My mother, Gabrielle, was 90 when her husband of 64 years passed on. Although hardly able to walk by that time, she still read the Times, played chess, enjoyed a couple of cocktails and loved chatting, all on a daily basis.
Slowly, over the next four years, mom became more frustrated about her diminishing ability to remember what she read earlier in the day. Her chess games lasted only a few moves before becoming surreal, and she resented the coaxing to get her out of bed. She was running on empty.
She mentioned every other month or so that she really wished she “didn’t have to be here anymore.” Her eyes deteriorated; she couldn’t read anymore. Then her headaches began.
Even as she maintained a stoic attitude, she would remark that “hanging around like this is absurd,” adding: “This is not what daddy would have wanted.” The headaches were coming more often, sometimes keeping her awake through the night. As scary as they were, they were to be the key to her escape.
Mom’s doctor responded to her worsening situation with awesome empathy and respect. When she asked him to help her “find a way out of this predicament,” he told her that if she went on a “hunger strike” she would decline fairly rapidly into a coma and death. But there would be pain. However, he promised her that once she had consciously refused food and water for 24 hours, he would provide her with medication to provide relief and sedation. I went over these possibilities with mom to make sure that she understood clearly the option being offered to her. She did, and she vacillated for some time between her own genetically programmed optimism, fear of dying, and the logic that dictated that she “get out now” while she was still in “almost one piece.”
A month later, Mom invited her kids and grandchildren over for a “joyous goodbye.” She lay on the sofa with her poodle, a vodka gimlet at hand. It was a love-in, punctuated by laughter, tears and straight talk. (See photo above from that day.) Two nights later I got a call from her nurse. Mom was crying from the incessant pain and needed me. When I got to her apartment, I sat by her bedside, held her hand and stroked her head. We had talked enough about “the way out.” I suggested to her that this was the right time. She nodded her head between sobs: “Please.”
I am so deeply indebted to the doctor and his colleagues who made it possible for my mother to end her life consciously, and with her personality intact.
West Cornwall, CT
P.S. I hope you will join me in honoring the mothers in your life — as I’m honoring my mother, Gabrielle — this Mother’s Day, with a gift to Compassion & Choices, whose work makes it possible for elders like my mom to die as they lived — on their own terms.