Over the Fence


Not all over-the-fence conversations are created equal. Take for example - the one I had yesterday with Kay.* Although neighbors for many years, Kay’s residency has been sporadic. She hails from Holland, enjoying her U.S. home in weekly and monthly increments. Recently retired, her junkets are longer than they use to be providing more opportunity for our interesting interactions.  

A picket fence physically divides our yards, but nature has allowed us to share roses and other visual interests over time; Kay being appreciative of the (very high maintenance) colorful perennial garden on my side, and me - envying her (very low maintenance) vacation oasis adorned with willows, climbing vines, and, of course - roses.

We share other things as well; Kay is a tad over 60, and I just earned 60… Kay’s birthday is June 25th and Mom’s birthday is June 25th… Kay speaks English, and I speak English... Kay had a 92 year old mother, and I have a 92 year old mother… Kay has grown-children-navigating-life, and I have grown-children-navigating-life. There is no shortage of conversation topics between Kay and myself when we are both toiling in our gardens. We keep up.

When Kay shared that her 92 year old mother had recently passed, I couldn’t help but think of Mom - our similarities being what they are and all. I quickly dismissed thoughts of Mom’s death being imminent, meandered mentally back to Kay, and gently pressed for more detail.

I’ve come to a point in my personal caretaking journey where the details of others parents’ deaths matter to me. Hearing their play-by-play accounts helps me anticipate what could happen to Mom, minimizing my chances of being surprised and/or unprepared. My hope is that by the time it happens, I will have heard it all.

So I pressed.

Kay’s an open woman with a sensitive heart. She understands my interest in her mother’s passing is not borne from idle curiosity or a need for gossip fodder... She understands that I seek to glean something useful and important to store in my mind for my own mother’s eventual end. So, thankfully, she shares.

The most important detail I heard yesterday is one that will never apply (at least not legally…)  to my own mother’s demise. Kay’s mother chose to die. Of sound mind and failing body, her 92 year old mother informed her four daughters of her decision to end her life, and was able to ask her children to be present and to be a part of her final moments. This was the detail of Kay’s story that registered the most loudly because of the shock and awe I felt around it… A completely unfamiliar, yet brilliant end-of-life option that we just don’t have here in the U.S.

Though I’m not sure to what end, I wanted - and needed - more detail. Kay’s mother’s death by her doctor’s hand sounded so normal… so compassionate… so reasonable… so civilized… so interesting. I did a quick moral and legal inventory around euthanasia and quickly dismissed the “life-is-precious” and “don’t-play-God” arguments that I’m sure have kept this practice at bay in the U.S.

Paradoxically, death by assisted suicide feels like a classic win/win for everyone.

Kay’s mother was tired and physically weak... On this earth for almost a century, she’d lived a full and satisfying life. Of sound mind and with great dignity, she got to choose her moment and method. Surely, that’s a win.

Kay and her siblings were unquestionably sad, but also honored and grateful to be present for such an important and meaningful moment in their mother’s life. In sharing the details, Kay emphasized how satisfying it was to be there for her mother’s last words and to know that she was no longer suffering. Kay described her feelings of “relief”… no uncertainty about her mother’s final wishes… no room for sibling misunderstanding or discord. I’d call this a win as well.  

There’s no handbook on how to say the ultimate goodbye to an aging parent, but hearing others’ stories can be helpful. I think it’s fair to say that most caregiving children hope it “happens in their sleep” as, death by old age can be hard on everyone.     

Although it’s highly unlikely that Mom’s road to eternal life will begin like that of Kay’s Mom, I was comforted to hear of her mother’s acceptance, calm and peace surrounding her own death. It sounded like any fear she may have had about dying was mitigated by the presence of her loving children.

I do believe that good fences make good neighbors, but I also believe that sharing intimate details of the end of our individual caregiving journeys can be reassuring, and may even lead to making good friends.

* Not Kay’s real name


Emily GaffneyComment