My mother, Clare Sinclair, chose to stop eating and drinking at the age of 92. She died nine days later. Her whole life had led up to this courageous step – a life full of optimism, deep feelings, adventure, and stubbornness.
Clare was born in 1920 in British Columbia to Scottish immigrant parents. Even though her father was a Presbyterian minister, she refused to kneel to pray at her bedside from an early age; she knew that she had a direct connection with Spirit anywhere. At fifteen, she began playing girls’ basketball, until her school dropped the sport, due to concerns for the players’ uteruses! That incident strengthened Clare’s natural impulse to question authority.
At the age of twenty-two, she began attending a silent Friends’ meeting in Lawrence, Kansas. She married, raised four daughters, and then, after twenty-nine years of marriage, she learned that her husband had been having an affair. She recovered from a devastating divorce with the support of Quakers far and wide. Over the following decades, she worked for several Quaker organizations and initiatives – Olney Friends School in Ohio; the AFSC in Gaza; Quaker Peace & Social Witness in Kenya (Britain YM); FWCC in the western US, Canada, and Alaska; and she sojourned as the Brinton Memorial Visitor on the U.S. West Coast. Well into her eighties, Clare traveled for 46 days with a friend through the rural towns of conservative Montana, working to raise awareness about the death penalty. The two women traveled in a pick-up truck and slept in a sheepherder’s wagon.
After this long life of adventure, in 2001, Clare moved into a tiny HUD-subsidized studio apartment at Friends House in Sandy Springs, Maryland. Death was a natural occurrence in the retirement community, as were mobility problems and forgetfulness. Clare joined an end-of-life discussion group. She learned about a married couple who had died by choosing to stop eating. During that discussion, Clare said she didn’t think she had that kind of courage. But she also said in other conversations that she never wanted to move into the skilled nursing unit or the memory unit at Friend’s House. Her mind was sharp, even though her body was slowing down.
Clare lived independently until mid-February 2013, when a stroke left her severely paralyzed on one side. We four daughters came from around the country to be with her in the hospital. She recovered somewhat, learned to swallow liquids, and received approval for discharge from the hospital into a rehabilitation program. Her first reaction was to vow: “I will eat ice cream!” But during the night, she had a change of heart. She had decided to refuse food, water, and any other measures that would prolong her life. After that decision, she never once lost her resolve.
We moved her from the hospital back to Friends House, where we were able to stay and be near her. Although Clare was clear and determined, for us “Hurn girls,” there was no script. Hospice gave us some pointers. We had to be continually present with Clare, notice what worked, notice what didn’t, and listen with our hearts. There were plenty of ups and downs in the process. She finally agreed to accept morphine for her pain after being assured that it would not extend her life even for one second.
We got to say good-bye over those nine days. We watched her body change physically as she slowly retreated inward. She was ready to die. In the last hours of her life, with my sister Jane present, she looked at some greeting cards and turned them face down. She smiled at a tapestry that she had woven – “Abraham Searching the Night Sky.” She died peacefully with loving medical staff and family caring for her. ~~~
Curiously, Maren Sinclair Hurn just recently became a member of Santa Cruz Monthly Meeting (PYM) after actively participating in the meeting for over thirty years. Now retired, she plays cello and sings in a little band that performs in skilled nursing facilities and retirement homes. Maren also supports her life-long love of making things by having a space at the Tannery Art Center in Santa Cruz.
A more complete version of this story is published online at Courageous Steps (Unabridged)