Mum had succumbed surprisingly quickly to a cruel, usually terminal disease known as ALS, Motor Neuron disease, or more commonly 'Lou Gehrig's' disease after the famous American baseball player whose battle with the illness was featured in a successful film.
The most famous victim of ALS, the world renowned physicist and cosmologist Professor Stephen Hawking, is amazingly still alive and leading a productive life after suffering with the ailment for over thirty years. After the shock and gut wrenching news of my mother's diagnosis, my whimsical side hoped that somehow she would not only have several years of life to experience, but as a bonus might also suddenly start spouting hitherto unknown facts about black holes and event horizons.
My mum's diagnosis of ALS focused my mind on the reality of death, and in an effort to prepare myself for the inevitable (mine too :) ), I searched the TED talks app on my iPhone for any lectures relating to dying or the passing of a loved one. I stumbled across this fantastic Tedx Newy talk by Peter Saul titled "Dying in the 21st century".
Peter's talk was inspiring, touching, humorous and made a lot of sense. If you'd like to take a moment to watch it (13minutes actually) I can wait...
My Mum stated quite clearly that she did not want to live with the ravages of ALS, and as the disease progressed she did several very smart things. First she got her will in order and made her final wishes clear to my sister (cremation and a party in a pub for her life to be celebrated rather than mourned). Then, in my sister's presence, Mum made it clear to her doctor that if she were to stop breathing, she did not wish to be resuscitated.
How interesting that this was more or less what Peter Saul described in his talk. My Mum was able to articulate her needs and with the help of her doctor had some control over the manner of her departure.
After a successful operation to insert a feeding tube into her stomach, mum's breathing began to fail and the palliative care team took over. They gave her morphine which made her sleep, and more importantly, a drug which prevented her lungs from sending messages of panic to her brain. Instead of gasping for her last breath, she sailed off in painless peace as her breathing gradually diminished.
In the immediate aftermath of my Mums's death, friends and acquaintances ask me (or more often my wife) if I am O.K. I answer them by focusing on the positive. Yes it's a terribly stressful and sad thing to lose a parent or anyone that you love, but it could have been much worse. Mum had an amazing life, she ultimately had some control over how her life ended and did not suffer. I hope that each of us will be so fortunate when the time comes for our most inevitable departure.
postscript: - Mum did get her last wish. Two weeks after her death, a wonderful celebration of mum's life was held in a Toronto pub with over 50 of her friends, relatives and workmates in attendance. The evening was filled with brilliant speeches, recollections, laughter, a few tears and many toasts for a well beloved mother and friend.