Dying with determination

Susan’s mother looked up at her from under the rose-patterned duvet.  “I want you to help me to die.”  Susan stared blankly at her mother.  “Did you hear me?  I want you to help me put an end to all of this.”

Grace had been in the hospice for nearly two months now and both of them knew she would not be coming home.  The cancer had spread and it was just a matter of time, managing the pain and waiting for the inevitable.  The progress of the illness leading to eventual death would not be pleasant.

Susan had been dreading this moment.  Her mother had suggested this to her before during her father’s illness, as he became increasingly unable to manage to do things for himself.  Grace had been adamant, although she was quite prepared and able to care for her husband, there was no way in which she wanted to be left in a ‘state of indignity’ as she called it.  If Grace was unable to put an end to her life when she deemed it time, she would ask Susan to help her.  The subject was not discussed again and Susan had tried to push the memory of the conversation as far to the back of her mind as she could.  However, Grace’s determination and her certainty that Susan would comply with her wishes, despite her objections, had haunted her ever since.

Grace broke into Susan’s thoughts.  “Please, I want you to help me.”

“But Mum, how can I?”

“I need you to do this for me, Susan.  I can’t stand this any more.  We both know what’s going to happen.  I just want it over with, quickly, tidily.”

Grace was a highly intelligent, practical woman.  She had had a career which she had pursued throughout Susan’s childhood, but she had ultimately given it up to nurse Susan’s father through a prolonged and painful illness which had ended some fifteen years previously.  Grace looked after her husband, not out of a sense of duty, but out of love and lack of faith in the medical care which the National Health Service could offer.

Susan could see the anguish and frustration in her mother’s eyes.  It was dreadful for her mother, the pain and above all the indignity associated with the personal care she now required.  It was hard for her too, watching her mother’s decline and the daily visits were taking their toll, the time spent away, when she needed to be around supporting her husband who was fighting his own battle to keep his faltering business afloat.

“We’ll think of a way.” said Grace, almost cheerfully.  She closed her eyes, satisfied, a weak smile on her face.  Her breathing slowed as she slipped into a drug-induced sleep.

Susan tiptoed away and out onto the terrace overlooking the steep, tree-lined driveway which lead up to the building.  What was she going to do?  He couldn’t possibly do what her mother had asked.  It was unfair of her to have done so.  How could she murder her own mother, even if it was her mother’s wish?  It was illegal and she was bound to get caught…and then what would Gerry do?

A woman, about Susan’s age, joined her on the terrace and lit a cigarette.  They stood in silence, regarding the view over the treetops to the town below.  “I don’t know why they don’t just put them out of their misery like they do with animals.”  The woman said, turning to Susan.  “It’s no life for them once they come in here.  Only way out in a wooden box and all the wires and pipes and drugs, even if they do hide them under the bedclothes.  Then there’s the visiting, day in, day out.  Mostly she hardly knows who I am.  Don’t think she cares if I visit, but you have to, don’t you?  But I tell you, I’ve had enough of it.  I’d put a pillow over her face if I thought I could get away with it!”

Susan was taken aback.  How could she say this so glibly?  “Do you really mean that?” Susan asked.

“Sure!  Make my life a whole lot easier.”  She dropped her cigarette end on the stone floor of the terrace and ground it out with her foot, obliterating it.  “Couldn’t of course.”  She turned to go.  “But we all think like that, don’t we?”

Susan smiled weakly in an attempt at agreement.  The woman seemed so callous, so selfish in the way she had said what she’d said.  The force with which she’d ground out the cigarette, as if she was grinding out her mother’s life.  No, the whole idea was impossibly wrong.

She looked in again at her mother, she was still sleeping.  Glancing at her watch, she realised she was running late.  She didn’t want to keep Gerry waiting for her; he was worried enough without indulging some irrational fear that something might happen to her on the motorway.

Later that evening, she related the afternoon’s events to Gerry.  “Selfish bitch!” he said rubbing his hand across his grey, lined face and over his thinning hair.  “As if we didn’t have enough to deal with.  She can’t ask you to do that, even if it would make things easier in some ways…you’re not considering it are you?”

“No, of course not.”  Susan said quickly, although, “it would make things easier”, echoed in her mind.

As she lay in bed that night, listening to Gerry snoring softly, she thought again about what her mother had asked her to do for her.  The coming months were going to be so hard.  The pain, the drugs, their side effects and most of all, not being able to wash herself or anything would be almost too much for her mother to bear.  Wasn’t it she, Susan, who was being selfish?  How difficult would it be, just to place a pillow over her mother’s face?  Could she bring herself to do that?  Hold it there whilst her mother quietly suffocated?  Or maybe she could slip her a hefty dose of paracetamol?  She’d have to find out how much she’d be likely to need and make a few trips to different chemists.  And what if she was found out?  When was the last time anyone was sent to prison for helping a terminally ill person to die?

Susan pictured the scene: her mother lying calmly in bed; Susan bending to kiss her, then taking a pillow, placing it gently over her mother’s face and pressing down; listening to her mother, unable to draw breath, holding, holding the soft downy pillow over her, waiting until she was still, silent, limp.  What if she cried out?  What if she suddenly changed her mind?  How would she know?

If Susan gave her pills, she thought, at least she’d just slip away in her sleep.  But how would her mother manage to take enough, it was getting harder for her to swallow now.  Perhaps she could crush them up into some soup or something.

The night wore on.  Susan fell into a fitful sleep in which images of her standing over her mother, poised to kill, came and went; each one wrenching at her heart and her conscience.  On waking to the bright dawn sunlight, Susan’s mind was made up.  She knew she lacked the courage to go through with it.

That afternoon, her mother asked the nurses if Susan could take her out into the grounds to get some air.  It was a lovely bright spring day, and she wouldn’t see many more of them.  The nurses thought this a splendid idea: it would do both of them good.

When Susan arrived she was surprised to find her mother sitting in a wheelchair, tucked around with blankets, with an expectant look on her face.  “I want to see the gardens.  It’s such a lovely day,” she announced brightly.

Susan smiled uncertainly.  What exactly did her mother have in mind?  Get away from the watchful eyes of the staff to give Susan the opportunity to do away with her?  “Ok, mother, why not?”

The grounds of the hospice were pretty and well-kept with a long, smooth pathway around a rose-bordered lawn which led from the sunny lounge at the back of the building around to the main entrance.  At the far side of the lawn, Susan parked the wheelchair next to a wrought iron bench which offered a view through the trees to the town below.  Before she could speak her mother said: “it all right love, I understand, it’s too much to ask.  I’ve been looking back at these.”  She handed Susan a small, well-thumbed photo album, which Susan knew contained pictures of happier times when her mother and father where first married.  “He would be horrified at the thought.”

Grace took Susan’s hand.  “It’ll be all right, don’t worry.”  They sat in silence for a while.  Then Grace said, “I’m getting tired again, push me back; we’ll go through the grand entrance.”  Susan took the brake of the wheelchair.  As she bent down, Grace slipped the little album under the bench.  “All set now?”

At the top of the drive, at the front of the building, Grace started fumbling with her blanket.  “Oh dear, silly me!”  She exclaimed.  “I think I must have left my photos on the bench.  Be a love and run and fetch them.  I wouldn’t want to lose those!”

“I’ll just be a minute then.  Will you be all right here on your own?”

“Of course, I will.  I’m not going anywhere and the staff are just inside.”

Susan hurried back to the bench.  Sure enough, the little album was lying under the bench where it must have fallen from her mother’s lap.  She opened it.  “Thanks, Dad,” she said softly.  Smiling, she retraces her footsteps along the rose-lined path.

Suddenly, there was an urgent cry: “Help!  Stop her!”  Immediately, Susan broke into a run.  As she rounded the corner of the building, she saw her mother in the wheelchair gathering speed towards the busy road at the bottom of the drive.  There was no way anyone could stop her.

©2018 Chris Hall

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