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    the hands of an old woman and a toddler

    Body and Soul, in Life and in Death

    Helplessness and Human Dignity at the Edges of Life

    By Heather Ferngren Morton

    January 28, 2021
    • Heather

      So well written! He has blessed you with such an amazing talent- keep writing my friend!!

    • Richard Mixter

      Thank you for this perspective. My mother at 96 is gradually failing. We speak daily, but I am too far away.

    • Nancy Sarpola

      I still miss your mom. She would be very proud of your powerful writing.

    • Shade Johnson

      Beautiful write up Heather. Thanks for writing this story.. You are blessed.. I was not there when my mum died.. I regret it... everyday. Even then we should see God's glory through life experiences.. His glory and goodness I see in your story. You are blessed

    At age fourteen I cared for Miss Olson, an elderly woman in her last weeks of life. She was an old acquaintance of my father’s, lonely and cantankerous, with no loved ones to look after her. So in my final month of eighth grade, I walked to her apartment each day from school and remained till the evening nurse arrived. I would sit at her bedside, squeeze her hand, and smile. I could conjure chitchat with children I babysat like tricks from a hat, but I had few words for a dying woman. Did she notice? Her eyes appeared unseeing, wild like the wiry white hair splayed across her pillow.

    When she needed the toilet I’d gingerly take her arm or waist to help her out of bed. There she’d sit on the portable commode – gauzy white nightgown bunched around her waist, revealing her skin hanging, withered like desiccated fruit – and fold squares of toilet paper, smoothing and creasing them between her fingers into ever smaller squares. Her folding evoked one of the toddlers I babysat, fixated on a simple repetitive motion, yet absent the child’s curiosity or wonder. It was simply one more signpost on her feeble journey to the End.

    The sights and sounds of dying in Mom’s final heartrending weeks were assuaged by those of new life.

    When she slept my relief felt inordinate. I’d tiptoe into the small living room, plant myself before the TV and pray, like a mother with an infant, for long unbroken rest. But when she died I felt no relief. I cried alone in the darkness of my bedroom, confused by the force of my tears. I’d harbored no special fondness for Miss Olson. Yet I knew death irrefutably as loss. I also sensed that my presence with her in those final days was consecrated work. Too late, I wondered if I’d devoted enough of myself to the task.

    I was young back then, at a stage of life marked by discomfiture and self-doubt. Seventeen years later I was granted another opportunity to care for a dying woman, when my mother was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer. Hospice care was soon called in. I flew from Washington, D.C., to my parents’ home in Oregon the day a rented hospital bed was delivered to their living room.

    In stark contrast to Miss Olson’s, their home was often filled with family, friends, and church members, the aroma of meals dropped off or flowers delivered, the din of conversation, strains of music. A harpist came to play for my mother, then a violinist. My sister’s four young children hovered at their grandmother’s bedside.

    My first child, Claire, was one month old. For a few weeks, I cared for two helpless humans – one so tiny she remained mostly in my arms, the other immobile in bed, heavy to turn when we changed the sheets beneath her. I would feed first one, then the other, change one’s diaper, then the other’s. I’d grown up relatively sheltered from death as well as birth, and all at once I found the curtain pulled back on both. I marveled at the fragility that marks life’s beginning and end, as well as the simple dependence – on others for care, on God for life itself.

    The timing of Claire’s birth seemed a small miracle. My husband and I had been trying to conceive for more than two years. When he was called up to serve in Iraq, we resigned ourselves to another six-month delay. Mark was suited up in his deployment gear, bags by the door, taxi idling in front of our D.C. rowhouse as we bid goodbye, when his boss called to announce his departure had been delayed by a week. And during this unforeseen gift of extra time, Claire came to be – so that her birth was perfectly timed, by the only One with the power of life and death, to coincide with my mother’s diagnosis. So that the sights and sounds of dying in Mom’s final heartrending weeks were assuaged by those of new life.

    The baby symbolized not just life’s beauty or mystery, but its givenness. We could no more have planned Mark’s extra week at home than we could have known that my mother – from hearty survivor stock, Old World farming folk with longevity in their veins – would be diagnosed with aggressive cancer at sixty-seven and die five months later. We were recipients and stewards of the one as much as the other, the life as well as the death.

    the hands of an old woman and a toddler

    Photograph courtesy of Danny Burrows

    In January 2006, while my mother began hospice care in our family home in Oregon, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to uphold Oregon’s “Death with Dignity” Act permitting physician-assisted suicide. The statute, the first of its kind in the world, had taken effect in 1997, so to us it was nothing new. Yet for us the decision held particular poignance. The highest court in the land had affirmed terminally ill individuals’ right to exercise control over the timing of their death. The creators of the statute framed it as a requirement of human dignity – though in truth this term seemed a stand-in for other American values like autonomy and “choice.” As I cared for my mother I pondered what it might mean to die with dignity, and what role we, her caretakers, played in affirming her worth.

    What did it mean to honor a woman in her last days of life who was immobile, incontinent, incapable of eating and speech? Were her needs essentially the same as my infant daughter’s – eye contact and human touch, basic hygiene, sweet words and simple patience? One – tiny, yet growing every day – held all the hope and confidence of the future; the other, only memories of the past.

    Her very helplessness now underscored the greatness of that past. Born in a German Mennonite community in Soviet Ukraine, my mother escaped with her family during World War II. An émigré to Canada, she’d worked her way through Bible school and university; married, raised a family, served actively in her church, worked to put three children through private school and college, and in her later years, relished her role as grandmother. After a life of gracious service to others, she had nothing left to offer. Was her humanity thereby diminished? Or in her weakness, was she instead a prophet foretelling our own futures, reminding us that we are all, at bottom, mortal dependent creatures?

    Perhaps the “nothing” she offered was precisely what we needed: a picture of submission to the natural order, surrender to the will of God; a symbol of his grace in the life of one individual; a portrait of dependence and need that, though particular in its details, told a universal truth; an opportunity for my sisters and me to give back some fraction of the care she’d given us. Surrender, helplessness, need: plainly liabilities by our culture’s measure, yet valued supremely in God’s economy. Jesus called those possessing such qualities blessed.

    The pain of witnessing life’s gradual, inevitable ebb at times felt unbearable. So even as I prayed God would hasten my mother’s end, I did not doubt the timing was his to determine. When she fell into a coma, a pastor friend told us, “You never know what work God is doing in her heart even now, preparing her for the end.” The notion that the mind, while absent from us, might remain alive to God was breathtaking to me then. It still is. Back then, memories of a family trip to the Holy Land were still fresh, and I pictured her on the banks of the Jordan River, flanked by angels, awaiting a white-robed Jesus who would clasp her arm as gently, as firmly, as I’d held Miss Olson’s while I helped her out of bed. He would help – perhaps even carry – her across.

    I marveled at the fragility that marks life’s beginning and end, as well as the simple dependence – on others for care, on God for life itself.

    When he did, in the small hours of the morning, we were fast asleep – my father on the floor next to her bed, where he’d slept since she began hospice care, the rest of us in rooms down the hall. And so she slipped away quietly, unnoticed by us, though welcomed with fanfare, I believe, on the other side.

    Death feels nearer to many of us now than it did a year ago. We watch the number of Covid-19 fatalities climb. We’ve lost loved ones, from Covid-19 or other causes, and have felt the constraints of the pandemic: visitation severely restricted; memorials kept small and local; mourning rituals truncated. The bustling household that cared for my mother in her sickness, the church sanctuary filled to capacity at her funeral – these are impermissible in a pandemic. Death, often collectively tended in healthy communities, is now experienced in varying degrees of isolation. Yet death itself hasn’t changed. It is, as ever, a hard stop, a concrete wall that rises before us at an appointed time – often a time we don’t expect.

    Prior to each of my husband’s four deployments to war zones – two to Iraq, two to Afghanistan – I’ve grappled with the real possibility of his injury or death. During the Surge in Iraq, his compound in the Green Zone was leveled by a rocket strike and two of his colleagues severely injured. He’d been standing at the site of the blast just minutes earlier. Why had he been spared?

    Death might seem closer there than here; or now than last year. Perhaps it is closer. Or perhaps it’s always close, and we finally have eyes to see.

    As we mourn the incredible loss of life from this pandemic, can our grief call us to a deeper reverence for human life? As we await remediation in the form of a vaccine, can our felt mortality infuse our daily choices with humility? Whether scientists and governments fail or prevail, whether they distribute vaccines efficiently or inefficiently, whether herd immunity comes late or soon, someday I too will die. I am, after all – today, and on that final day – a creature wholly dependent on Christ, who alone can clothe the perishable with the imperishable, the mortal with immortality. Who alone can meet me at the river and bear me over to the other side.

    Contributed By

    Heather Ferngren Morton is a writer based in Cheverly, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C., where she lives with her husband and their three children. Her work has appeared in Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, Fathom, Front Porch Republic, and other publications.

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