Exit StrategyRead Now
On October 26, 1991, a sunny autumn Saturday, we threw a small party for my mother’s 70th birthday at her modest home in Georgetown, Ky. Esophageal cancer had nearly stolen her voice, but she managed to engage with a few friends and relatives. After a short while, she retreated to her recliner in her bedroom and evidently decided she had fulfilled her earthly obligations. Sixteen days later she died.
At her funeral, during the eulogy by Rev. Bob C. Jones, her longtime pastor at the Lawrenceburg First Baptist Church, I learned that she had told him she wanted to live to be 70 years old, the length of a life as stated by King David in Psalm 90:10: “The days of our years are threescore years and ten.” (King James version)
I remember thinking at the time that I sure wished she had shared that goal with me. As her primary caregiver, if I had realized she was committed to making it to 70, perhaps I could have planned things a little better during those last weeks, or made better decisions.
Now the 100th anniversary of her birth is nigh. And I have been thinking about her a lot.
I cannot tell you how frequently I have wished for her wisdom over the last 30 years. When I was 30, I was too young and self-absorbed to inquire about her life, her experiences, her challenges, her sorrows. By the time I was 32, she was gone.
But I learned a lot from my mother watching her die. I am grateful for that. If you’ll indulge my somewhat morbid mood, I’ll share my mother’s unspoken doctrine for a graceful exit, as divined at the time by her grief-addled daughter:
1) Leave this world as quietly as you traveled through it. Although my mother was evidently a gregarious young woman, by the time I knew her she seemed most comfortable with a good book and a glass of bourbon. She was not one to make a fuss about anything. She left us as gently and simply as she had lived. I suppose the corollary of that might also be true. If you have been inclined to make a ruckus all your life, you will probably make a ruckus as you slam the door behind you for the last time.
2) Maintain whatever dignity you can. Although sickness and dying infamously heap myriad indignities on you, hold tightly to whatever scraps of your dignity you can. If you still have your wits, treat those around you—both loved ones and medical professionals—with the kindness and the respect they deserve. Make ribald jokes to break the tension during uncomfortable moments. Encourage laughter.
3) Stay engaged with the wider world, even if that means watching Clarence Thomas insult and demean Anita Hill during Congressional hearings. Stay curious. Take interest in things outside your own sometimes harrowing situation.
4) Things really don’t matter. I was in that “acquisitive” phase when my mother died. I had already acquired a husband and a dog and a house, and I was busy acquiring all the other accoutrements of a middle-class adult existence. In her final months, I kept wanting to give her something she had always wanted, but that list for her had been empty for years. I recall that I found our contrasting attitudes jarring. I was both annoyed that I couldn’t give her something she might fleetingly treasure in her final days and ashamed that I would confer that sort of value on something I could buy.
We rarely have a choice about how this life ends. But every moment we’re still here we have a choice about how we live the one we have.
Happy birthday, Mary Marrs.
10/23/2021 09:39:23 pm
I'm glad, Sallie, that you've chosen to share these memories with us. While we prepared your father's manuscript for publication - the book we called The Last Resort.- I more than once wished that we had an equivalent treasure for your mother. I remember teasing you that, based on her Hawaiian hula-dance photo, your mother was a babe. I never met her though I wish that I had (despite the fact that we might have scuffled on politics). Here's hoping that she's in the blissful embrace of eternity.
10/23/2021 10:18:03 pm
Once again, beautiful and poignant. I always enjoy your Murky Press dispatches but this one especially resonates as my father passed away last November. His birthday also in October. I was able to check all the boxes on his graceful exit. I'll be saving this edition for future reference! Thanks Sallie!
10/23/2021 10:51:09 pm
Oh, Sheila, I'm so sorry to hear about your father. Tom talked about him frequently with great admiration and devotion. I could only imagine his lively intelligence and zest for life. Many from his era could teach us a lot about how we should live. My deepest condolences to you.
10/23/2021 11:59:19 pm
Many of us never stop thinking of our moms, wishing we could ask them something, verify a treasured family recipe or identify someone in an old photograph. While absent in death I feel my mother's love still with me.
10/24/2021 08:43:00 am
Your blog is so valuable because of its thought provoking quality. Having known your mother mostly during the latter stages of her life, it brings to mind just how we remember those who are no longer with us .My mother, Virginia, and my brother, Dave, were both long haulers with dementia. My father, Leonard, also displayed symptoms of the disease but died of a combination of that and possible foul play by his second wife. My memories of them are all of the vibrant years. There are many reasons to feel that we all could have done more at various times in their lives, but we make peace with the mutual love and respect that were shared with them, even if imperfect. My bother Dave and I attended the Indy 500 for 20 years where we sat with the cousins, a treasured memory. At the time
10/24/2021 09:19:31 am
There is no better role model of how to deal with life's cruelest blows, especially in our final years, than our Aunt Charleen. I will never forget the pure glee on her face as she maneuvered her wheelchair with twin granddaughters perched on either armrest. Or the sly way she made me gasp and laugh as she told the story of the young teenager who had kindly brought her cozy booties that the girl's service group had made for the nursing home "inmates."
Deborah Moore Costenbader
10/24/2021 10:22:35 am
What a beautiful photo of your mom, Sallie. And a wonderful refection as her daughter. I wish we all could appreciate those close to us sooner. I guess it takes age to gain that perspective of how short life is and how much we take for granted. You've honored your mom on he 100th birthday anniversary.
10/25/2021 11:11:08 am
We have so many fond memories of our family, I'll drink a glass of bourbon to Mary Marrs and Charleen and Mother, I think they would like that and I still grieve for Sandy, 6 months tomorrow, but at least I can mention his name without" sad tears".
10/25/2021 11:57:00 am
Let's all raise a glass!
10/25/2021 01:35:33 pm
Based on the wonderful comments, you obviously touched on something so many can relate to. Our moms were special and it's so hard to let them go. For some of us we had to let them go months before their actual passing. Life at the end can be hard and you are right.. we want to do anything that gives them some portion of something meaningful back. Sometimes, it's just our time. In those moments, we at least have the comfort of knowing there are better days waiting for eternity!
10/30/2021 11:27:18 pm
A wonderful tribute to your Mom, and great photos. My Mother was 78 in 1991 and she was still making a ruckus. Not in her final years, she passed away in 2004. But on the Iowa City School Board, the Johnson County Legal Air Board, Elder Care Board and the First Presbyterian Church, where she was a Deacon and an Elder, she was a Board member with, shall we say, strong opinions for those in need. So she did stay engaged with the wider world and passed on her community volunteer traits to me. She was definitely not a fan of Justice Thomas.
10/31/2021 09:26:43 am
I love your mother, Bob (even though, of course, I never met her)! And you did indeed follow in her footsteps. I imagine she was very proud.
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