Try as we might, we couldnt help Mom reach a peaceful death

This was not the way we wanted it to end. Unlike my dad, my mother would not “go gentle into that good night.” She was kicking and screaming. She wanted to die. She begged to die. She asked my brother and me to give her a shot to end it all. She asked the home hospice aides to throw her out the window. But she couldn’t let go. Couldn’t seem to achieve a final peace.

We read the pamphlets, the Web sites on death and dying. We knew what we were supposed to say, what we weren’t supposed to say, but nothing worked. Mom was desperate. When she cried, “Help me,” her aides said only the Lord could help her. One relative suggested that I ask my mother to “try God,” since her way didn’t seem to be working.

But we couldn’t do that. Mom had made it clear that she did not believe in God, didn’t care about Judaism. When she was in the hospital and was visited by traditional rabbis, she got rid of them in a hurry. Now that she was in her own home under hospice care, we had to respect her right to reject religion, along with oxygen and antibiotics.

It was her show. Even if she couldn’t direct it, she was the stage manager. So I sat in the wings, silently saying the Sh’ma and the 23rd Psalm. At one point, my husband and I sang “Eili, Eili,” but in truth, she preferred old favorites like “Stardust” and “I’ll Be Seeing You.” Songs she associated with my father.

Sometimes she would share those memories, but at the end, her words were, “Ice, ice,” “Lemon sherbet,” “Hurry, hurry.” My mother put herself on the North Pole Diet, and my brother and I became the shleppers, turning ice into chips and spoon-feeding sherbet at all hours. One afternoon I went to five different stores in her Queens, N.Y., neighborhood in search of orange sherbet.

My brother and I gave neck-and-shoulder massages with green tea lotion. We also talked about forgiveness. At the end, my mother forgave everybody but George Bush and Rudy Giuliani. But neither our best efforts nor the morphine could bring my mother peace.

What she wanted was to close her eyes and go to sleep and have it all be over. But that wasn’t the way it was happening. I was antsy, too. I’d been away for five weeks, plus three earlier visits. Enough already.

In desperation, I called my own spiritual director, Peg Krome of Palo Alto, who told me to continue saying the psalms silently, to keep up my own strength, to take care of myself.

She talked about how difficult it is for people who don’t have strong faith to achieve the gentle death that so many want. But she agreed that I should not violate my mother’s beliefs nor do anything to provoke her anger. Finally, we brought in the hospice spiritual director, who recited a prayer that did not mention God.

Although Mom was not fond of most rabbis, one spiritual leader she would have been glad to talk with was my former Alameda congregational rabbi, Patricia Karlin-Neumann, whom Mom referred to affectionately as “the little rabbi.” Karlin-Neumann, now senior associate dean for religious life at Stanford University, sent me the following in an email:

“Sometimes the peace comes not with faith, but with familiarity. The rabbi represents childhood Jewish memories … I also try to shape a bedside community, encouraging others to share what they have been given by the person who is ill. There’s always a sacredness at the bedside of a dying person, and simply acknowledging and being mindful of it can be profound, even for those without ‘faith.'”

That sacredness is what we tried to provide. We listened when Mom spoke, held her hands, witnessed her last breath and hugged one another. It took so long, but it was over so quickly.

Janet Silver Ghent, former senior editor of j., is a freelance writer/editor and voice student living in Palo Alto. She can be reached at [email protected].

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].