Forging a Different Path
A year later, I took my mother to meet a heart surgeon in a windowless treatment room at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. She was 84, with two leaking heart valves. Her cardiologist had recommended open-heart surgery, and I was hoping to find a less invasive approach. When the surgeon asked us why we were there, my mother said, “To ask questions.” She was no longer a trusting and deferential patient. Like me, she no longer saw doctors—perhaps with the exception of Fales—as healers or her fiduciaries. They were now skilled technicians with their own agendas. But I couldn’t help feeling that something precious—our old faith in a doctor’s calling, perhaps, or in a healing that is more than a financial transaction or a reflexive fixing of broken parts—had been lost.
The surgeon was forthright: without open-heart surgery, there was a 50-50 chance my mother would die within two years. If she survived the operation, she would probably live to be 90. And the risks? He shrugged. Months of recovery. A 5 percent chance of stroke. Some possibility, he acknowledged at my prompting, of postoperative cognitive decline. (More than half of heart-bypass patients suffer at least a 20 percent reduction in mental function.) My mother lifted her trouser leg to reveal an anklet of orange plastic: her do-not-resuscitate bracelet. The doctor recoiled. No, he would not operate with that bracelet in place. It would not be fair to his team. She would be revived if she collapsed. “If I have a stroke,” my mother said, nearly in tears, “I want you to let me go.” What about a minor stroke, he said—a little weakness on one side?
I kept my mouth shut. I was there to get her the information she needed and to support whatever decision she made. If she emerged from surgery intellectually damaged, I would bring her to a nursing home in California and try to care for her the way she had cared for my father at such cost to her own health. The thought terrified me.
The doctor sent her up a floor for an echocardiogram. A half-hour later, my mother came back to the waiting room and put on her black coat. “No,” she said brightly, with the clarity of purpose she had shown when she asked me to have the pacemaker deactivated. “I will not do it.”
She spent the spring and summer arranging house repairs, thinning out my father’s bookcases and throwing out the files he collected so lovingly for the book he never finished writing. She told someone that she didn’t want to leave a mess for her kids. Her chest pain worsened, and her breathlessness grew severe. “I’m aching to garden,” she wrote in her journal. “But so it goes. ACCEPT ACCEPT ACCEPT.”
Last August, she had a heart attack and returned home under hospice care. One evening a month later, another heart attack. One of my brothers followed her ambulance to the hospice wing where we had sat for days by my father’s bed. The next morning, she took off her silver earrings and told the nurses she wanted to stop eating and drinking, that she wanted to die and never go home. Death came to her an hour later, while my brother was on the phone to me in California—almost as mercifully as it had come to my paternal grandfather. She was continent and lucid to her end.
A week later, at the same crematory near Long Island Sound, my brothers and I watched through a plate-glass window as a cardboard box containing her body, dressed in a scarlet silk ao dai she had sewn herself, slid into the flames. The next day, the undertaker delivered a plastic box to the house where, for 45 of their 61 years together, my parents had loved and looked after each other, humanly and imperfectly. There were no bits of metal mixed with the fine white powder and the small pieces of her bones.
Katy Butler is a features editor for the Networker and has contributed to The New York Times Magazine, where this article first appeared. © 2010 by Katy Butler and The New York Times. She lives in Mill Valley, California, and is writing a book, entitled Knocking on Heaven’s Door: A Daughter’s Journey Through Old Age and New Medicine, for Scribner, a Simon and Schuster imprint, 2013. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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