“To err on the side of kindness is seldom an error.” (Liz Armbruster)
In the spring of 1991, my mother decided it was time to die. Eight years of thrice-weekly kidney dialysis had taken its toll. Her frailty was compounded by more than a half-century of cigarette smoking and alcohol excess. The final straw was her doctor’s warning that she could no longer live alone. He advised a care facility or moving in with one of her daughters.
Neither option was palatable. Despite being a card-carrying member of the demographic, she frequently said that she couldn’t stand old people. And just as frequently, she vowed never to be a burden to her children. With memories of our somewhat bewildering childhood, we didn’t argue the point. She refused any further dialysis.
Life held little appeal for her. Death was something she had looked forward to almost since the day her beloved husband died, 27 years earlier. Death was something she could anticipate with an enthusiasm I hadn’t seen in many years. She was an ardent atheist, so she had no illusions about an afterlife of bliss and reunion. She just wanted out. Perhaps we could have convinced her to delay death, but somehow we knew that allowing this choice without argument was what she wanted.
She took that ball and ran with it, assuming total control of this last venture. From her hospital bed, she directed us to give certain possessions to various friends, to call others and say goodbye for her (she wanted no visitors), and to arrange for the interment of her ashes next to our father’s. She was adamant that there be no funeral or memorial service.
One afternoon, she instructed me to bring her checkbook to her. She had written a list of all the nurses, technicians, and support staff at the dialysis center where she had received treatment for the last eight years. She wanted me to go to the bank and get a “crisp” $50 bill for each of the seventeen people listed, and to put them in note cards for each. She had even drafted the note we were to include: “Connie thanks you for your care and kindness, and hopes you will use this to go out for a lovely dinner with someone special in your life.” (Remember, it was 1991—$50 might actually have covered a night on the town!)
Under the list of names and instructions was a line written in all caps: NOT BETTY*! I asked her what she meant and she told me that there was one nurse—Betty—to whom she did not want to give money or thanks. “She’s never nice to me and I think sometimes she hurts me deliberately. I don’t want her to get anything.”
“But how will she feel when everyone else gets a note and fifty dollars,” I asked her.
“I don’t care. I hope she knows exactly why she didn’t get anything from me. She’s mean.” My mother was adamant.
So, she wrote a check for $850 and I took it to the bank and got seventeen crisp fifties. Then I went to the Hallmark store and bought pretty note cards. My sister and I spent the evening writing mother’s note to the staff of the dialysis center. The next day, I delivered them and asked the receptionist to distribute the cards. There was one for her in the stack. I hoped Betty wasn’t in that day, but I didn’t ask.
I wish I could have a do-over.
I would have gotten another fifty and a card for Betty and written the same note I wrote to her colleagues. I wouldn’t have told Mom. Withholding the gift from Betty felt small. It felt petty. It felt unkind. I can excuse myself by saying I was complying with my mother’s deathbed wish, and that I was dealing with the stress of her imminent loss. I was being a good daughter.
Maybe all of those things are true, and maybe Betty wasn’t a nice person and was unkind to my mother. Still, I wish I had disregarded all of those factors and simply asked myself, “What’s the kindest action here?” If I had, I would have thanked Betty along with the rest, but kept that fact from my mother.
This isn’t something I dwell on. In fact, I probably went 20 years without ever thinking about it. But after spending these recent years thinking about kindness, I know I did not act then as I would today.
You might ask: had I given the money and note to Betty, would I now be regretting having ignored my mother’s deathbed wish? Fair question. But, no, I don’t think so. I would rather err on the side of kindness.
There will always be lapses in kindness—whether sins of commission or of omission. But I hope I can learn from them and then honestly decide how I will respond if ever faced with a similar situation. I hope I will pause and ask, “What’s the kind response here?” and then allow kindness to point the way.
*Let’s call her “Betty,” I don’t remember her name
“Treat everyone with politeness, even those who are rude to you—not because they are nice, but because you are.” (Author Unknown)