Remaining Faithful

CURE, Fall 2011, Volume 10, Issue 3

A daughter honors her mother by being truthful.

A few summers ago, while driving to the beach, my mother mentioned a book she read about end-of-life issues. She said it echoed her philosophy of keeping gravely ill patients well informed of their condition. Since my mom was the picture of health, I nodded politely and reached for the radio.

But she grabbed my hand, turned to me and said, “If I am ever in that situation, I want you to promise me two things: first, that you always be honest with me.”

“And,” still holding my hand, “That you will pluck my chin hair if I can’t do it myself.”

I quickly assured her that I would follow her wishes, never imagining that just two years later I would be called to honor them.

My mother was a vibrant, non-smoking 67-year-old when she was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer.

About two months into her treatment, I noticed that the steroid she was taking increased the growth of her facial hair. I agonized about mentioning something as seemingly insignificant as propagating chin hairs, yet I had promises to keep. So I took a deep breath and asked, “Mom, do you remember asking me to pluck your chin hairs if you couldn’t do it yourself?”

“Yes,” she replied. Before I could utter another word, she pleaded with me to pull them out.

My hand trembled as I grabbed hold of the first hair with my tweezers. I felt as nervous as a novice heart surgeon. But compared with the battering my mom had already endured, this was as benign as brushing her teeth. In fact, she quickly began cheering me on, insisting that I wasn’t hurting her and imploring me to get every last hair.

With my mom’s confidence and my mighty Tweezerman, we removed every hair and achieved momentary victory over the indignity of cancer.

Three months later, my dad and I met with the oncologist and learned that no further treatment was possible. He estimated my mom had just a few weeks to live.

I quickly assured her that I would follow her wishes, never imagining that just two years later I would be called to honor them.

Silently, my dad and I retreated to his car to absorb the unabsorbable. I said we should go tell my mom this news. I was unprepared when my father said, “No. It’s better if she doesn’t know.”

And I, thinking of what my mom asked of me just two summers before, inhaled deeply and insisted, “We have to tell her—it’s what she wants.”

When we arrived at the nursing home that afternoon, my mom greeted us and announced, “There are some things I want to discuss.” Without the slightest hesitation, she began talking as if she had been in the doctor’s office with us that very morning.

She started raising previously taboo questions: How will I know I’m dying? What do I do when it’s time to die? Will you be here with me at the moment of my death?

Mom was the most lucid she had been in weeks, and the most lucid she would ever be again.

I forced myself to stay composed and address each of her questions, just as I promised.

It was impossible to believe this was happening. My mom was fervently yet gently telling us she was ready to turn her fierce fight for life into a conscious surrender to death.

This was my mother’s last gift of caregiving. She knew, perhaps before we did—perhaps even before the doctor did—that she was dying. She also knew that my dad and I would need each other in unprecedented ways after she died. So she stepped in and resolved the conflict that, just hours before, had threatened our alliance.

Clearly, my mom had her own promises to keep.