“They put pets out of their misery,” my mother said.
Mom then glared at her newest visitor. I tried to appear calm. Regardless of any success in disguising emotions, it’s unlikely that my sisters or the nurses paid attention to me in the hospital room. Everyone was focused on Mom’s “chat” with the surgeon.
She continued with, “Why can’t you do that with me?”
Mid-forties, the surgeon resembled other doctors that had stopped by Mom’s room after her recent procedures. They paraded through like wooden birds announcing the hour in a cuckoo clock. He had the clichéd stethoscope looped around his neck and wore the inevitable white lab coat. But he was different because he sat beside her. The others stood with forced smiles, talked as if completing a to-do list, and then hastily retreated into the hallway.
In late July of that terrible year, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. Because the cancer had spread so rapidly through her eighty-something body, the doctors couldn’t pinpoint its origins. However, the cancer was no longer the worst of Mom’s concerns. Surgery had been attempted for temporary relief from the opportunistic spread of tumors. It failed. On the following day, another operation was needed to fix the first mess. I suppose the second effort succeeded, except Mom was stitched together by rows of metal staples. They appeared like the tips of landmines on the battlefield of her abdomen. She dubbed them, “My barbed wire.” They were still there when she died several weeks later.
“Put me to sleep, Doctor,” Mom told the young surgeon in the lab coat.
In the innocent past, Mom and I (and my sisters) had discussed “end of life” preferences. She’d signed her Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care (DPAHC) forms and other paperwork. No extraordinary measures. No life support on machines.
Just let me die a peaceful, natural death.
No decision that we made—with the cancer or wrestling with the aftermath of multiple surgeries—contradicted Mom’s desires. Except I think they did. But how could we anticipate the cancer’s savagery when no doctor identified it until that grim fourth stage? How could we know surgery would fail? Or that a second surgery’s success meant increased pain?
Especially because I work in a hospice, I encourage everyone to complete the forms, to document what you want, or don’t want, for health care.
But forms can become formless, a barely remembered exercise in futility.
A year after Mom’s diagnosis and death, my wife and I had our fifteen-year-old cat Madison “put to sleep.” Days before, she’d seemed her usual aloof and secretive self. Then she crashed. According to the vet’s scale, our ten-pound cat barely tipped six pounds. Madison wouldn’t drink or eat. Soon, like many pet owners, we faced lousy and limited choices. As I witnessed the vet prepare Madison for the drugs that would end her life, I thought of Mom.
How could I not?
“Put me to sleep, Doctor.” Mom didn’t add a please to her bedbound demand. Normally polite, and respectful of the medical profession, she had abandoned pleasantries.
I don’t think the surgeon ever answered her. How can you? Humans and pets are different, right?
In watching my parents die—Dad slowly (so slowly) from dementia, Mom with cancer like a plane dropping elevation in turbulence—I have no easy answers for why there is such suffering. Why put Madison “to sleep” while Mom lived her last furious weeks in anguish? Yes, the good doctor by her hospital bed promised that no more “extreme measures” would be used. He kept his promise. And yes, she received medications that—so the professionals reassured—managed the pain until her final breaths.
Did I treat Madison better and Mom worse? All I can claim is that we tried to make our kitty’s life as happy and as safe as possible. All I can claim is that my family tried to honor Mom’s wishes.
While I could argue the pros and cons of euthanasia for all creatures great and small, here’s my truth: the rights versus wrongs, the laws versus ethics, can feel pointless. I care most about relationships, about honoring the bond of love. Madison was my wife and mine’s responsibility. We did our best for our cat. Mom, who raised me to think for myself, who sent me into the world to live independently, asked me (and my sisters) to help her and Dad think through future decisions that represented their lifelong values.
At Mom’s literal end, we tried to do the best with and for her.
But I never once felt good about what happened.
Honoring your parents, there in the middle of Moses’ ancient laws, can be the hardest commandment to follow.
Larry Patten is a retired United Methodist pastor, currently working in grief support for a Fresno, California hospice. He maintains the websites larrypatten.com and hospice-matters.com and recently published A Companion for the Hospice Journey.
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