'Pulling the Plug' on My Mom

IV Catheter in Elderly Patient
IV Catheter in Elderly Patient

Mom was a vibrant, healthy 85-year-old when she had a fall that resulted in her head smashing into a wall. A few hours before it happened, she'd called from her home in Florida, breathlessly sharing: "I passed my stress test with flying colors and got a clean bill of health from the doctor. So you won't get rid of me too soon."

"Aw shucks!" I joked back as we laughed together. I had no idea it was the last time we'd ever tease each other. No clue that it was the last time I'd hear her voice, and feel the love she emanated for me. Later that day, I got the call.

My sister flew down. She was always the first one on the scene for health problems, since she's a medical person who's better at asking questions and assessing situations. It was usually my job to relieve her (our parents had other crises over the years).

The docs agreed that even if Mom woke up, she'd be a vegetable or vaguely aware, but permanently immobilized. As we anxiously quizzed them, looking for some shred of hope, the doctors reported that Mom's chance of recovery was zero percent. ZERO! Her brain was hemorrhaging badly. She was only alive because of the machines. Alive, but not living. Our options quickly became clear. We could let her linger or go peacefully. We knew Mom's choice.

Over many years, she'd made it VERY clear that when her time came, she wanted to go fast. She had a Living Will stating her wishes to not be kept on life support and reminded us about it often. We had to promise over and over to respect her wishes. I mean neurotically often! Mom had no desire to live if she was very incapacitated. Her theme song was, "Shoot me if you must if I'm lingering and won't regain my health." We'd get crazy every time she said it, but her message sunk in. My sister and I had no doubts that if she could, she'd scream, "Turn the life support off fast!" But how do you "pull the plug" on someone you love? Using that expression sort of distanced me from the reality of ending Mom's life.

As I thought about this woman who raised me with so much love and care, it was hard not to want to hug her frail, almost lifeless body one more time. My heart broke, knowing I was losing that beautiful mother's love. I finally understood why people fight to keep loved ones from going to that point of no return. We watch disputes on TV as one family member wants to take a loved one off life support while another desperately tries to prevent it. It used to seem futile to me to keep someone alive when they couldn't respond and had no hope of recovery. But that someone had never been my mother.

Her body was still warm, her hand still there to hold, her face still there to caress and kiss. I wanted to believe her ears could still hear me, just one more time to say, "I love you!" One more prayer that she'd wake up and comes home. Hope for a smile. Once we stopped Mom's life support, it would end. I wanted her to stay longer. But my sister and I had to love Mom enough to carry out her wishes.

So, we gave the order to "pull Mom's plug." I used that expression when people asked for an update. On the outside, my demeanor seemed almost robotic, like I was on auto-response. But inside, my heart screamed to keep Mom alive until I was ready to say goodbye for good. Knowing I'd never be ready, I stifled feelings to keep from breaking down until it was over.

Folks expected me to be emotional as they gently inquired about Mom. Instead, I'd matter-of-factly say, "We're pulling the plug on Mom." That got very odd looks in person and silent pauses and gasps on the phone. My fists were clenched and my body stiff as those words came out. I could almost hear their unspoken, "Say what?" or "Are you referring to your mother or your bathtub?" But they politely said, "I'm sorry." My flipness sounded cold. But it was a defense, the masking tape that held my emotions together and kept me in the moment. I'd just been put in an unthinkable position of giving permission to end my mother's life.

"Pulling the plug" detached me from this act, on some levels. And oddly, it calmed me enough to help me allow her to pass away according to her wishes. Mom passed quickly and peacefully, shortly after life support was turned off. That confirmed her strong will to leave. My first thought was "I'm an orphan!" When Dad passed, I still had a source of unconditional love. Now, I wondered how I'd live without the kind of caring that loving parents give. The man who got to Mom right after her fall said she'd opened her eyes, asked what happened, said she wasn't in pain, then she shut her eyes. It was consoling.

Some people regret having not told someone they've lost how they felt. There was nothing left unsaid between us. Mom knew how much we loved her and we knew how much she loved us. We talked a lot and resolved any bad feelings as they occurred. I have no regrets about "pulling the plug" on Mom. None. People have a right to die with dignity. While I still wince at the memory of "pulling the plug," I forgive myself for needing to detach by using flip words about ending Mom's life. It was what I needed to do to survive letting my mom die in peace.