A Lesson of Love: The Value of Life at the End
My sweet mother-in-law passed away just over a year ago, early on Easter Sunday of 2018. I have always thought that that must be a wonderful day to go to Heaven. While we know Heaven is a place of constant praise and celebration of God, don’t you think it must be extra spectacular on Easter? What a great day to arrive in the midst of that celebration! And she was worthy of that.
My mother-in-law was a wonderful person, and she and I had a close, loving relationship. We were friends, good friends. She did not have any daughters, and I did my best to fill that void. There is something special about the mother/daughter bond, especially as we get older. I have three daughters, and I admit that I do feel especially blessed about the wealth of friendship I have with all of them, which grows as the years go by.
When she was 32 years old, my mother and father-in-law were hit head on by a drunk driver. My mother-in-law was not wearing her seat belt and went through the windshield of the car, suffering a massive head trauma. She was in a coma for eight days. It was a miracle she survived, but she was never the same. In addition to the head trauma, she also broke both her ankles and, as she got older, developed problems in her legs and ankles that made walking more difficult. The head trauma affected her brain. For as long as I knew her, I found she had the world’s worst short-term memory, and I’m sure that it was a result of The Accident, as the family referred to it. For a long time during her recovery she was not all there; my husband, who was a 10-year-old child at the time, can recount many stories of the unusual things his mother would do as her brain healed. The rest of her life, the next 51 years, were a continual, uncomplaining battle to compensate for her injuries without losing any quality of life—and she achieved that. She vigorously walked every day for four miles until her mid-70’s, when the problems with her legs and ankles finally caught up with her, and it became too difficult for her to keep up her daily walks. She never said anything, but in retrospect I think there must have been pain, maybe a lot of it. About the same time we began to notice peculiar behavior that was the beginnings of dementia. When she was 75 she had the vigor of a woman 10 years younger; over the next five years she seemingly aged 20 years. She maintained her buoyant personality, even as she began to decline. Even towards the end, on her bad days, she was still cheerful and would be glad when one of us would come to see her.
In January of last year, she had a stroke. While she was still in a room in the emergency department, the neurologist came in and showed me a scan of her brain. The doctor told me that this stroke had not been that bad, but that her brain showed signs of a major stroke sometime in the past on the other side of her brain. A stroke kills part of your brain. After that it is then gone forever. The human brain, with its miraculous abilities, will “re-wire” itself over time and compensate for what has been destroyed by the stroke. The dead part of the brain shows black on a scan. My mother-in-law’s scan was a scary sight; there was so much black on both sides of her brain. I was stunned and saddened. The doctor told me there was hope for her brain to re-wire, but that the less good brain you have left, the harder that is to do. It was a grim prognosis. She was released after 10 days, and we moved her to a wonderful group home, where she was given excellent care. At first there was slow improvement. I remember coming to see her one day, and she was ensconced in the recliner in the living room instead of in her bed, where she usually spent her time. We had a wonderful visit. My husband would go to see his mother 3-4 times a week. Sometimes she was perky and animated; at other times she was unresponsive, but she was always so happy to see him. After about six weeks something changed, and she began to decline. The doctor talked about pulmonary and heart deterioration—her body was giving out. After all those years The Accident was finally taking her. The last stroke had destroyed enough of her mind that there was not enough left to fight on. A month later she was gone.
At the time I had referred to her stroke as “death by inches.” At first, I wished she had died when she had the stroke, that she had not had to go through the next two and a half months of decline. What was the point of her final few months? What was the point of the last three years of her life? Confined to a wheelchair, spoon-fed by attendants, having good and bad days. I know that had she been in her right mind she would not have liked having to live this way. But if there had been a way out, would she have taken it? I don’t think so; she was always a cheerful, glass half-full kind of person, and I know she would have wanted to spend as much time with us as she could, up until the very end. And because she had spent years fighting through the injuries and challenges from The Accident, I could see that that was simply how she lived her life, always fighting through.
Time gives us perspective, and I have thought about this a lot this last year. We don’t live in a vacuum just for ourselves; we also live for what we give to and for others. Every day of her life after the stroke was an opportunity for all of us to go and show her our love, which can only bring us closer to God. God uses the end of life to show those of us left behind how to love unselfishly. Even before the stroke, as she was failing, she was a lesson to us of God’s love and how we give it back to others. My children, her grandchildren, with their children, her great-grandchildren, spent time with her and practiced unselfish love. This can only make us better people. God in his great economy uses His saints at the ends of their mortal lives to instruct those of us here behind. Yes. There is infinite value in that. Who are we to say when life should end? What do we know of God’s great plan and His purpose for each of our lives? We don’t know the answers to these questions, which is why it is presumptuous of us to pretend that we can control the end of life to meet our own needs and conveniences or to wish an early end on to others, even to “save” them from suffering. Christ suffered for us on the cross, and when we suffer, we join him sacrificially. So, there is value for our souls in offering up our own suffering, if that is how we are to end our lives.
I love you, Marilyn, my mother-in-law. Every day of your life up until the very end you were a lesson and example to me of God’s unselfish love. Your memory keeps teaching me as the days go by. I know you are joyous now, basking in the presence of God. And you have earned it, good and faithful servant.
Written by Barbara Klingman. Barbara is a member of the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation in Dallas, TX.
Categories: End of Life,
Tags: aging, Author: Barbara Klingman, dying, elderly, end of life, life, quality of life, Sanctity of Life, Suffering,