Elizabeth Quinn and her mother join forces to add life and humour to the death talk.
Elizabeth Quinn is a writer, francophile and single mother of three young adults. She knows the value of support networks after almost losing her life in a car accident 10 years ago – on the day she planned to leave her marriage. Her website, diywoman.net, was created to provide a similar support network. There, she writes from practical experience about issues of interest to people over 50. Today, she recounts a conversation with her mother about her end-of-life wishes.
The ageing process has mostly been kind to my mother. She is still ambulant, a natural brunette (with touches of grey around her face), a gardener and an avid crossword fan. The fact that she has lost inches in height does not concern her, although she finds it interesting that all of them are from her upper body. We discover this by accident one day at the cinema. Despite our seats being on a raised dais, Mum finds herself looking straight at the head of the person in front.
“I must have lost the height from my torso,” she says, smiling sweetly at the discovery. From that day onwards, we always take a cushion.
Where the ageing process has not been so kind is in the memory department. She acknowledges and compensates for her short-term memory loss by making notes and writing her activities on a calendar. Occasionally she surprises me by remembering some obscure fact mentioned in passing. At other times, she forgets quite major things.
“If it’s important,” she says, “say, ‘This is really important’.”
“I don’t want to treat you like an idiot,” I say. Because she is far from an idiot.
“Well,” she says, her eyes disappearing in a crinkly line, “I’m kind of half an idiot.”
We roar with laughter. And that’s the thing about my mother. In spite of her cognitive impairment, she is the same person she’s ever been. Engaged, wise, humble, interesting, funny.
The longer our parents live, the better we get to know them as individuals. The nature of our relationships may change when carer becomes cared-for, allowing us to demonstrate our love in new ways. Doing whatever we can to maintain quality of life for our elderly loved ones is a privilege afforded only to the children of long-lived parents.
The time has come for Mum and I to work out an advanced care plan for her. It is no easy thing, talking about one’s end-of-life wishes. Mum does it with her usual grace. Like most of us, she fears being a burden. I ask her for her definition of ‘a burden’.
“When I’m no longer able to contribute,” she says.
I tell her she will continue to contribute to my quality of life while ever I can seek her opinion, tell her my stories, make her laugh. She pauses to digest this information.
“While I am pain-free, lucid and able to converse intelligently, I would like to live.”
We are both happy with that.
The next question on the form forces us to imagine the hours before death. What is important? We cross out Spiritual Care with a conspiratorial eye roll. Customs or Cultural Beliefs goes the same way. We are left with Family Present (tick) and Music.
During my father’s lifetime, the crackle of the open fire and the music of Mozart was the soundtrack of life at home. It’s only in the 18 months since his death that Mum has spoken of her own love of music and of the oboe in particular.
Mum has been in a kind of reverie since Dad died – at times visited by ghosts, at others comforted by memories of her youth. At breakfast one morning, she reminisces about a composer she discovered as an 18-year-old when holidaying with a beloved aunt.
“He was an Italian,” Mum says. “His name started with ‘Ch’.”
I consult my phone. “Cimarosa?”
Mum’s face lights up. Yes, she’s sure it’s him. I find his Oboe Concerto in C and within the first bar, I know we’ve found it. I recognise it from my childhood; it is etched into my muscle memory. Across the kitchen table, my mother’s face, usually so smiley, is melting like a Dali painting. I get up and stand beside her, heads touching, until the music ends.
“Funeral selection, Mama?”
We have talked about what we both wish for her final days; that she will see them out from the comfort of her aptly named sunroom, the centre of her universe, looking out at the native garden she has created over 55 years. Perhaps a little Cimarosa playing in the background. Kept safe by familial love.
This article was first published in The Big Issue.
Have you discussed your end-of-life wishes with family? Have you documented these wishes?
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