My mother died twenty years ago this month — on June 19, 1991. At least, that’s the date I observe. It was on the 19th that she gathered the family together and took a lethal dose of Seconal to end her life after a long struggle with ovarian cancer. To allow her to die as she wished, we had to lie, and cheat, and break the law, and that behavior was antithetical to the way we had and have lived. It was bizarre that being a party to my mother’s getting the Seconal would be like helping a junkie get heroin, when all she wanted was to die at home, with us beside her, under what she held to be optimal conditions. Other people prefer other ways to go, and they should have access to heroic medical treatment, to hospice care, to whatever enables them to endure departure from the world. Choice is almost always to the good; I am pro-choice for expectant parents and for departing ones.
My mother’s death certificate says June 20th because we couldn’t let anyone into the house until we were sure that she was irretrievably lifeless, and it was a few hours past midnight before we called a physician to sign the relevant papers. Parsing of dates may seem trivial, but I have thought about this disjunction every June since then, and there is a permanent unsettledness in me about not knowing when to recognize the passing of another year without her. It’s a form of clinging, I’m sure, but it’s also loaded with politics. If what she did had been legal, we’d know which day she died; we’d know the hour and the minute, and I’d be sure when twenty years had passed.
My mother’s death became the primary narrative of much of what I wrote in the years after 1991: it was the topic of a piece for The New Yorker, the basis for my novel, A Stone Boat, and a major episode in my book on depression, The Noonday Demon. After I published that last book, I decided not to write about my mother; she was an immensely private person, and these persistent reports of her seemed out of keeping with her ideas about dignity—the very ideas that fuelled her choice to end her life. Now, two decades later, it seems like time for a further coda.
When my mother was dying, she asked that we remember her as who she was before she got sick, but immediately after she died that was impossible. Her dying was the defining moment of my life and it overshadowed everything else about her. Time has not obscured my sadness at the loss, but subsequent joys have reconnected me with earlier ones. I married the man I love and I had children, and in becoming a parent myself my understanding of my mother was transformed. These days, I wish for her perspective and advice; far more than that, I want to ask her forgiveness for the ways in which I failed to forgive her, back when I didn’t know how complicated and challenging parenting was. As a father, my mind is constantly churning with memories of my childhood, including thoughts of how my mother was when I was the age of my own children.
The mother of my three-year-old daughter recently asked whether I could find any photos of my mother at that age, and when I found one, the similarity between my mother and my daughter was transfixing; even the hair ribbon seemed to be genetically determined. This clear link between the past and the future was nothing short of thrilling, and has finally overshadowed those tragic final years, that day we sat beside my mother while she counted out the Seconal and then slipped into silence on the way to oblivion. I am reminded of Colette’s assertion that in the first years after her mother died, she felt that she had lost her, but that in the decades following, they became closer than they had ever been before.
While I allow that my mother’s life is now more vivid to me than her death, I would be lying if I were to suggest that her death is not always with me. My understanding of life and death is commonplace; my understanding of the passage from one to the other is highly particular. I suffered from depression, and suicide is the endpoint of depression for many people; it was never the endpoint for me, and I never made an attempt. My mother’s choice to end her life, though technically a suicide, did not seduce me toward depressive self-annihilation, even when I was at my lowest. When I consider the future, however, I find her choice within me. I can handle physical pain better than my mother could, and possibly could brook some of the indignities of late-stage illness that she dreaded. But I could not bear to put my own children through the process of watching me decay beyond a fixed point that I will know even if they do not. I accept her decision; indeed, I emulate it.
When I first wrote about my mother’s death, I papered over my ambivalence by cheering for what she did, and recovering from that uncertainty is a slow process, but I draw closer to it every day. My mother told me in her final weeks that she feared being forgotten, but she is so remembered, still, that it makes my bones ache, likewise for my father and my brother and for her close friends. Someone I know who doesn’t like her own mother recently asked me why mine continued to assert such a hold over my brother and me, and I said the obvious: that her love, along with my father’s, made us who we are. That is true, of course, but we loved her especially because she knew, with rigor, who she was, and thereby helped us not only to become, but also to know ourselves. She often surprised me by intention, and sometimes made me furious, but she never ambushed me with the whims of a faltering unconscious that rule most lives. My father is truthful, but it was my mother who established this language of emotional precision, and her death was a proof of principle. Even in the most extremis, she was exactly who she had always been, unerringly who she always told us she would be. My mother was the same person when I was a child as on the day she died, and I see now how hard that consistency is to sustain, and how it would have been compromised if she had had to relinquish control over her final agony.
A couple of years after my mother died, the first of two surrogate uncles succumbed to illness. Elmer and Willie had been together for more than fifty years, and their relationship with their families of origin had been strained. My parents had taken them in as extended family, and they always joined us for Christmas and other special occasions. After Elmer died, Willie was lost. My brother and I tried to keep him cheerful and active, and he did his best to play along, but he had no purpose and was enveloped in regret. Within a year, he suffered a stroke. His next-door neighbor and closest friend, Trish, found him collapsed and rushed him to the emergency room, where, despite aggressive intervention, he settled into a coma. For two weeks, Trish and my brother and I went to visit him every day, waiting for some sign of consciousness. The doctors said that he could linger in this state for many years, but that there was a chance of his emerging from it, probably with at least partial paralysis, and likely needing to relearn speech. A life without Elmer had held almost no meaning for Willie in the best of health. The idea of his having to learn to walk and talk again, of his going as an unacknowledged widower into a homophobic nursing home, was anathema to us, as we knew it would be to him.
My brother and I had by then been authorized by Willie’s next of kin to make his medical decisions. When we asked to discontinue life support, the hospital began putting up barriers; they did all they could to prevent our doing what Trish, my brother, my father, I, and everyone else who knew and cared about Willie agreed he’d have wanted. Fortunately, he had told me, and told others, that he didn’t want to live without Elmer, and none of us mistook that assertion for irrational grief; he had lived his half century of happiness, and it was over. I battled the ethics committee at the hospital, and called lawyers I had interviewed for the article about my mother. Helping him to die was a kindness that broke my heart. Hospital officials repeatedly accused me of murdering him, and wildly misrepresented New York State law relevant to his case. We had, with his biological family, the legal right to decide on his behalf, and having to duke it out with these doctors exacted a great cost we should not have had to pay.
I’ve remembered Willie often as I’ve been involved in the struggle for gay marriage, an estate he died too soon to imagine. There, likewise, other people want to prevent us from making our own decisions. I’m not for preventing the marriages of strangers; I just want to have my own, and to see those I love have their own. Similarly, I’m not for bringing about the death of strangers, but I think we should all get to make up our own minds about how we die, insofar as nature allows us any leeway. To me, the words choice and freedom are nearly synonymous, in death as they are in love.
The death of Dr. Jack Kevorkian on Friday morning will at least briefly reignite the conversation about aid in dying. He was a showman and his methods were confrontational and obnoxious, but they inspired people as more considered advocates could not. He should not have gone to prison, but civil disobedience comes at a cost, and he paid it. He was the Malcolm X of the right-to-die movement—a movement that is unfortunately still seeking its Martin Luther King, Jr. There has been meaningful progress in that movement since my mother died, with some form of physician-assisted suicide allowed in Oregon, Washington, and Montana. For most people, however, assisted suicide remains difficult and expensive and requires the ability to machinate around medical standards and the law. This very day, people are suffering fruitless pain at the end of long illness, and dreaming of escape; others are sitting beside them, helpless to give them a peaceful exit. Denying people the integrity of their own lives denies them the integrity of their own bodies. We shouldn’t need Kevorkian’s ostentation of banditry to confer on people authority over their own being, which of necessity encompasses authority over their own deaths.
(Photograph: Solomon and his mother, c. 1989.)