Lois Greene Stone, writer and poet, has been syndicated worldwide. Poetry and personal essays have been included in hard & softcover book anthologies. Collections of her personal items/ photos/ memorabilia are in major museums including twelve different divisions of The Smithsonian. The Smithsonian selected her photo to represent all teens from a specific decade.
Dignity Is the Choice Any One Can Make
I've read about Living Wills and death with dignity. I've heard of hospices, wondered about brain waves and respirators, argued with friends about moral vs. legal laws. But I hadn't really addressed dying with self-respect --until it became an emotional reality.
Technically, my mother's 1980 open-heart surgery was successful. She handled the body's pain with her usual optimism and gratitude. How was she to know that the transfused blood was a silent killer?
Into her arm dripped fluid that infected her liver: Chronic Active Hepatitis, Non-A, Non-B. There were no tests ahead of time to determine if a blood donor was a carrier of such. I knew that Chronic Active meant death within five years; if only she’d had Chronic Persistent Hepatitis! I didn’t tell her what I knew.
My moist palm clasped my husband's as we talked during the 3000 mile trip to California in November 1984. Our weekend meant letting my parent complete her life as she'd lived it---never calling attention to her ailments, real concern for others, having a sense of humor, believing she can work/fight to survive any misfortune, sending her family away with no guilt always thinking to ease THEIR pain and not her own.
I wanted to discuss her dying, my anger, say goodbye. These were my needs. She wanted me to see her cheerful.
Years before, while on a trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco, she had a massive myocardial infarction coupled with pulmonary emboli.(blood clots in her lungs) In the San Francisco Coronary Care Unit, she displayed a smile, admired my blouse, wondered why I'd come all the way to see her in a hospital bed. When I left for some sleep, I looked at the hills and bay and felt confused that anyone could possibly be dying when so much light and beauty was outside.
Blood clots in her lungs and a massive heart attack were survived, yet open-heart surgery was eventually a necessity. The surgery was successful. How was she to know the transfused blood she received was a silent killer? My husband, an internist, wondered how he’d answer that question, if she asked; she didn’t ask.
In the Los Angeles hospital, I saw a fragile woman with a swollen abdomen too toxin-filled for her deteriorated liver to process. The healthy, 1925, Miss Pitkin Avenue, Brooklyn, beauty queen whose shapely legs her daughters inherited had wasted from the disease's devastation.
She strained to get on her feet. She forced herself to sit to have her hair done. She talked about the trip she'd make to my son's wedding that May, worried about my bad back during the forthcoming flights home. My mother, widowed for thirty-two years, set an example of cheer, endurance, snap-back after falling with life's shoves; she needed to continue to play this role while dying. I had to grant her this for had I whispered "why you" she would have responded "why not?"
I understand the concept of death with dignity now. Terminally ill people should pick how they want OTHERS to treat them plus how THEY want to act. As I stroked my spouse's finger, I allowed myself the luxury of tears knowing, shortly, I'd bury my mother in sandy Long Island soil--beside my father. She was placed there January 1985; I never saw her again after that November journey as I was to carry out the charade that she’d be well enough to come east for her grandchild’s wedding. Had I flown back, we would have had to speak of her illness causing me to fly another 6,000 miles round trip, and she wanted to share life and hope. I accepted what she needed.
In 2004, my older sister had sustained, just in her last couple of years, strokes, heart attacks, open-heart surgery, two cancers of the stomach, heart failure, pulmonary emboli; she was frail and confined to a wheelchair but kept a sense of humor, interested in others, would not talk about her condition. She spoke of the future with wonder and enthusiasm. Once again, I had to accept, this time with a sibling, what she expected of me, and allowed her to choose. My personal need to display tears had to be controlled. She insisted on dignity, as our mother had done almost two decades ago. For ‘why me’, she also would have replied, ‘why not’.
©1991 The San Francisco Chronicle Editorial Page August 10, 1991
reprinted (with the 2004 paragraphs) by The Humanist in Jan.-Feb. 2005 issue
reprinted by Clear Mountain 2009