Several months ago, it was evident that Mom was slipping away. Her breathing was much more shallow due to her Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), and her mind was fading due to Alzheimer’s disease.
So over the course of one dinner, I brought up a difficult, but important subject - Mom’s impending death. Gingerly, I confirmed with Dad that Mom wanted to be cremated and that she had specified that her ashes be distributed in the Colorado Rockies.
Then I asked another question - what happens if people want to do something in tribute to Mom upon her death? Did Mom specify any charities that she wanted to support? And if she hadn’t, I suggested that perhaps it was time for Dad and I to have those discussions so we would be prepared when the time came.
Thinking about these questions for a few moments, Dad finally responded that he thought Mom would want memorials to go to the Alzheimer’s Association. That made total sense since Mom always dreaded Alzheimer’s, especially after watching her mother’s long struggle with dementia.
I then asked Dad if there was another charity that she would have liked to be remembered through contributions in order to give people a choice. He immediately suggested the American Lung Association. Although this is a wonderful organization, I questioned Dad on this idea since Mom had brought her COPD upon herself through 60 years of smoking. My brother, via a long-distance telephone call, agreed with me.
“I really think that we need to stop and think about what Mom’s life was about,” I remember telling Dad. “Alzheimer’s was part of Mom’s life for two years, although she started showing signs of short-term memory loss by 2003. Alzheimer’s may have contributed to her death, but it did not represent who she was for the long period of time she was on the planet. I think we need to find a way to honor the person that Mom was before Alzheimer’s claimed her mind.”
Thus began a several-month discussion about what Mom would like. Because Mom loved to sew, I threw out the idea of contributions to the International Quilt Festival, held annually in Houston, which Mom attended for several years. Dad responded that although Mom loved to sew, she really wasn’t a quilter. The possibility of contributing to the Miniature Schnauzer Rescue of Houston also was discussed; however, Mom’s one and only minature schnauzer didn’t come from the rescue. Only Dad’s new dog, Austin, did.
Stymied, we put the topic on the proverbial shelf, knowing that we would have to dust it off sometime in the future. That future came during the last week of Mom’s life. We didn’t know that Mom was dying; she had taken a nosedive health-wise, but we had seen her come out of it in the past. So we were watching day-to-day for signs that she was coming out of the physical challenge of trauma and the mental challenge of going to the hospital. A few clear words, eating breakfast - those were the signs during Mom’s last week when she returned to the nursing home that made us think that she would pull through.
Late that week, I brought the topic up again - and Dad came up with a very good suggestion. Mom loved her alma mater, Missouri Valley College, When my parents drove to St. Louis about a decade ago, they stopped in Marshall, Missouri so Mom could visit. She gave Dad the tour and told stories about when she attended the school.
Considering Mom’s love for learning and her adventurous spirit, Missouri Valley seemed like a most appropriate choice for a memorial donation. That school provided Mom with the learning that proved to be foundational to her personal and professional lives. And a contribution to her college seemed to salute the very special person that Mom became during her life before the Alzheimer’s hit.
I am so glad that we had this conversation prior to Mom’s death. I’m afraid that if it had happened while we were fresh in the clutches of grief, we would have only opted for the Alzheimer’s Association. By thinking this decision through (albeit uncomfortably), we were able to offer those who loved Mom with options that she would approve of - to salute her for who she was during her long and wonderful life and also to try to eradicate the disease that mentally took her away from everything she loved.
Dorian Martin writes about various topics for HealthCentral, including Alzheimer’s disease, diet/exercise, menopause and lung cancer. Dorian is a health and caregiving advocate living in College Station, TX. She has a Ph.D. in educational human resource development. Dorian also founded I Start Wondering, which encourages people to embrace a life-long learning approach to aging. She teaches Sheng Zhen Gong, a form of Qigong. Follow Dorian on Twitter at @dorianmartin, Facebook or Instagram at @doriannmartin.