A few summers ago, while driving to the beach, my mother mentioned a book she had read about end-of-life issues. She said it echoed her philosophy of keeping gravely ill patients well-informed of their condition. Since Mom was the picture of health, I nodded politely and reached for the radio.
But before I touched the dial, 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 will always be honest with me.
“And,” she said, still holding my hand, “that you will pluck my chin hair if I can’t do it myself.”
I 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, nonsmoking, 67 years old when her stage-four lung cancer was diagnosed. 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 chin hairs, but I went to the nursing home the following Sunday prepared to honor my promise.
After feeding Mom a Wendy’s Chocolate Frosty, her favorite icy indulgence, 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. And 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 counted to three, closed my eyes, and pulled. I felt as nervous as a novice heart surgeon. But compared with the battering and bruising 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 them all out.
With Mom’s confidence, and my mighty Tweezerman, we removed every hair and achieved a momentarily satisfying victory over the indignity of cancer.
Three months later, my dad and I met with the oncologist to discuss my mother’s worsening condition. After looking at her most recent test results, the doctor conceded that no further treatment was possible. He estimated she had just a few weeks left to live.
Silently, my dad and I retreated to his car to absorb the unabsorbable. Dad began crying, and I began biting the inside of my cheek so as not to cry. I said we should go tell Mom this news, and was unprepared to hear my father say, “No. We can’t tell Mom. It’s better if she doesn’t know.”
“We have to tell her,” I said with a tremble in my voice. “It’s what she wants.”
After a long, staggering silence, my dad put his head in his hands and said, “Cheryl, I couldn’t live with myself if I told her.” But because of the promise I made, I whispered, “Dad, I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t.”
When we arrived at the nursing home that afternoon, both still rattled from our earlier conversation, Mom greeted us and announced, “There are some things I want to discuss.” And without the slightest hesitation, she began talking as if she had been in the doctor’s office with us that very morning.
She began 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 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 courageous surrender to death.
This was my mother’s last conscious gift of caregiving. Mom knew, perhaps before we did — perhaps even before the doctor did — that she was dying. She also knew 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, Mom, too, had her own promises to keep.
Cheryl L. Rice is a personal coach and writer from Glenside. E-mail her at Cheryl@cherylriceleadership.com.