The look was angry. The tear that gathered in the corner of one eye would easily define the phrase "bitter tears."
Mother was curled into a fetal position. Blisters turning into sores were popping up all over her 91-year-old body. She had lost 12 pounds in a week and was refusing to eat. Fluid filled her lungs.
She was dying, if only everyone would let her go.
Mother had been unable to speak a word any of us could understand for two years. She didn't know her children and grandchildren, and was way beyond answering yes or no to even the simplest question.
She died one crumb at a time. Death began with a stroke in 1979 and continued to creep up on her each day. I thought the end was near as I watched that single tear roll down her face, but ample doses of antibiotics prolonged her days once again.
There was little left of the mother we knew. She was like a vegetable that had to be watered, kept alive by modern medicine that cost a fortune.
Mother couldn't tell me what she thought about it all, but I know.
I know the woman who scrimped and saved to amass more than $30,000 for her "final illness" would have been appalled to see how quickly the money disappeared and how many state and federal tax dollars were spent to keep her alive long past the day she would have wanted to be breathing.
She would have wanted all that money to be used in some other way: to educate a grandchild, provide medical care for the younger generation or even to finance a trip to Europe. She did not want to live past that day when she could read and write and talk and enjoy good music.
It makes me cry to think of all the things she did without to save her money: the trips not taken, the clothes she made instead of buying. She might as well have thrown the money off a cliff.
She had a living will, plus two daughters and a sister who were dedicated to blocking any act that would unnaturally prolong life. She gave us a power of attorney to handle her affairs and make whatever decisions needed to be made about her healthcare. She had told us over and over that she did not want to linger on this earth once she was unable to enjoy life.
Despite all that, we failed. Nothing we were able to do helped her leave this earth in a timely fashion. There were days we longed for Dr. Jack Kevorkian to make a house call.
Time and again, she approached the brink of death only to be brought back by powerful antibiotics or other medical miracles. Finally, as she stopped eating and the nursing home started talking about feeding tubes and other measures, we hired a lawyer and got help writing a letter invoking laws that are designed to let people die with dignity.
Even then we had to find two doctors willing to declare her terminally ill and remain on guard against all measures that doctors and healthcare institutions wanted to take to keep her alive.
She finally took matters into her own hands. She quit eating or drinking anything. A couple of days later, she quit breathing and was gone. The next day, a funeral home took her frail body back to Hattiesburg, Miss.
Lucile Sanders Keen was buried in the town where she was born. In life, she ran a family drugstore, was assistant dean of women at the University of Southern Mississippi and national director of sales training for two cosmetics companies.
She and others like her are money machines, living, breathing corpses that if kept alive feed the medical kitty that runs nursing homes, hospitals and doctors' offices.
Even as the doctors were declaring her terminally ill, the nursing home was billing Medicare more than $9,000 for speech therapy and occupational therapy. The sad thing is that Medicare paid them $7,641.60 for the service, which was performed on a 91-year-old woman who tried to quit eating.
They were trying to help her swallow better, a speech pathologist told me. It obviously had not occurred to them that she might have enough will left inside her frail body to quit eating.
"Well, she does seem to spit it back up at us a lot," the pathologist responded when I suggested that her refusal to swallow food might be deliberate.
I consistently refused to take her out of the nursing home, haul her across town and have an annual mammogram performed despite letters from the nursing home that reminded me of my duty to do it. That's one indignity I could spare her and the state's taxpayers.
Mother never knew it would be so hard to die, or so costly.
We don't even know how much money has been spent. Her money was gone in a couple of years, paid out in monthly installments to a nursing home, pharmacy and doctors. Medicare and Medicaid paid thousands of dollars in the five years that elapsed after she ran out of her own money and agreed to contribute her monthly Social Security and retirement checks.
In the end, nobody did anything but continue paying the bills.
Why does our healthcare system continue providing so much medical care to people who are so clearly dying? No amount of money could bring Mother and many of her fellow nursing home patients back to any sort of life they would want to live.
It's our tax money at work. Nobody seems to care how much money is spent to keep people breathing. It makes me wish that at the end, Mother could still talk. She'd have given them a piece of her mind.
This column first appeared in the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times on Sept. 7.