Family Matters at the End of Life

My mother’s condition has stabilized a little, and she has been transferred out of the hospital into a nursing home.  The environment is much more peaceful – she has a private room, where family members can come and spend as much time as they’d like.
Most of the time, she drifts in a dreamy world.  She occasionally says a few words or answers a question, but it seems like an effort.  I usually just sit quietly by her bedside, holding her hand.  It occurs to me that I haven’t held Mum’s hand since I was about 5 years old.  We’re not a family who touches, hugs or kisses – unspoken family rules have kept us at arms’ length.
I look down at her hands and notice how beautifully shaped they are, with perfect oval nails.  They were such strong, capable hands - hands that sewed, knit, cooked, cleaned, gardened, played the piano.  Now the muscles have atrophied, leaving the bones and tendons sharply outlined beneath the paper-thin skin.  As I gently rub hand cream into Mum’s dry, wrinkled skin, a sweet memory of my father comes to mind.
He’d developed advanced leukemia, and in the last two weeks of his life he was bedridden.  Fortunately, he didn’t suffer from pain from his cancer, but lying in bed all day caused aches and pains.  Noticing his discomfort, my husband Pradeep said, “I’m going to give you a foot massage.  That relieves tension all over the body.”
The look of surprise on Dad’s face was comical. Unwittingly, Pradeep had just broken one of our unspoken family codes of behaviour – no touching.  After a few moments of silence Dad turned to me, raising a quizzical eyebrow.  “What do you think of the medical merits of foot massage?”
“Try it and see!” I replied, enjoying the scene unfolding before me.

After that, Pradeep came daily with his little bottle of oil, and massaged Dad’s feet.
The following week Dad said to me, “You know, those foot massages your husband gives me are remarkably effective in relieving aches and pains.” Then he added, with his typical wry humour, “Of course, it takes him quite a long time.  As a pain relieving method, foot massage is not really cost-effective.”
My recollection of that amusing moment was just one of many precious memories from those last days of Dad’s life. Now my mother is completing her life’s journey, and I sit and hold her hand, in such a natural way. Perhaps the end of life is the best time to break unspoken family rules.