end. Of the idea that death was a natural possibility when one reached the age of 100, she said with total seriousness  “I thought people lived to be 200 or 300.” She repeated these words to friends, family, and anyone who spoke with her. For the staff at her assisted living facility, she strongarmed them into telling her that she was fine. No end-of-life intimate moments for her. The hospice social worker who met with her regularly was struck by the contrast between my mother’s behavior and most of her clients, telling me, “She refuses to be comforted.”

As her only child and closest living relative, I took it upon myself to try to help her find peace with the end of her life. When my mother-in-law suddenly got sick and died before her, it only strengthened my resolve. But my mother would have none of it. She remained an impenetrable brick wall re-enforced with concrete.

Unlike my father and mother-in-law who spoke freely about their past, my mother remained closed off; shrouded in mystery. While I know she loved her family, she appeared much more at ease in relationships with distant relatives and many close friends.

As I begin the process of developing a new relationship with my mother following her absence from the physical world, I continue my efforts to make sense of her behavior. I suspect her mistrust has deep roots in profound intergenerational loss. I was able to extract a few details about her past that she went to great lengths to keep hidden.

Her mother Helen, my beloved grandmother, came to America to escape the Russian pogroms in the early 1900’s. Helen’s family brought with them a young girl whose whole family was murdered: she was raised as a sister to my grandmother. When my mother was young her father suffered a heart attack on a trip home from Odessa where he had gone to see his parents. According to my mother he was an invalid her whole life. She never spoke about my grandfather other than to reveal this fact. My cousin who is 8 years older shared memories that suggest I knew my grandfather, which is consistent with a vague idea that he died when I was three. But when I asked my mother directly —well before her memory began to fade with age—she would say that she did not remember.  She claimed to not even recall whether her father had met me.

My mother’s inability to let in those who loved her the most— even in death— is simply a tragedy. My dear friend Sylvia sang a song about the end of life to her over the phone when she lay unconscious in her final day, “May this be an opening for love.” I hope my mother was able to hear her words.

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