I still remember the conversation, and I still have the paper napkin. On it my dad had written, “If the time comes that I need to be in a nursing home, I hereby give my whole-hearted consent.” And then in his sprawling loopy handwriting, he dated it and signed it, “Lynn E. Anderson, Papa.”
As odd as it might sound, the conversation surrounding the signing of the napkin was jovial. Perhaps our words were casual because my family and I discussed old age, health and dying many times over the years. In fact, the signature on the napkin came about because, during our conversation over a meal, Dad had made the statement about his willingness to be in a nursing home if he needed to be, and I’d retorted, “I’d like that in writing please!”
Luck in living comes in many forms and I’ve found myself with more than a few lucky stars. My parents lived long, active, relatively healthy lives, each nearly to 90 years of age. Over time, we learned to speak easily about the challenges of health and shared our thoughts about death and dying. And I was able to be with both of them when they passed on to a different world.
Dad never did end up in a nursing home; instead he died at home under Hospice care. But oh, those conversations we had over the years gave me great grounding and solace for decisions that would have to be made as my parents faced the end of their lives.
Now, as I hear stories of friends’ parents facing death, I think of the ease I discovered in those discussions with my family. And I wonder, what are we learning from our parents about living and dying? What conversations, attitudes and actions will we carry into our own older years that will be a gift to our families?
My Aunt Lois died rather suddenly of a stroke while traveling in Scotland. Dashing to my parents’ place, I found my mom, sitting on the sofa, with her fingers stroking the fabric of her dress, and saying, “There comes a time . . . there comes a time for all of us.” The stroking motion of her fingers on the cloth, her gaze into the distance and then to me, coupled with her words, brought me a strange comfort.
Seven years later, she would repeat those same words to me as she lay in intensive care after suffering a couple of strokes. The neurologist and internist were at her bedside discussing whether to initiate a clot busting drug that might or might not lessen the effects of the stroke. The quality of her future life was unknown. That night my mom could still give us some laughter when she slowly said with a slur, “I can barely talk and I haven’t even been drinking!”
As I held my mom’s hand, this time I was the one doing the stroking on the cloth of her gown. “You know,” I said, “we’ve talked about times like this. What are you thinking?” “Yes,” she nodded, and then again I heard her words, “There comes a time.”
“You are a remarkable family,” said the doctor, but I knew it was more a remarkable conversation than a remarkable family. It was my mom’s willingness to talk about death earlier in her life that made the end of her life so much better.
Conversations about living well and then dying well aren’t necessarily easy to have, but they are critical to the well-being of those we love. Because if we love them, finding a way around the awkward talk will bring a great comfort and a special grace to those left behind. This is the greatest gift of all.
Why not resolve to make your memories early and lasting? Make your final wishes known. Write your wishes down. Then talk with your family. Leave a dear memory and a great gift to your loved ones.
About Hospice of the Red River Valley
Hospice of the Red River Valley is an independent, not-for-profit hospice serving all, or portions of, 29 counties in North Dakota and Minnesota. Hospice care is intensive comfort care that alleviates pain and suffering, enhancing the quality of life for patients with life-limiting illnesses and their loved ones by addressing their medical, emotional, spiritual and grief needs. For more information, call toll free 800-237-4629, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.hrrv.org.