Dennis McCullough died late last week. He was a doctor who pioneered the “slow medicine” movement. Its goal is to let elderly patients live out their last days as they wish to, instead of as the recipients of well-meaning medical interventions – what my mother called “heroics” – aimed at prolonging their often-lonely and anguished lives. He chronicled his own path to enlightenment in his book, My Mother, Your Mother.
Dennis McCullough was my classmate at college. Abandoned by his father and raised by a single mother on welfare in a poor Scandinavian mining community on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, he went on to captain Harvard’s hockey team and graduate from Harvard Medical School. He died in Bar Harbor, just down the road from where I write, where he had come to talk about slow medicine at a conference of community nurses.
His description of his mother crying out, near the end of her life, “Why is dying so hard?” reminded me of my own mother asking, in both bemused wonder and exasperation, “How did I get to be so old?” She no longer wanted to be “encouraged” to walk painfully down the hall, to eat food she didn’t like, to be awakened when all she wanted to do was live in her dreams. As my sisters and I came to understand that, we watched her anger turn into acceptance, and we had some of our best moments together in the little time she had left. She wanted to die as she had tried to live: on her own terms.
I wish I’d known Dennis McCullough better. I think my mother will like him.