Without my knowing, Mom had arranged with her best friend, Barbara, to sneak a cake into the apartment and on 7 April 1992, the two of them and Joe surprised me with a party for my 51st birthday. Later that same day, after Barbara had gone home, Mom said she needed to talk with me alone. I couldn’t imagine what she would not want Joe to hear, we’d become such a tight little family, but if that’s what the lady wants…
I sent Joe out to the patio and pulled up a stool next to the sofa.
“I want you to help me die,” she said. She told me she was too tired to go on. She was worn out from her body failing her a little more each day, and she wanted to go to sleep one last time. “Please help me do this,” she said.
Deep breath. I hadn’t seen that coming and it hit me like a smack in the face. She’s asking me to kill her, I thought. Here on this bright, warm, normal, spring afternoon in Sacramento, California, with the sun streaming through the windows and leftover birthday cake sitting on the table, my Mom is asking me to off her. How can that be?
But it was. “I’m not frightened,” she went on, “just very tired.” She wasn’t crazed with pain, nor high on morphine or out of her mind.
The temptation, briefly, is to make a joke of it, but Mom was serious and it would be unforgivable to make light of her request. Was she sure? I asked. She was sure. Did she know when she wanted to do this? As soon as possible. Did she know how she wanted to do this? With drugs to go to sleep, but she didn’t know what kind. Could I figure it out?
Sure I could. I had a sketchy enough background in some illegal substances to still be able make the right phone calls. The question was, would I? Should I?
As with the mini-strokes and other medical surprises that confronted Mom and me every day, it was a question that couldn’t wait. It was the final request from a dying woman to her daughter and I could not fiddle the answer. Still, there were potent issues to consider, and Mom and I agreed it would be good for me to take a day to decide.
I drove to the nearest book store to pick up a copy of Derek Humphrey's Final Exit, about assisted suicide. In it is a handy section for circumstances like this one with drug names, descriptions, best delivery options and their fatal dosages. If I decided to “help Mom die,” I didn’t want to botch the job. That would get us both in all sorts of trouble that would ruin the end of her life she had so carefully planned.
Later that night, armed with names and lethal dosages of several possible drugs, I tracked down an old friend in New York I’d not spoken with in a long while. Amazingly, given his trade, he was still around and he still had the same telephone number, though he called back a few minutes later from a different one. He didn’t ask and I offered no details about why and within a couple of hours, he got back to me with a workable plan to obtain what I needed locally in Sacramento. I told him to sit on it for a day or two and I’d get back to him.
Knowing that I could make it happen relieved me to deal with one potential consequence - prison - which I knew I would be unlikely to avoid. I had no idea what the penalty was in California (there was no World Wide Web yet in 1992) for killing a dying person, but I weighed what little knowledge I had and for no other reason than to move my decision-making forward, I decided to assume it would be relatively light. Ten years or fewer, though I knew I could be wrong.
That left the biggest issue, the moral one: should I help Mom die. I spent all night thinking about that. And the next morning too as I cleaned Mom’s teeth, changed her diaper, brought her some food she didn’t eat and kept her supplied with cold, cold water. Neither of us said much.
I had – and still have - strong beliefs about making time and space and quiet and whatever else dying people need to come to terms with their mortality. I was trying to do that for my mother and now I was unexpectedly confronted with her way of dealing with death rather than my own.
To be certain I wasn't fooling myself or belittling the act I was contemplating, I named it what it was: murder. The most ancient taboo. Every religion, every nation forbids it. Yet I could find no horror in this instance. Mom had always taken care of herself, never complained about the tough times and never asked for help. Now she was dependent every waking moment. Each day, her body betrayed her a bit further, disintegrating before her eyes. We both knew there would be no last-minute miracle, and what she was asking of me was to hurry along the inevitable.
So there was in the end, only one answer: I would do it. I would obtain the drugs. I would administer them. If asked, I would admit the crime. And in that case, I would do the time.
Why? Easy. Because she was my mother and she asked.
That afternoon, while Joe was out shopping, I told Mom about the drugs, how they would work and that it would take two days to get them after I arranged the purchase. Just one thing, though, I told her. I haven’t done that yet and I won’t do it until you ask again. I want you be sure you are ready.
I couldn't stop the tears sliding down my cheeks. Mom wiped them away. “Please don’t be sad,” she said. “I’ve had a long and good life and it’s time to go now.”
...to be continued...
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 1
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 2
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 3
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 4
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 5
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 6
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 8
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 9
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 10
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 11
A mother's final, best lesson: Postscript