“I don’t believe dignity is something you’re born with…”
Miriam Webster defines dignity as, “a way of appearing or behaving that suggests seriousness and self-control: the quality of being worthy of honor or respect”. Dignity is described as a noun, not a verb; therefore, it’s not an action one takes, but a presence of being and, by description, not something you can possess by simple existence. I’m not sure dignity is something I was keenly aware of until a very mature age of my life and, my recollection is becoming aware of the genuine ability to have dignity by observation.
There has been one common thread amongst the people in my life who I have observed and believed to possess dignity. Dignity, being a noun and not a verb, dignity does not require work to maintain, but persons possessing it have more of an inner spirit that drives them to respond to the world and those around them in a particular way. There is an ease in decisions of consciousness, decisiveness, convictions, and those dignified individuals whom I have known of during my life seem to face situations of existence that would terrify most, with a calmness of soul, and a serenity and an acceptance of fate as the universe would have without questioning the Almighty with “Why?” as some people would.
This is my reflection of three such wonderful souls.
“When I realized what genuine dignity looked like, I thought Wow…”
My first real glimpse of utter dignity that I recall was the last few weeks of my mother’s life. She was 80 years old, had survived stage I lung cancer ten years earlier, as well as a multitude of other geriatric health issues, only to then find herself with a late diagnosis of terminal liver cancer. The rather radical surgery removing a portion of Mom’s left lung saving her life ten years prior required a long hard recovery. At that time, Mom said she would never undergo such treatment again, and especially when she felt perfectly fine before they cut her open. It is my belief now, that her conviction some ten years earlier, was the reason why we found ourselves with this late diagnosis. In other words, my mother was sick for along time and simply ignored the warnings until she became hospital bound, and a diagnosis was made much too late. She didn’t wish to be diagnosed and feel obligated to undergo treatment she didn’t want to have.
To say cancer defined my Mom would not be telling the whole story. The truth is my Mom was a lifelong survivor of many trials some would consider a reason to give up. She was the youngest of three children in a family with an alcoholic father and mother with epilepsy when there was little treatment available. Mom grew up with tremendous responsibility in a chaotic house with a mother she felt hated her. Mom loved her father a lot, but he was apparently a mess and died young, and Mom eventually brought my grandmother to live with our family until she passed. Not having much of an example, Mom married an alcoholic, and while they did their best with three children, history repeated, and Mom was left with most of the responsibility for our family.
Through all of her trials and tribulations, Mom was a strong woman, who was determined to appear like she had it all together, even when the world was crumbling around her. I can only speak for myself when I say that her cavalier attitude was often off putting to me when I wanted her to crawl in the pot of pity with me when I was feeling bad about what life wasn’t giving me. For Mom, it was all about appearances. Don’t show the world your weaknesses, and they won’t be able to pick on them. She never complained about being sick, even going to work with a turtleneck on to hide the fact that she had caught the mumps from me! Mom carried this will and grace to her grave. I really wish I had learned to appreciate it more while she was still alive.
Fast forward to numerous admissions with complicated illnesses. Even then Mom went to the hospital by ambulance. She never wanted to go to the doctors or a hospital. As my brothers and I surrounded her to comfort her during delivery of the news of her liver cancer, Mom looked at all of us wide-eyed and calm. We looked at Mom, waiting for the moment she would break down. There were no tears. Mom had been told there was no treatment that she could tolerate at that point. She had anywhere from weeks to months to live. We’re all tearing up, and patting her and asking if she’s ok. The silence in her glare was puzzling. Then she calmly looked around at all of us, and God is my witness said, “Well did you think I was going to live for ever! For God’s sake, I’m 80 f*****g years old!” Needless to say, we all just sat there frozen in place, not knowing whether to laugh or cry for her. I mean she was right. Mom was 80 years old, she led a decent life, she had happy times and sad times, she was loved and adored by many, and the fact was, she was sick as hell.
A decision was made to move Mom to hospice care, as she was ready to stop all life sustaining medications. She starting refusing food almost right away and within days she slipped into a peaceful coma, drifting out of our lives on the tenth day. Mom was in a beautiful room, surrounded by cards, notes and flowers from all the people who loved her. This was her choice, her terms, she was ready to go and, she even refused morphine for comfort claiming she had no pain. I remember sitting in Mom’s room the day before she left us, and thinking that I only hope if I had to make the choice she did, that I could leave the world so peacefully. My mother was many things good in her life and, yes, a few bad things too; however, I can say without hesitation, she had dignity and I am so blessed that I got to live in the presence of it, grow from it, and admire it.