The Shared Heart


Today I brought my 90-year old Mom to Rhode Island to visit our  “Auntie Peggy”, who is rapidly declining with long-standing Alzheimer’s disease. I was not at all sure if my mom was prepared for this experience. Auntie and Mom are inseparable, lifelong friends.

As we entered the low-lit room, an almost invisible, diminutive form, lay in a bed. Auntie was very still. Her slack mouth did not detract from the simple, peaceful expression on her smooth, wrinkle-free face. Though clearly very sick, there was something familiar and indelibly beautiful about her end-of-life mask.

My mother, so full of love, attempted to speak life and energy back into her best friend’s slight form. In a gay lilting voice, she reminded Auntie of their many happy adventures and closely held secrets. Seeing no response, my mother began to sing “Happy Birthday”, “God Bless America” and any song that might open her dearest friend’s sparkling blue eyes, once again.

As a witness to this “Last Time”, I had the sacred privilege of watching a sacred ending. Tears rolled freely down my cheeks as I observed my mother, her heart breaking. She tried so hard to bring her spirit and optimism into that room. It seemed, if she made her voice full of enough happiness, sang the right song, she might, just might, awaken Auntie into good health. All of this flew in the face of my mom’s own daily fight to push away the constant experiences of her own dementia and slow drip, drip toward her own End.

For the past several years, as a weekly Hospice volunteer, I have had the privilege of supporting families and individuals as we all are brought face to face with another’s life ending.  Often, I see the heartbreak death brings to those who remain.  Correspondingly, as people who are more elderly pass, there seems to be an “of course” response as a society.

Yesterday, I was a daughter, witnessing and absorbing the profound impact my beloved aunt’s dying was having on my 90 year-old Mum.  As my mother lovingly held her elderly, best friend’s hand, not one aspect of this was “of course”.


The battle of being mortal is the battle to maintain the integrity of this life - to avoid becoming so diminished or dissipated or subjugated so that who you are becomes disconnected from who you were or who you want to be.
— Atol Gawande, 2014