My mother, like Feng’s, had lung cancer. She was diagnosed when I was 16 and starting college. Over the next three years, I watched her shrivel, so slowly I didn’t notice at first. When I went home freshman year, Mama’s hair was shorter, but she was otherwise the same. Then her voice grew thinner, she started feeling short of breath, she could no longer keep up with me on walks, she became confused and agitated. But we never acknowledged that she was getting worse.
My senior year, two days before flying out for a grad school interview, my father called. Mama was in the hospital with pneumonia.
After my interview, I went straight from the airport to the hospital. In the car, my father said we mustn’t let on that anything was wrong. When we arrived, he patted her hand and said we’d finally go to Paris when she got better, like she’d always wanted.
The next two weeks, I lived in the hospital, sleeping little and eating less. Soon after I arrived, Mama could no longer speak and had to write notes in barely legible Chinese. Then she couldn’t write at all. Not once did we acknowledge the possibility of death.
My father kept saying she was going to have a few more months, and I wanted to believe him. I kept asking the doctors and nurses about her prognosis, if they thought she had any shot at all. She didn’t, but no one could or would give me a straight answer.
A social worker repeatedly asked us to consider a hospice so my mother could pass in peace. I thought it was a good idea, but my father refused, appalled by my callousness. “You think you know everything, but you don’t know what she wants. She wants to live, and you—you’re just trying to give up.” For her part, Mama refused to eat anymore.
A few days before the end, a nurse asked if she had an advance directive. She didn’t. “Sweetie, you’ll have to fill out these forms.” I hesitated but eventually checked No for all medical intervention—no blood draws, no life support, no resuscitation.
My father laughed harshly when he saw the forms and said, “This—you’re just going to let her die. She wants to live, and you won’t let her.” I had to change the feeding tube selection to Yes to get him to sign the forms.
Those last days, Mama seemed so miserable, frowning up at the ceiling, mouth ajar as if to cry out.
I wanted the nurses to tell me what to do. I pleaded, “Is she in pain? More morphine? She can’t possibly make it, right?”
There was no right answer. In the end, I asked them to increase the morphine until she was comfortable and fell asleep holding her hand. It was cold when I awoke.
I no longer hold myself responsible for my mother’s death, but I will always regret how she suffered unnecessarily at the end of her life. I wish we had talked about it, and I wish her doctors had nudged us to discuss her end-of-life options and explained her chances of survival more clearly