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Life — and death — with dignity

Madelaine Zadik's mother Ursula on a return visit to Acadia National Park, one of her favorite places, at age 89.
Madelaine Zadik
courtesy of the author
Madelaine Zadik's mother Ursula on a return visit to Acadia National Park, one of her favorite places, at age 89.

I’ve been thinking a lot about life and death, quality of life, and how we die.

My mother lived a full life. Ever the survivor, she recovered from a train hitting her as a teenager on a motorcycle. She survived the Nazi Holocaust and murder of her sister. After breast cancer, she announced, “I’ve lived up to now with two breasts and I’ll continue with one.”

Mom learned to waterski at 50, hiked triumphantly after knee replacement at 75, and went parasailing in her 80s. She went to every concert, exercise class and discussion at her retirement community. At 89, she walked atop Mount Cadillac, viewing the breathtaking landscape of Acadia National Park.

But in her 90s, her body defected. Osteoporosis brought fractures, limited mobility and severe pain. Diminished hearing and failing vision stole most pleasures. By 95, she’d outlived all her friends.

After another fall and no longer safe at home, she moved to a nursing home. Held prisoner by her body, she was no longer able to relish life with dignity. Concerned about me, she declared, “Everyone must expect their parents will die.”

Yet, she wasn’t actively dying. She signed forms to ensure she not to be kept alive unnecessarily. She pondered taking a whole bottle of Tylenol, but I warned that was not a good way to go.

Massachusetts provides no legal, medical way out.

We discussed stopping eating and drinking, but that was too difficult a choice for her. Yet foods she loved lost appeal. She got weaker, stopped medications.

One night, Mom grabbed my hand, looked me in the eye, and whispered, “I’m going to die now.” She clung to me and moaned a low hum. But death was not imminent, only wishful thinking.

She hung on three more days. Hospice kept her comfortable with morphine. Oxygen prevented breathing distress. I used a sponge on a stick to moisten her lips and tongue. She smiled at me, but waited until I left to take her last breath.

It wasn’t a terrible death, but it could have been better had Massachusetts law enabled another option.

Madelaine Zadik is a resident of Cummington, Massachusetts. Zadik is writing a memoir about her relationship with her aunt, whom she only knows through letters from a Nazi prison.

Updated: October 16, 2023 at 3:35 PM EDT
At the author's request, the headline to this story was updated.
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