Clementine Ford: There Has Been No Greater Pain In My Life Than Watching My Mother Starve To Death
Historic laws that will assist terminally ill adults to die have come into force in Victoria.
It’s a move that’s long overdue, paving the way for people suffering to be able to assert autonomy and dignity over their end-of-life experience. It’s legislation that I wish had been in effect in South Australia more than a decade ago, when my own mother died after a short but intense battle with cancer.
She was first diagnosed in October 2006, when her skin turned a sickly shade of yellow. At first, we thought she might have contracted a strain of hepatitis. But a scan of her liver revealed an ominous shadow that turned out to be an even more ominous tumour on her bile duct.
As my brother and sister and I sat in the corridor outside her hospital room, we watched the sombre-faced doctor emerge and partially close the door. Through the gap, our father’s disjointed words drifted out into the hall. I paced the floor, trying to catch them before they disappeared.
“And we’ll just throw a big party,” I finally heard him say.
When someone’s mortality is in question, ‘a big party’ is never a good sign. I ran to my sister and buried my head in her lap, suddenly a child again. In her hospital bed on the other side of the wall, my mother lay quietly grappling with the possibility that she might die.
We were told there might be an opportunity to remove the tumour, but the scheduled operation quickly revealed otherwise. There was no tumour, singular. There was a wasteland of tumours, plural, spread out across the interior of her organs. “Sorry,” they said. “You’re too late.”
Over the coming months, my mother did all the things you’re told to do when you’re looking to extend your life for a few more precious weeks or months. There were the rounds of radiation (which made her feel better) and the weird tea purchased from a charlatan in Canada (which tasted like shit and made her feel nothing, unsurprisingly). I spent long stretches of time at my parents’ house, watching daytime television with her and taking daily walks with her around the garden. I searched for anything that promised to shrink the cancer running rampage in her insides, ordering her to drink my freshly made juice every morning.
Spoiler: Juicing does not cure cancer.
For a time, it was easy to forget that the cancer was there. She was bright and chipper, optimistic about the possibility that the weather vane might turn and start to point in the opposite direction, the wind carrying her back to the land of the living.
But then she lost her appetite, and it didn’t come back.
There has been no greater pain in my life than watching my mother starve to death. Cancer may have been what caused her digestive system to stop working, but it wasn’t the cancer that killed her. It was starvation and it took almost a fortnight to complete its slow, destructive tear throughout her body.
Did she feel it? It’s hard to know, because much of that time was spent in a drug-soaked haze. A small, bleeping box sat beside the bed administering steady doses of morphine into her arm, keeping her somewhere in the dreamscape between this world and the next.
But there’s one moment I remember from that time, when communication (although drug-addled) was still possible, before it had given way to silence. My mother had signalled she wanted to use the toilet, expecting my father and I to help her walk down the hall to the bathroom. But her legs had grown heavier and her muscles weaker, and we had no choice but to help ease her onto the commode that had been installed against her wishes in the bedroom in which she now lay dying. I watched as her face twisted in defiance as she held on to her bladder, and then as it crumbled into defeat and she relieved herself. She didn’t want this suffering. I knew it, I knew it, and I cried because I could do nothing to make it go away.
Some days later, my father telephoned me to say that my mother had died in the wee hours of the morning. It was not a dignified death. It was not a painless one. It was long and arduous and against everything she had wished for. None of her children were there, because she hadn’t wanted them to see her stripped of her vitality.
Her death was an inevitability. As much as we might have wished for an 11th-hour reprieve, it was never going to come. How much different it would have been for all of us if we had been able to give her the exit she wanted? To hold her hand and escort her with love to the place beyond the veil?
I loved my mother fiercely. I wanted infinitely more time with her. But not like that. Not like that.
Thank you to those who have fought for this legislation. It would have meant a lot to my family. Death comes for us all in the end. But how we meet it should be for us to decide.