I’ve been in touch with Tom Mortier, a Belgian professor who lost his mother to euthanasia. She was 64 and suffering from depression. Although it’s a treatable disorder, a doctor in Belgium decided she was a good candidate for the procedure. Her children were not consulted beforehand.
It’s stories like Mortier’s that we need to hear while we debate the issue of legalizing euthanasia in Canada.
This is a repost from May 2012 to remind us that every life is important. A link to Tom Mortier’s story is at the end of this article.
I had the edifying experience of helping my mother survive a stroke. The same week, she had her non-paralysed leg amputated. She went from being an active 77 year-old—who swam at the Y six days a week—to a person with only one functioning arm.
When I say the experience was edifying, I mean precisely that: to edify means to instruct especially so as to encourage intellectual, moral, or spiritual improvement.
By choice, I never married or had children. I knew at ten I was destined for an unconventional life. Nancy Drew was my hero and I lived in a world of books, orchards and forests. Growing up on a farm gave me plenty of time to live in my imagination. What most people don’t realize is that farm work is often a solitary affair.
So when I was in my forties and my mother fell gravely ill, I had the life-changing experience of bringing home a human being who had to be changed and fed regularly. She needed 16 different medications and puréed food. Luckily, she could still talk.
I had to buy a hospital bed, a shower chair and an electronic lift, and I had to learn how to manipulate my mother’s body in ways that wouldn’t harm either of us. I had to hire a live-in caregiver — to allow me to return to work — and had to orchestrate a bevy of caregivers to give our live-in time off over the weekends. Transporting my mother to the hospital for her bi-monthly check-up took more planning than I could ever have imagined.
For twenty months, I lost myself completely. And when I say lost, I’m not talking about that bewildering experience of losing one’s bearings. I mean I left my old self behind, took a break from my ego, and emerged a completely different person. I’m not sure I believe in God, but I do believe in a benevolent universe and it’s that universe that saw fit to teach me a few things about humility. This might be obvious to all parents out there, but you can’t be up to your elbows in a loved one’s dirty diapers without experiencing grace — it’s just not possible.
I also learned, from our many conversations, that my mother believed my father had been mentally ill and not just hopelessly tyrannical. This was a revelation for me. I had spent many years fearing my father and now all of that experience, years of it, was reframed in the time it took my mother to utter a few words. I wondered how it was that I had just missed this simple truth.
What else did I learn?
I learned it’s possible to navigate life with equanimity and goodwill even when one is profoundly disappointed. (In my case, by a healthcare system that does not serve the elderly very well.) I learned that we human beings are very adaptable: we can get used to virtually anything. For example, my mother is quite happy to be alive, even with her limitations. At 82, she is still an incorrigible flirt and beloved by the staff at her nursing home. She has a shy person’s vulnerable and irresistible smile, and an abiding and deep capacity for joy. I know because when I walk into her room and she says, “Hey, I’m glad to see you!”, I can tell she really means it.
But I’ve learned some hard lessons too. I’ve learned that I have limits as a human being and that I can’t help everyone. I find it harder to tolerate disrespect, especially when it’s directed toward the elderly. I speak up, even when it makes me unpopular. If I get angry, I try to walk away with love. I meditate. I cry—a lot. I’d like to say I’m grateful for all these lessons, but if I’m honest, there are days when I’m not. There are days when I want to be a child again, hiding out in the orchard or exploring the forest, building a birdhouse with my brother or just playing tag. Days when, like everyone, I just want to go home.