A crash course at 'when-Mom-dies school'

Susan MacNeil's new memoir is part love letter, part cautionary tale, and part instructional manual

BELLOWS FALLS — A little over a year ago, when her mother, Jean Brady, was a patient at Hartford (Conn.) Hospital, Susan MacNeil got the call.

Brady was 94, in declining health, and her hearing had become seriously diminished.

The call was not unexpected, but it's one you never are really prepared for.

“I think this is it - I'm dying,” Brady told her daughter in Bellows Falls.

In the hospital, where they talked every day, Brady had been in intensive care, where instant access to amplified phones made daily communication doable. But her mother had just been moved to the cardio unit, and the amplified phone had not been moved with her. There wasn't one available.

For the next 18 minutes, while her mother died, MacNeil screamed into her cell phone, trying to make sure her mother knew how much she loved her.

Brady passed, with her daughter never knowing what her mother could hear in those last minutes of her life. It was traumatic for both of them, to say the least.

That happened on Jan. 26, 2022. MacNeil spent the rest of the year writing a memoir, 18 Minutes: A Daughter's Primer on Life and Death.

The book is more than a tribute to her mother. It is also a book full of wisdom about living, about experiencing inevitable loss, and about trying to do both as well as possible, as well as how to handle it when we occasionally fail.

“I started writing it just to process my grief,” MacNeil said. “That last 18 minutes when she couldn't hear me, I've tried to process it.”

It's also a heads up for hospitals, nursing homes, and hospice. When a family member or friend is dying, it can be incredibly important to say goodbye, to say “I love you,” or to hold a hand. There are some simple ways to make this easier, and amplified phones is one of them.

MacNeil said she personally pushed Hartford Hospital to do a better job in that area. She says she felt some relief when the hospital finally purchased 250 amplified phones this year for patient use.

“When we didn't have an amplified phone at the very end, it was traumatizing for both my mother and myself,” MacNeil said.

She describes the experience as “a cautionary tale for hospitals.”

“We're an aging population, and we might live all over the country,” MacNeil said. “People should be able to talk with their family when they are dying. It sounds like such a simple thing, but it means everything.”

An ordinary extraordinary woman

There is much more to this memoir, though, than concerns about the tragedy of that last 18 minutes. The subtitle, A Daughter's Primer on Life and Death, is about how MacNeil's mother, once she got into her 80s, told her daughter that she would have to go to “when-Mom-dies school.”

So they began to talk openly about life and dying, and Brady began leaving notes.

“She was amazing,” MacNeil said. “She left notes all over the place, knowing I would find them. But I have to deal with that as I find each envelope.”

MacNeil and her mother had an extraordinarily close relationship, which is not true of all families. “So many people have told me, 'You're lucky. I don't even like my mother. She won't be leaving me any love notes!'”

Part of the family closeness was the fact that Brady's husband died in 1985. A product of the 1950s, she didn't learn to drive until she was 47 and a widow. MacNeil said her mother went on her own to the local school and hired the driving instructor, a grumpy man who added to the challenge, but she nonetheless got her license.

Once she got her own set of wheels, Brady “was always up for an adventure,” MacNeil said. And Brady and her children had many adventures, right up until her last years.

Independent to the last

Jean Brady married again for a time, but she would forever remain her own woman.

“She was always checking on her neighbors and taking care of them,” MacNeil said, adding that her mother set an example for her own lifetime of volunteer work.

“She was relentlessly independent. She had her Senior Center she went to. She'd take the yearly senior driving course, and kept the certificates showing she'd passed. She had a giant beast of a car, a Buick. Drove right up to the end.”

Brady had increased health issues as she aged, including from a serious fall that likely shortened her life, but she still lived on her own as much as possible. She resisted moving in with family, but stayed in constant touch with her daughter and three sons.

When her family suggested that she move to Vermont to live with them or that McNeil move to Connecticut to live with her, Brady's response was immediate and totally expected.

“No, I need my own space and privacy,” she would say. “I'm fine here.”

In addition to leaving notes to her family and organizing her apartment to make it easier when she was gone, Brady also organized her own funeral and burial arrangements.

18 Minutes covers so much more, from lists to poetry to conversations and trip diaries.

“Now that she's gone I have an entirely new point of view about visiting hours,” McNeil writes in the book.

“We should think of every chance to be together with someone we love as the ultimate visiting hours that we celebrate life,” she continues, “not the scary visiting hours that make your heart beat quickly and cause shortness of breath as you fear the bad news while keeping your fingers crossed for something, anything good.”

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