She lay against the stark white sheets of the gurney,
her face gray and her hands bent awkwardly inward in the characteristic manner of the disabled. A series of strokes had long-silenced her lilting Southern twang, and she communicated much as an infant, her cries and grunts only distinguishable to the initiated. At the sight of me, her face contorted in a pathetic wail, brownish-red drool drizzling from one corner of her mouth.
“Pneumonia,” someone at the nursing had said two hours earlier, when they first called to tell me that they were sending my mother to the hospital. I had quickly arranged my schedule to meet her at the emergency room when she arrived. My brother joined me in the waiting room, and we watched in vain for her arrival. Finally I checked again at the desk and discovered she had not yet been sent down from the nursing home.
I called the home, and they said they were still awaiting the doctor’s order to transport her down. We waited some more. I called the doctor’s office to see what was happening. No one knew. After two hours, she finally landed in the emergency room, where she lay untreated as busy nurses and techs buzzed around the nurses’ station. I could only guess they were waiting for doctor’s orders to proceed.
She continued to cry. We continued to wait. I stood at her side, stroking her hair and murmuring meaningless words of comfort as I choked back angry tears.
No one ever came in the room to care for her.
Something was definitely wrong, and I finally lost my patience. I summoned my nerve and marched out to the nurses’ station. “Is Doctor in the hospital?” I asked the startled nurses.
“Uh, I can try to page him for you,” one of them ventured.
“Fine. I want to talk to him.”
They exchanged nervous glances and had him on the phone in short order.
“This is Opal Soyk’s daughter,” I spit out. “We have been waiting hours in E.R. to have her treated. What the h— is going on?”
My rare foray into profanity surprised even me. But Doctor was up to the fight. “I wasn’t planning to bring her down here. She’s only here because you insisted.”
I was momentarily confused by the direction of the conversation. After all, I was only there because I had been called by the nursing home. What was going on? My mind raced to untangle what had happened as I asked, “Well, what are you planning to do for her?”
One worthless life…
“Nothing. I wasn’t going to treat her. She’s an old woman. Her life is useless, anyway. Why do you want to keep her alive?”
My soul exploded into little shards of red-hot pain as clarity came. He had planned to let her die untreated in her bed at the nursing home.
But this was not a useless old woman. This was my mother.
All my life, my mother had fought for me. Always, unconditionally, and without reservation, Mother had been my champion and protector. It was time to return the honor.
“That is not your decision to make,” I retorted loudly, turning heads at the nurses’ station. “Your job is to treat her.”
Doctor hung up on me.
He never did bother to show up at the emergency room. But shortly afterward, she was admitted to the hospital. With proper treatment, Mother recovered from her illness and lived some time longer before dying peacefully at the nursing home with her family in attendance.
Who Is the Lord of Life and Death?
In the months leading up to her strokes, Mother knew something awful was happening in her body. She kept it mostly secret, but looking back, I realized that she was preparing us for the inevitable. One day she told me that if anything happened to her, she wanted every chance at life. She also said, “I changed your diapers; you can change mine.”
I remembered those words after her strokes, and I was thankful to know her wishes. But I often agonized as I watched her body slowly wither away. I knew, though, that if we hastened her death, it would not be her choice, but ours. That would be neglect. Or worse.
In the long nights during those five years, I reminded God that she had taken Him to be Lord of her life. I asked Him to be Lord of her death.
The last night the nursing home called us, she had fallen into a coma after not responding to medication for a new infection. Her body showed the obvious signs of shutting down. We gathered around her bed, sang all her favorite hymns, and cheered her on. We read Scriptures to her, prayed quietly, and loved her into God’s presence.
My mother taught me how to live. She taught me how to die. And she taught me that God is the Lord of both.