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Virginia Stem Owens

In the Midst of Things

I did not want to make life-or-death decisions for my mother.

The day my mother was released from the local hospital where she had been treated for a hemorrhagic stroke, we transferred her to the rehab wing of a "skilled nursing facility"(read "nursing home") where physical therapists would work to restore her mobility, coordination, and speech. Medicare would cover 45 days of these treatments.

I had little hope, however, that they could restore my mother's gait, her command of language, or her capacity to reason. Those powers had already dropped away, step by gesture, word by syllable, syllogism by premise, over the past few years.

I knew too that my mother would not be leaving the nursing home at the end of the 45 days. This was not the first stroke she had suffered, only the latest and worst. Their effects, combined with her advanced Parkinson's disease and increasing dementia, made it impossible for my father and me to care for her safely at home any longer.

Before her illness, denial had never been part of my mother's nature. She was a woman who believed in facing up to facts, especially unpleasant ones. Among these was the fact that we all die. She was fond of quoting Psalm 90: The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away. Ever since she'd attained three score and ten, she'd often professed her willingness to depart this life anytime the call came.

She was well on her way to the outer limit of the biblical fourscore years that day I engineered her removal to Fair Acres. Years ago she had taken every precaution to prepare for the day she would fly away, including updating her will and pre-paying for her funeral. But neither of us had prepared for the long slope of physical and mental decline.

My mother had watched both a younger sister and her closest friend die of breast cancer after suffering through agonizing radiation and chemotherapy. "I don't want that," she had told me, long before ...

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