Mum Wanted to Die So She Wouldn't Be a Burden - But Convincing Her to Live Gave Us Both a Gift Beyond Measure

I will never regret that our law protected her; preventing her from ending her life when she was vulnerable to despair. Those four years we shared were the most precious gift. Without them, Mum would have missed what she described as some of the richest times in her life and we would have missed understanding just what an amazing person she was.

As she lay in the hospice, ghostly pale and apparently slipping away before my eyes, my mother was adamant. 'I just want to die,' had become her repeated refrain. She was 84, suffering from advanced breast cancer and didn't want chemotherapy. As far as she was concerned, the end could not come soon enough. 'I've had a good life,' she would say. 'But I don't want to be dependent. I don't want to be a burden to anyone.'

Had assisted suicide been legal, she made it quite clear that it would have been her chosen path. 'I'd go for it,' she told me, with a fixed, determined look in her eye. The situation certainly seemed hopeless, particularly after a scan revealed that the cancer had spread to huge areas of her pelvis and lower back.

With every movement accompanied by excruciating pain, she agreed, reluctantly, to have radiotherapy on her disintegrating pelvis. But it seemed to make little difference; only the pain-killing drugs helped. She was getting weaker by the day and couldn't wait to be released by death. Seeing a parent suffer is a terrible experience for anyone, but for me, there was an added and cruel irony: I'm a professor of palliative care.

I have dedicated my career as a physician to improving the care of the terminally ill - and yet here was my dreadfully sick mother, stopping just short of asking me to help her die.

By the bitterest of coincidences, as she lay in her hospice bed, I was also vigorously opposing a Bill in the House of Lords that would have made assisted suicide legal. The situation was tearing me in two. Mum had fought for her family all her life. So how could I ignore her wishes? I believed passionately in the cause I was fighting in Parliament - that every life is of value and should never be ended by legalised 'death by appointment'.

But seeing my lovely mother dying in a hospice bed, despite the gentle, caring nursing and the patient doctoring, was almost too much to bear. Sixteen years earlier, I had left general practice and become a full-time hospice doctor because I wanted to improve the care of the dying. I longed to change health care so that staff listened to patients and valued each one, even when those patients were desperately ill, disabled or beyond a cure.

As I discovered, a terminally-ill person can live a lot of life in a short space of time - and I wanted to bring hope to their moments of despair. And yet I felt powerless to help my own mum. My brother, John - who had been desperately sick as a baby and who my mother had breastfed moments before taking him down for an operation that no one was sure he would survive - played peacemaker, desperately trying to reconcile his mother's anger with his sister's distress.

But it was the hospice chaplain who unlocked the door. Wise enough to realise there was no point talking about God to this agnostic lady and experienced enough to know we all have a story, he quietly and patiently asked Mum to tell him hers.

And so he sat, this quiet, unassuming man, and listened, soaking up the years, as she told him her views and philosophy on life. And it was in this telling that it dawned on Mum that her decrepit body still held an active mind. Suddenly, she realised that if she wasn't going to be allowed to kill herself, she had better make the most of what time remained.

So day by day, she took more pain relief, which first enabled her to get out of bed and then to take a few tentative steps with a Zimmer frame. Every day, she tried to take a few steps more. 'I'm training for the London marathon,' she laughed, after five, seven and then ten yards on the Zimmer. And then, almost miraculously, the radiotherapy began to work, her pain disappeared and she was able to leave the hospice and go home.

My mother would go on to live for another four years and it's no exaggeration to say that those four years were almost more precious than the 84 that had preceded them. Of course, there were setbacks, bad days and umpteen practical problems to be overcome, but, oh, the stories she passed on and the things she saw, chief among which were the arrivals of two precious great-grandchildren.

Soon, she was even enjoying herself again. Carers came every day, patiently going at her pace, respecting her wishes and always doing that little bit extra to provide the personalised care everyone deserves.

Beverley - lovely, warm, glamorous Beverley - came to do her hair, not just touching up her roots, and making Mum look like Mum again. But she also traded those little details of life that make 'a good chat' such an important therapeutic tool. It all worked: as Mum began to feel as if she was back in control, so the laughter returned, too.

Her friends soon picked up where they'd left off. They visited, took her out, shared meals and laughed with encouragement as she decided to get out of her wheelchair, first using it as a walker and then dispensing with it altogether.

But Mum hadn't forgotten those bedside chats with the chaplain: she knew she had a story to tell, and she began telling it to us for the first time. She told us of the suffering of her youth, of the war, of rations and fire-watch duty.

Mum told us of young loves and of those handsome, charming young pilots who danced away their last nights, only to take off from Northolt, never to return. She told us how hard it had been to cope when her young husband lay desperately ill for a year with pericarditis - an inflammation of the sac that surrounds the heart - her two children were sick and her closest friend was ill with TB.

I vividly remember taking her to Hampton Court one cold, but glorious day. Never before had I noticed the beauty in every rose in bloom, in every leaf and blade of grass, in the colours and shapes of nature.

Everything was in glorious Technicolor as we gazed together at the history of the place, the changing season and the life around us. Together, we shared the magic of the world, marvelled at the love and kindness in so many people and realised the importance of hope in our lives and the danger of despair.

As the months went by and then became years, we all began to take it for granted that Mum was there for us all again, just as she had been all our lives. But then, one day, we were jolted back into reality when she slid back into illness again.

Back in the hospice, the task of piecing together her frail body was once again performed with hope and sensitivity, though we all knew death could be close. But there was one crucial difference - while she did, on occasion, long for the end, Mum did not ask for help to end her life this time. Any anger at her dependence and illness had gone and now 'Thank You' was her most uttered phrase.

I recalled watching the Queen Mother when she opened the Marie Curie hospice outside Cardiff that I set up in 1987. Her radiant smile, praise for the staff, the grace that shone from her - she had known how to grow old gracefully. And now my own Queen - my Mum - was doing the same, growing old gracefully and spreading love, caring and hope in the process.

The birth of her first great-grandson had undoubtedly been the high point of those four extra years of life. She never expected to see the fourth generation, but she relished playing with him, rattling an empty saucepan with a wooden brick as he chuckled and returned her love twice over.

The next baby followed soon after, but by then she could only watch the playing and the feeding, so she simply cradled him lovingly in those arms that had held us all over the years. She was determined to stay involved, reading story books about steam engines and teddy bears to the toddler, silently accepting that her days of playing on the floor were over. As summer came and went, the shortening days seemed to signal the dwindling time that remained.

Then, one of those precious days happened, a day you can never plan and only really appreciate in the remembering. Life is about making good memories, for they are what sustain us in the blackest of times. And this time, as Mum mused on the nature of life from her bed, I fortunately wrote down her every word. To this day, I'm grateful that I did so, for what she said about the nature of family, love and life was truly beautiful.

'The watery autumn sun streams through an open window across the belly of the old woman; she is half-asleep and half-awake, alive but dying,' she said. 'On the floor lies the little toddler asleep on a rug and the baby sucks milkily. The old man sips his tea while his grandson offers cakes and honey.

'The simple home is calm and busy; an older woman cooks for all, the floor still wet from the toddler playing at washing up the wooden bowl. It could be any time, any century. A hundred miles away, a young girl starts university, fearful, excited, missing her parents, yet enveloped by cousins who bustle around with trivia and drive out the cold feet of Freshers' Week.

'In a far-off land, her parents worry, knowing their precious charge has left home for good.

'They are cousins of the old woman - family thrown apart by war, but held together by letters and by that family bond that comes of joint suffering and managing to survive.

'And as she faces the end of her life, she draws comfort from the support the young give each other through the bonds of family.

'It was not last century; it is now in this last weekend of September. The old woman's pain has gone because of morphine. She smells sweet, well-tended because carers attend to all intimate care.

'A week ago she wanted to die, exhausted by her existence that seemed to become hollow and futile, fearful of disrupting lives of those she loves so dearly.

'And so her wish to die resurfaced; yet her ability to live resurfaced, too.

'I am that old woman, 88 and at the end of my life. In bed and unable to do, but able to receive - and find an unexpected serenity in receiving. The family are more important than anything - one cannot teach this sort of love in schools, cannot legislate for dying; I am too weary to cope with regulations.

'It is only being surrounded by those that love each other that can sustain life itself.'

Mum died shortly after. I treasure the memory - and the words I recorded. She was more loved by friends than we ever realised when she was alive and touched more lives than she ever knew. She was a mother in every sense.

Sometimes her love seemed to overwhelm us - she gave so much love to all around. She gave of herself to those whose lives she touched - the pupils she taught at school, the bereaved she supported as a counsellor, the neighbours and friends who simply needed someone to talk to. Her home reflected her nature and warmth; like so many who had known privation, good food was to share, and in its sharing was the joy of friendship, companionship and togetherness. As I grow older, I've learned that we love our children more with every passing year.

They are so fragile, trusting and vulnerable, a complex blend of nature, that comes with their genetic heritage, and nurture, as they are moulded by the world in which they live. And so Mum moulded us - her legacy lives on in us, her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Of course, there are regrets - of times not spent together, of disagreements, of unappreciated times, of failing to call, of speaking in anger and in haste.

But I will never regret that our law protected her; preventing her from ending her life when she was vulnerable to despair. Those four years we shared were the most precious gift. Without them, Mum would have missed what she described as some of the richest times in her life and we would have missed understanding just what an amazing person she was.

I'm so grateful for the fact she was 88 when she died and not 84. But best of all? So was she.


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