Monday, August 20, 2012

Death With Dignity

I share my photography, so that you might glimpse the wonder in the abundance and diversity of life and the profoundness of nature. However, I have consciously left most deeper thoughts about life out of the blog and kept the content pretty cheery and light. Tonight, however, I figured I'd take a dive into real life and see how it goes. I'm not sure why I chose tonight, other than that I post process things and perhaps, in my odd sort of way, I was ready to talk about it.

One of my favorite Aunts passed away. Actually, she chose to die. Admittedly, choosing to die is still a very foreign thought to me and, I suspect, to most of us. At first, it really did not compute in that engineering brain of mine. I'm not entirely sure if it really needs to make sense in that logical sort of way or if it is just about acceptance. Perhaps it is just a matter of my being comfortable with her decision. Let me introduce her to you.

Aunty was the spunkiest and youngest of eleven children. She was the one that rounded up volunteers, in her very "managerial" manner, to wrap inexpensive presents during Christmas to make certain that everyone had something to open. She was the one that did a spiritual pilgramage to India and went, at least for a while, vegetarian. She's the one that remained single in spite of my best efforts to fix her up with my high school science teacher (whatever was I thinking? She did humor me, in any case). Take this in the context of a family that grew up with a hardworking grandma and all the aunts sewing for a living and where a single chicken for a family of eleven children was an extravagance. [Note: mom made great shirts when I was a kid!]

Indeed, Aunty was the wild hare of the bunch; the round peg in the matrix of square holes. She was also the care taker, in her very managerial sort of way. Aunty was known for pushing (sometimes less than delicately) her sisters, many of whom could no longer drive, to visit their oldest sister, who is bedridden and still resides deep in the mists of Parkinson's and dementia. Aunty basically showed up at her sisters' doorsteps and foisted them away to visit their eldest! She would not take no for an answer. She knew that they would likely not be recognized by the eldest nor receive any response to their greetings and inquiries. Each visit was a hear wrenching reminder of the ravages of aging that approached all too incessantly for them all. Still Aunty persisted in rounding up her sisters for regular visits. Perhaps, it is that very stubborness at which she demanded every last bit from life, that refusal to take no for an answer, that made it so shocking to us when she decided to let herself die.

Having retired as a nurse, Aunty volunteered to help the elderly clean and maintain their apartments, often scrubbing their bathrooms with much needed Clorox bleach. Aunty cleaned out the brooding bacteria and stubborn and lingering odors, sometimes associated with the neglected homes of the elderly, usually spending hours wiping the floors, tub and toilets with bleach. Unfortunately, that same bleach that cleaned even the most stubborn and odiferous apartment and kiled the meanest of bacteria also proved to be her downfall.

When Aunty came down with a life threatening lung infection, she was rushed to the hospital where she was also diagnosed with major long term lung damage. While the IV antibiotics turned back the infection and whisked her off of death's doorstep, her ability to exchange oxygen was severly compromised due to years of damage attributed to bleach inhalation in poorly ventilated, confined environments. This stubbornly independent woman was reduced to weakly walking through life pulling an oxygen tank on a tether.

Thus, I saw her when I came home to visit my Mother. Aunty appeared chatty, holding court in the lobby of the hostel with my Mom, myself and one of my other Aunts and her husband. As I understood it, she had decided that, should another infection take hold, she would refuse medication. If she survived over a year in the hostel, she would assume it was just meant to be and would resume independent living. If she did not survive the year, she had already carefully planned out her estate and her last months of life, had said her good byes, and would leave on her own terms.

There we sat, in the lobby of the hostel, trying to convince her, in our presumptuous, selfish sort of way, that she should stick it out because we were not yet ready to lose her. She seemed spunky enough, if a little tired. We thought we might just get our way if only we persisted in asking her to reconsider. She was the youngest of the Aunts and we were just not ready. That was that. I suppose stubborness runs throughout the bloodline.

Of course, Aunty was polite, in that older generation nurse kind of way, but was having none of it. She had thought it through and figured out all the details, down to the tiniest threads in the tapestry of her life. She was just humoring us I suppose. After about 30 minutes of this, she informed us that she had a lunch appointment with some old friends, and summarily sent us on our way.

Aunty caught another lung infection and passed about a month after I left for home. I find myself wishing I had chosen to have a real conversation with her, a conversation about life and meaning, a conversation about making a difference in the world, a conversation about living with dignity and death on one's own terms. I never had that conversation but I suspect that she managed to teach the lesson anyhow and, as always, on her own terms.

1 comment:

Hanny said...

When we die, as we all must, we take not the possessions that we've amassed, nor the accolades and awards we've earned. We came with nothing, we leave with nothing.
What we leave behind are the relationships that we forged with the people we have known. We can only live on in the memory of the people who knew us, and it sounds like your aunt was very wealthy and lived her life very well to have left such an impression with you.

Take care!