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TCU professor hopes play about mother's death helps others prepare

03/17/2013 11:06 PM

03/18/2013 7:27 PM

FORT WORTH -- Alan Shorter's mother was dying, her mind and body slowly stolen by Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.

Aware of her fate, his mother made decisions about how she envisioned her end and shared those wishes with some, but not all, of her five children.

Nevertheless, the final days before her death dissolved into dysfunction and disagreement among the children as old family tensions arose.

"We all had different points of view, and everything basically hit the fan," said Shorter, an associate professor in the TCU theater department. "We were all going through the process of her dying, and it really was not pretty."

That experience led Shorter into his home office in 2008, where he spent a week penning a short play about his mother's death. Titled The Best of Intentions, the play was designed to the "take the gloves off" the discussion about the dying process.

Shorter's play, performed by him and several TCU students, will be featured Saturday at TCU as part of a workshop to help North Texans understand their end-of-life choices. The free workshop, Speak for Yourself, was organized by the Tarrant County Academy of Medicine Ethics Consortium and the Coalition for Quality End-Of-Life Care.

The workshop will include a roundtable discussion and, after the play, Texas Wesleyan University law students can help attendees put their wishes into writing. People who want to attend should register by Thursday.

"It's an issue that is very difficult for people to talk about," said Dr. Stuart Pickell, one of the event's planners. "The point is to help start a conversation about this now and not to wait until it's too late to make these kind of decisions."

In writing the 23-minute play, Shorter condensed the time frame and inserted some theatrical devices, such as flashbacks with his mother. However, the script follows much of what happened in his mother's final days, though Shorter stresses that the play was written from his own perspective.

"If you asked one of my other siblings, they'd probably see things differently," he said.

Shorter's mother did not want to live off a feeding tube once the Parkinson's made it too difficult to swallow, he said. But as she neared the end, she clung to life for several weeks, making it feel to her children that time stood still.

"Everyone was there and you began to question why she is hanging on," he said. "Every time someone left to eat, you wondered if she would be there when you got back."

Adding to the family's stress was the fact that the mother's final weeks of life stretched through the Christmas holidays. He found himself at a Kmart because it was the only store open on Christmas Eve, trying to decide what to buy his mother even though she would soon die.

Shorter and the students have already performed the play four times at retirement homes and churches.

He said he hopes people who attend the TCU event are moved to start making their own end-of-life decisions.

"The very intent of the play was to start discussions we put off or simply never address and consequences for a real family," he said.

Alex Branch, 817-390-7689

Twitter: @albranch1

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