Dying wishes – pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle

Tomorrow, I’m driving my parents to see the old farmhouse and dairy where my mother’s sister used to live with their five children – my cousins.

The trip will exhaust them as they’re both 91. But the opportunity to reminisce and see what has happened to the farmhouse and dairy (it is now a commercial café surrounded by residential homes) excites them. As does the fact they get to spend a few hours in the car with their adult daughters and see their grand nieces and nephews in their new home on the return trip.

Usually I hate driving – I’m useless with traffic, sudden lane changes and the general rush of it all. But when it’s a nice relaxed trip and there’s time enough to chat and listen, without anything being rushed – then it’s one of my favourite things to do.

I remember driving teenagers to places, collecting them from parties, or teaching them to drive. (We had six and were known as the ‘Brady Bunch’!) So often they would say something offhanded that might never have been mentioned outside the car. Other times we sat in silence next to each other and occasionally actually felt comfortable with that (win!).

Is it something to do with the fact that you are both looking ahead out the windscreen and not at each other? Does that make it easier to talk, and to listen? Does that make us feel we can almost think out loud and the other person won’t hear? Or remember?

Read: When you should make an advance health plan

During the trip tomorrow, I hope we will talk or, more importantly, I hope I will get a chance to listen. We’ve talked a bit about what my parents’ wishes are for their own medical care in the future. Because, like it or not, I will probably be the one who gets asked to make decisions about whether to resuscitate or not, at some stage. Or to make decisions about their healthcare if that fragile grip on mental cognition that they still have weakens. Or if there is an emergency.

So I want to know their views about life, death and what gives them purpose – so if something does happen, my brother and sister and I will make decisions about them that they want us to make.

I know I won’t find out much tomorrow – they’ll probably both doze off for most of the trip. But each conversation, each piece of information and memory from my parents is more and more precious when there is less and less time to learn about them.

Read: Common mistakes when writing a will

When a person ages quickly, in front of your eyes – both physically and mentally – it’s easy to turn away and pretend it isn’t happening. But as time shrinks, I believe it’s more important than ever to face up to what’s happening. Not head on. Not even eye to eye. But side on – as I’m driving along and they are sitting next to me and behind me. Like I used to do with my teenagers. Out of the corner of my eye.

“So what’s on next weekend for you? Are you looking forward to that?”

“Tell me how you feel after seeing the old farmhouse? Did you ever spend time with your mother there? Did she ever go there after her stroke? You looked after her after she had her stroke didn’t you? How long did you look after her for?”

“Wow. Those great grandkids have grown. 25! 25 offspring including children (four) grandchildren (nine) and great grandchildren ( 12) How does that feel?

These questions are a little planned – and I may or may not ask them. But I do want to ask my mum about caring for her mother. It’s a follow-up question from a previous conversation three months ago in which she dropped a comment about her mother’s stroke that was almost under her breath. It sounded like: “I would never wish that on anyone.” I didn’t chase it up at the time, but I do want to hear more about what happened. Because if she really wouldn’t wish that on anyone, including herself, I need to know in case I have to tell her doctors what her wishes for care, and even resuscitation, would be in a similar situation.  

This is called advance care planning. It’s a lot more than filling in a document. And it’s a lot more than one conversation. It’s learning, little by little, about what matters most to the people who matter most to you. It’s about love.

I’m very lucky my parents are both still alive, have full cognition, and can live independently. But I don’t know for how much longer.

In a couple of weeks, I am driving to the Snowy Mountains to hike into an old hut that my dad used to trek to – summer and winter. I know he spent many nights in there with red wine and a blazing fire, telling stories and creating memories all night long with his mates – many of whom have now died.

Read: How COVID has changed your end-of-life wishes

I know he would love to come back to the hut, and be with his children, grandchildren and even great grandchildren as we all hike into the hut together for a special weekend of celebrations.

But I also know he will not be there. The trip to Jindabyne is too far for him.

So tomorrow’s trip will probably be the last ‘road trip’ we ever take together. And maybe the last opportunity to sit in the car and laugh and hear little glimpses of their views about life, death and everything – told side-on.

In our lives there are many ‘lasts’ that we never realise are ‘lasts’ until they just don’t happen any more. Tomorrow will be one for me. Thank goodness I didn’t say, ‘No I’m too busy.’

I’m looking forwards to this car trip tomorrow.

* Dr Merran Cooper is passionate about finding ways to improve both the system and culture for people at the end of their life. Widowed at 23, she knows personally and professionally about the intimacy and the trauma of end-of-life decision making and caring. She has worked in palliative care in outback Indigenous communities, in some of the poorest communities in the world and in the world’s most advanced hospitals where 97-year-olds receive CPR but their families do not visit. Her medical and personal experiences led her to become a health tech innovator and founder of Touchstone Life Care with a mission to improve the end of life experience for patients, families and care providers with easily retrievable, digital advance care plans. She is a key person of influence within the death and dying sector.

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Written by Dr Merran Cooper

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