Let Me Tell You about my Mother

Hi. I’m Kate, daughter of Jane, who is the reason I’m here in more ways than one–“here” as in the world, but also “here” working with VSED Resources Northwest. My mom, with the support of most of our family, chose to end her life on her own terms in February 2020 by voluntarily stopping eating and drinking. She was a dozen years into her dementia journey, which started as mild cognitive impairment and moved into diagnosed dementia after ten years of gradual memory loss and cognitive decline. In 2019 her dementia symptoms worsened, and she passed several of the markers she had set for herself to do VSED. And so, with her sister, her husband of 55 years, and her daughter beside her every step of the way, she set out to peacefully leave this world.

Nancy Simmers, one of the founders of VSED Resources Northwest, ensured that Mom’s VSED journey was peaceful and free of physical suffering. While Dad and I weren’t entirely sure about VSED before Mom chose it, we emerged from the experience of attending her death as staunch supporters of VSED as an end-of-life choice for people like Mom, who have no other legal way to avoid suffering a long, lingering death.

I’m a writer, so I documented our family’s VSED journey. It wasn’t always easy, but my mom never wavered in her decision. In March 2020, not quite a month after she died, I wrote an essay about her death on my author website. Here is the beginning of that essay.

On the next-to-last day in January, the local medical supply company delivered a hospital bed to my parents’ house and helped set it up in my mother’s home office, the room she had chosen to die in. It was a Thursday, and I remember thinking, “Wait—this is really happening? She isn’t changing her mind? She’s actually going through with it?”

Mom and me, 2014

Until that moment, I had comforted myself with a constant litany of denial: She won’t be able to cut out sugar ahead of time, so she won’t even begin the process. Or, she’ll cut out sugar, but she’ll change her mind before she stops eating and drinking completely. Or, she’ll start and then quit, and then we can forget about the whole thing. I seized on anything and everything to distract myself from what my mother had said for three years she intended to do: die a natural death by refusing food and water before her dementia could reach the later stages. To do this meant she had to give up good days in order to avoid bad years, a fact I had accepted intellectually but failed, apparently, to truly internalize.

I took my time getting to my parents’ house that morning. I dropped the kids off at school and walked the dogs around the neighborhood, cried on Kris’s shoulder, and talked with Ed, my father-in-law, the hospice professional who had volunteered to help us through the next month. I lingered in the shower under the blissfully hot spray and tried to forget my growing horror at what my mother was facing—anywhere from seven to twenty days of not eating or drinking anything while she waited for her body to die.

At last, I could delay no longer. Reluctantly, I drove the two and a half miles to my parents’ house to see what changes had been wrought in my absence.

The hospital bed was already made up in the room that only a few days earlier had held piles of books, multiple cabinets, a table strewn with papers, a desk, and a computer. Now, in addition to the bed, it held only a single bookshelf, overflowing with photo frames of family and friends, while Mom’s macramé art and photos from other rooms now occupied the newly empty wall space. The bed had been positioned so that Mom would be able to gaze out at the evergreens edging the patio and at the peekaboo view of the nearby lake. More photo frames and knickknacks—interesting rocks, lake glass, a clay bird Alex had made for her, a ceramic figure of a soccer player I’d made in elementary school—lined the window ledge, while on the wall behind her bed, she’d left the pair of bulletin boards that held news clippings, political stickers, notes, holiday newsletters, cartoons, and more photos, from horseback riding in the Rockies and belaying backward off a bluff in Grand Teton National Park to her high school yearbook photo and a shot of the board of the women’s scholarship fund she’d helped found in Michigan.

I was standing in the doorway when my mom walked by and headed into the bedroom she’d shared with my dad since they moved to Washington State in the summer of 2015. Gladly, I turned away from the hospital bed and joined her beside her bedroom dresser, where she immediately tried to give me all of her socks.

“Charlotte doesn’t want these,” she said, referring to her younger sister who would be sleeping in the den for the duration.

“I’ll go through them at some point,” I promised. I was still avoiding the conversation she’d been trying to have with me for months, and we both knew it.

She shook her head a little and squeezed my arm as she turned away, gaze already fixed on the other dresser. She was always putzing around these days, always forgetting what she had entered a room to do and getting distracted by a new, shiny thought she could rarely hold onto for long.

“Wait,” I said.

“Hmm?” she asked, only half-listening as she pulled open a mostly empty drawer.

I hesitated. I never thought I’d be the weak link in all of this, but here we were. “You don’t really have to do this, do you?” I asked. “Not now, I mean. Not yet.”

“Oh, honey,” she said, looking back at me. “I think that decision has already been made.”

“But you’re my mom,” I said, tears welling up at the realization that yes, this really was happening. I knew the decision had been made; after all, I’d been there when my parents made it. But somehow I still hadn’t accepted what that decision truly meant.

Mom moved closer and hugged me warmly, rubbing my back the way she used to when I was little. “That won’t change, sweetie. I will always be your mom. Always.”

I held on tight, tears brimming over, until someone or something else caught her attention and the moment slipped away. There would be no going back, I realized that morning, no last-minute change of heart. My mother was resolute—and ready to leave, as it turned out, even if the rest of us might not be ready to be left.

To read the rest of the essay, visit “Let Me Tell You about my Mother II” on katejchristie.com.

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