My mother is 83 years old. She weighs 75 pounds this week, 7 lbs less than she did five days ago. Her doctor has said that at 60 pounds, her organs would begin to shut down , so any sudden weight loss means an immediate trip to the ER. Over the past five years, my poor mother has been in and out of the hospital more times than I can count. She hates the place. A lot. And so it was that I found myself at her kitchen table yesterday trying to convince her to go back, back to that place she loathes, and, I suspect, fears, to try, yet again, to find a way to get her back on a path to recovery. And she said no. And my heart broke into a million little pieces right there, right then.
What does one do or say or think? My desperate self kept vigil over the mindset that she must go to the ER, that I must find a way to convince her that self-preservation was still a worthwhile effort, if not for herself, then for us. You cannot give up screams the voice in my head. But in the depth of my soul, a voice I did not want to acknowledge crept its way into my consciousness as well. She has a right to say no. She has a right to step out of the cycle of one step forward, two steps back. She has a right to say, enough. Only she can define that moment when the battle is no longer worth fighting. Whether I like it or not, and I most emphatically do not, I have no right to make that decision for her.
I sat at that table yesterday with my mother, my father and my daughter, each of us pleading with her in our own way. She seemed so small, so fragile, so tired, and yet, seemingly unmoved by our outpouring of emotion. And then I saw the tear in her eye. It was at that moment that I realized I was hurting her. I was putting her in an untenable situation. I was asking her to put aside her own wishes, her own feelings, for mine. After 83 years of being a mother to me, of taking care of me and, as my kids came along, my children as well, surely she should be allowed to put her own desires first when it comes to the decisions about her care and her life.
It’s her life and her decision, I said, at last. If you’re giving up, I just need to know that. I could barely get the words out through choked tears. Moments later, we all got up from the table to resume….what exactly, I don’t know. But I hugged my mother there in the kitchen where we stood and I sobbed. I didn’t mean to. I meant to hug her and tell her that I love her no matter what she decides, that I respect her right to do as she wishes, and that I understand if she’s had enough of this journey. But all I could do was sob. And she comforted me. She asked me to please stop crying, but I couldn’t. And then, in the calmest of whispers, she consented to go to the hospital.
On the drive over, she sat in the passenger seat of my car, small, silent, defeated. I should have felt relief at her change of heart, but instead, I felt guilt. She had done this for us. She had done this to stop our suffering. She would endure another four-hour stint in the ER, another blood draw, another episode of twenty questions with yet another ER doctor. At the end of the day, there were no answers about why she has lost 7 pounds in 5 days. I try to take solace in knowing that nothing catastrophic is lurking there in her little frame, ready to pounce and take her from me. At least we know something. But that little voice that emanates from the place where all deep thoughts linger and fester asks of me, what right did I have. And I acknowledge, in a voice only I can hear, that I had none.
I’m not ready to lose my mother. I can’t bear the thought of it and I can’t imagine what we will do without her. I want her to be the happy, healthy, energetic, sometimes grumpy, often judgmental, fiercely loyal, always loving mother of my youth. I know I can’t have that, but I want it nonetheless. I want it for her. I want her to have more life. I want to hear her laugh and see her smile. But more than this, I want her to be free. Free from pain, from sadness, from the tiredness of living, from suffering. I want to be strong enough to allow her the grace to make her own decisions, to respect her wishes, and to love her without despairing about tomorrow. After 83 years of giving of herself, she has earned that and so much more. It’s hard to let go but we cannot hold on so tightly either. We just have no right.