During a family dinner in the mid-1980’s my mother-in-law, then fifty-something but already divorced and increasingly ditzy, attempted to make casual conversation by announcing, “There are so many black people downtown these days. It’s just terrible!”
I had been married to her eldest son for five years and had discovered that I was, in her estimation, ethnically challenged; I had Mediterranean and Semitic forebears. I kept cool. My brother-in-law’s new wife-a bright, brash, artistic type-immediately replied “Mary, that sounds so prejudiced!” The rest of us stiffened.
“Vanessa,” my mother-in-law said to me briskly, “I need your help in the kitchen.” I followed dutifully. “Vanessa,” she said, “you need to tell Joyce that I’m older and I know better.”
I was in my mid-twenties and had graduated from medical school. My sister-in-law was a young but respected artist. I wondered if my mother-in-law would ever know more than us about anything. Diplomatically, I assured her that I would see what I could do.
I remembered this incident years later when I walked into a well appointed hospital room to see my now eighty-something year old mother-in-law having the painfully pungent excrement wiped from her bottom by an imposing, mahogany skinned male nurse. Having lost what constituted her intellectual faculties but none of her Victorian social skills she smiled and said, “What a lovely jacket you’re wearing.”
She had been in the hospital for several weeks, having awakened at home one morning unable move her arms or legs. After a lifetime of exercising her God-given right to smoke cigarettes and eat high cholesterol food, the arteries to her spinal cord had become clogged causing the nerves to the muscles of her arms and legs to die. The condition was not treatable and was irreversible. For the rest of her life, my mother-in-law would be ditzy and paralyzed. She would have to be fed, bathed, dressed and diapered. She would have a little hose pushed up into her bladder several times a day. She had a Living Will specifying that, in the event that she could no longer care for herself, she wanted nothing done. Her sons, though, had seen people accused of murderer for removing a rubber feeding tube. They were afraid to ask that their mother be discharged from the hospital and allowed to die at home.
I believe that if every Taxpayer’s League Republican could seen what my mother-in-law’s final hospital stay is costing, a law would be passed barring Medicare from paying for extraordinary life support or intensive care after the age of eighty. I believe that if every Pro-Life Republican could be forced to really visualize themselves demented and diapered and having the poop wiped from their bottom by an individual not of their race or gender that there would be a law making euthanasia legal in this country. I believe that if every Democrat could see what the dollars being paid to prolong my mother-in-law’s indignity could buy for impoverished families looking for a brighter future they would be pushing for those same laws and finally, maybe, people could agree on something in this country.