Making End-of-Life Decisions for a Mother

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Susan McMillan's mother, Ethel Barry Carter, is 86 and suffers from severe dementia. She is one of the thousands of people in America who receive hospice care every day. McMillan, a nursing professor and creator of the Center for Hospice, Palliative Care and End-of-Life Studies at the University of South Florida, shares her mother's story.

The time that Susan McMillan has spent considering end-of-life decisions for her mother prompted her to prepare ahead of time a eulogy that celebrates Ethel's life. She shares it below:

A Eulogy for Ethel B. Carter

by Susan McMillan

Proverbs 31:10-13: "Who can find a virtuous woman, for she is more precious than rubies. The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no need of spoil. She does good and not harm, all the days of her life. She seeks wool and flax and works willingly with her hands."

Whenever I hear this passage from Proverbs, I think about my mother. She was the faithful and dedicated wife of a Baptist minister for 54 years. And she was a wonderful mother, although she had no real role model for how a mother should act. Her own mother walked out on the family when my mother was only 2 years old. But somehow, she knew how to do it, and do it well.

Although my family was never rich in worldly possessions, I never felt poor. Mother knew how to make fun. We had a great vacation every year — and it didn't occur to me that we were just going to visit family in Mobile. It seemed like the greatest trip in the world, every year. Mother taught us to sing rounds in the car to make the time pass. I remember the time we were singing "Sweetly sings the donkey at the break of day. If you do not feed him, this is what he'll say: Hee Haw, Hee Haw, Hee Haw, Hee Haw, Hee Haw, Hee Haw."

On this particular song, mother was coming in last. So, just as we pulled up to a traffic light, with the windows open, and in the lane next to a cab, mother began singing the final "Hee Haw, Hee Haw, Hee Haw, Hee Haw, Hee Haw, Hee Haw." That cabbie really gave her a funny look — and we three kids died laughing!

Mother had a great talent with needle and thread. When I was growing up, all my clothes were tailored by my mother. It never occurred to me to think of them as homemade. I got to pick the pattern for each dress, and pick out the material, and the color, and the buttons and other trim. I felt so blessed. Many a night, mother sat up late finishing new dresses for my sister and me.

At Christmas, we always had something special under the tree — even though my parents had very little extra money. I remember one year I wanted dolls that were twins! Mother sat up late Christmas Eve finishing a complete layette for two dolls. She was a great mother!

I have two wonderfully talented siblings, Martha and Barry. They are gifted musicians, and all of my life I felt like I had been left out when it came to talents. When I was in my 40s, we had a lesson in Sunday school about spiritual gifts. My wonderful friends in that class told me that I had spiritual gifts — and what they were. I am so blessed to have them as friends.

Later, I began to realize that I had other talents — I just had never recognized them as talents. First, I realized I was a good speller. Not everyone is, you know. But being a good speller is really important when you read hundreds of student papers every year — and when you edit journal articles written by others. Being able to see writing problems quickly is a great talent. I realized one day that I had inherited that from my mother. She was a wonderful speller.

But equally important, I realized one day after I hit middle age that I have another gift I inherited from my mother. All my life I saw my mother working with the young women in our churches. She led the Young Women's Association in each church or worked with the Girl's Auxiliary. When my dad retired from the full-time ministry to get his doctorate and go teach in a small women's college in Georgia, mother took a job in the bookstore, eventually becoming bookstore manager. In that job she became unofficial housemother to those young women who were away from their own mothers for the first time. They came to her with their problems and she listened. She loved those college girls and they loved her.

One day, it dawned on me that I work primarily with young women — and I seem to be pretty good at it. I realized that I inherited that from my mother also. So, although my mother was a stay-at-home mom when I was growing up, she gave me the talents I needed for my career. How blessed I was to have her as a mother.

Mother was in pain all of her life. Her rheumatoid arthritis hit her when she was only 2 years old — right after her mother left the family. She said that when she was growing up, she hated it that she couldn't sit on the ground and bounce the little ball to play jacks between her outstretched legs like the other little girls. She couldn't get her legs apart because of the damage to her hips — even in early childhood. After my dad died, I moved my mother down here to be near me. What started out feeling like a burden turned into a wonderful privilege for me. We became closer than ever — like best friends.

Once, I took mother to a pain clinic because her pain from her destroyed joints was out of control. While we were waiting to be seen, we were laughing and talking — telling jokes and having a great time. The nurse practitioner came out and said to mother, "Mrs. Carter, on a 0-100 scale, how bad is your pain right now?" Mother answered, "97." I knew she had pain, but even I didn't know it was that bad. She never let it get her down — she always knew how to have fun and enjoy life — even when she was in terrible pain.

My mother was a wonderful role model, a great Christian, a loving wife, and a terrific mom. I thank God for her and everything she gave me.



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