When the Last Guest Leaves

I have a fond memory of my great-grandmother as the sweet, white-haired woman who forgave me so easily when I spilled some yogurt at the grocery store. She had Alzheimer's though. So, I have another more frightful memory of her trying to trip me and pinch me a few years later. I am assured that the first memory represents her true character. I have been urged to forget the second one.

Is it any wonder that senility, dementia, and Alzheimer's are some of my mother's biggest fears? She is a famously kind woman. It must terrify her to think that her own goodness could be taken away from her. To worry into the future about how her grandchildren or their children might remember her.

When I was in high school, my mom asked me - if she ever lost her mind that way - to help her end her life. "Are you crazy? No way! I'm not going to kill you, Mom!" She doesn't have the disease. She might never get it. I couldn't believe how eager she was to give up. My philosophy about life was pretty merciless. "You have to fight! You can't give up! You have all of eternity to be dead. Your life is too precious." I was offended that she would put me in that position.

But I was only a teenager. My deepest sufferings were jealousy, heart ache, alienation... occasional tendonitis. I hadn't felt pain or lost my mind. I had never been in the care of doctors. I hadn't grappled with helplessness or hopelessness. I hadn't been hamstrung by the failure of my body or my brain.

Death is frightening, and it is sad. As I become more familiar with it though, I see that - by its nature - death comes in a year or in a moment when the pain of life is more than we can bare. I am beginning to see that it often arrives as a blessed release.

I was honored then to illustrate this story for Utne Reader about a son who helped his mother to die with dignity. You can see my second illustration, a portrait of them both, right here. I hope you will read the article.

© 2011 rama hughes