A lesson in living, from a dying mother

It is said that our mothers are our first teachers. If we're lucky, our mothers keep delivering lessons - especially life lessons - right to the end. Gary Westover's essay is called “Final Days.”
Marie Westover with her son Gary. (Submitted by Gary Westover)

In early February of this year, my 91-year-old mother became a reluctant in-patient on the palliative care unit at Toronto's Sunnybrook Hospital, where she died six weeks later.  Her name was Marie.  

She could have, and probably should have, been admitted to hospital weeks earlier.  But, as much as she enjoyed and thrived in the company of others, she was a fiercely independent and persistently private woman, especially in her later years.  It's no wonder then that she dreaded and delayed leaving her modest, little home, her sanctuary, where she had lived for over thirty years for a totally unfamiliar environment.  She was equally distressed by the prospect of being poked and prodded and having every aspect of her personal care attended to by complete strangers, no matter how capable or compassionate.

So, in addition to the suffering and indignities the cancer had already imposed in the preceding months, her first 2-3 weeks in hospital demanded an enormous adjustment.  Despite her valiant efforts to remain stoic, her stark new reality didn't always bring out the best in her.

Then, around week four, something quite remarkable happened:  my mother turned a corner.  Where before she had been agitated and unsettled by the daily routine, especially the shower of attention from her dutiful nurses, she now seemed more at ease with everything and everyone.  Where before she had been prickly, refusing visitors and phone calls, she was warm, receptive and engaging.   

After a visit with a good friend one afternoon, she grinned impishly and admitted, "I just couldn't stop talking."  She appeared lighter, happier even, than she had in months.

During this window of quasi remission, she raised two issues that held tremendous significance for her.  The first related to pride.  Pridefulness, actually. She caught me off guard when, after taking up my usual spot at her bedside one evening, she looked me dead in the eye and said, "It was my pride, you know, that made it difficult for me to accept the help I needed and that prevented me from coming to the hospital sooner than I did."  

This wasn't the first time she and I had talked about pride and its insidious effects.  Throughout my youth she had echoed the biblical warning that "pride goeth before a fall."  But in this instance, more than wanting to remind me that pride can lead to one's demise, she wanted and needed to confess that, during the course of her illness, her pride had gotten the better of her.  She wanted me to know that she had been straightjacketed by her pride, but that she had also found a way to secure her own release.

She used the word "surrender", which I understood to mean that, once she surrendered her pride, accepted the cold, hard fact that she could no longer tend to her own needs, and gave herself over to the care of others—which she eventually did, things got easier for her.  That trusting her caregivers and allowing them access to the most private, sacred areas of her body freed her from the burden of bearing her horrible disease alone.

She went on to talk about forgiveness.  She asked if she and I were "okay"?  Was there anything I needed to forgive her for, she wondered?  Given the frustrations and tensions that had arisen between us prior to her hospitalization, her question didn't surprise me.  After assuring her we were indeed okay and that there was absolutely nothing I needed to forgive, she proceeded to underscore the importance of forgiveness.  She asserted that holding on to grievances and grudges never solves anything, that it only ever causes more hurt and heartache.

I knew her words flowed from the pain of her own personal history, most notably the dissolution of her 32-year marriage to my father, yet she wasn't talking about forgiveness only in the context of individuals or couples.  She was talking about forgiveness between people of different religions and different races and different countries.  That's how my mother's mind worked: she would take you from the micro to the macro, from the personal to the universal—and back again.

She acknowledged that, like grace, forgiveness doesn't come easy or, in many cases, at all.  "But without it", she concluded with a weary, knowing sigh, "we really don't have much of a chance."

There she lay in her high-tech hospital bed, old and wizened, ravaged and incapacitated, yet still speaking about the kinds of worldly things that had always mattered to her.

My mother had nothing more than a high school education, yet she was a marvelous, insightful teacher, who regularly challenged the status quo.  I had many rich, enlightening conversations with her over the span of my life.  Some quite spirited, at the end of which I would often say in exasperation, "Mum, you're not being realistic … that's just the way things are."

To which she would inevitably reply, "Well, just because that's the way things are doesn't mean that's the way they should be.  We need to do better", she would urge.  "We can always do better."

That was my mother.  Now very old, very sick and barely resembling her determined, dignified self, I prayed for death to come and take her.  Yet, when she finally did breathe her last, any relief I had naively hoped for was preempted by a shattering sense of loss.  

On the morning she died, I brimmed and ached with an immense, immobilizing sadness.  But, as I slowly collected myself and lumbered into the day, I also harboured an abiding, grateful love for the courageous, complex, inspiring woman who ushered me into this world a lifetime ago.