Lifetime Connections

Exploring women's relationships in families and friendscapes

Facing Death Squarely in the Eye

What do you value most in life and would fear most to lose at death?

My mother-in-law is 77 and has been dealing with the frustration that comes from losing clarity of sight due to cataracts in both eyes. We live 800 miles apart, but I can feel the pain and sense the grief that accompanies this loss through long distance communications.

One eye surgery has been completed and though the results were not perfect, she is chomping at the bit to get the next surgery scheduled so that she can read newspapers and books again. Living in a rural area, this keeps her connected to the community aa well as the world in a way that even cable television cannot.

Meanwhile, for many months as she and all of those who know and love her have just found out, she has been silently and uncomplainingly managing -- and hiding -- what not even she knew were the symptoms of Stage 4 lymphoma. It was a softball sized growth on the back of her neck that led her family to firmly demand that she see a doctor.

Her main symptoms -- beyond the increasingly difficult to easily camoflage tumors in various locations on her body -- have been weight loss and untenable back aches. The weight loss went unnoticed by the family who lived nearby, but the back problems led her to give up the library desk job she had cherished so dearly.

Now with the unwelcome diagnosis sitting in the room and in her body, she has affirmed that she is not interested in treatment for her cancer. She claims that she is ready to let go of this earthly existence and, now at 77, she has lived a full life and sees no reason to submit her body and the kindness of others to the further difficulties and stress that aggressive treatment would bring.

However, she is loudly clamoring to get that second eye surgery scheduled so that she can catch up on her reading before that window is closed tight and the curtains are drawn for the final time.

What do our end-of-life decisions say about that the life that led up to them?

Suzanne Degges-White, PhD, is a licensed counselor and professor at Northern Illinois University.
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