When the Last Guest Leaves

Dying with dignity is one thing. Helping your mom do it is another.


Rama Hughes / www.ramahughes.com

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Pulling the trigger, 9 a.m., January 4, 2010

Killed Mom a few hours ago. I haven’t even had my coffee.

Actually, the state of Oregon says I didn’t kill her. The state says that “Death with Dignity” is not euthanasia. Not “assisted suicide.” But the State of Ben says know yer liberties. As individuals, death is nothing if not our own. Call it what you will, there’s one thing I know: She wouldn’t have done it without me.

Now Mom’s the deepest vision of silver-haired sleep, literally chilling on her side next to me in bed, snuggled up like a happy child, my hand on her shoulder, her head, her hair. I call my peeps to tell them it happened, that three months after her diagnosis and the following downhill slide, she rolled over at 3 a.m. last night and woke me with, “I want to do it now.”

And so we did it. She swallowed the stuff and died and my friends say wow and what was it was like.

“Amazing.” I say. “In-fucking-credible. Insane.” And I mean every syllable.

“So where is she now?” They ask.

“Uhh, right next to me,” I say. I am still in bed next to her.

Their gasps resound clearly.

“It’s too cold to get out from under the covers,” I say.

It’s not cold, but the lie helps. What am I doing here? For many months I was there for my mom. Now I exist for myself.

I tell my friends I’m going to put shades and a hat on her and take her for a ride to the incinerator in her convertible, and I almost believe myself. But when I gently raise her head and slip the sunglasses over her ears I realize that, despite knowing such an irreverent gesture would have won her complete, enthusiastic, and unadulterated approval, she’s cooled down now and stiffening, and I can’t follow through.

I dial a budget mortuary and a calm male voice answers.

“I want to . . . schedule a pickup.”


It was . . .

Pancreatic cancer, caught late.

PankC is like that. If it is not stumbled upon in its infancy, you might not notice its presence while it sets up camp, collects kindling, and builds a roaring fire.

Looking back, Mom was losing weight and said she was tired, but she seemed old enough to thin out—and coating the growing cracks of her illness was the armored exterior of a multifarious past. Count back from over 70 and imagine a little girl growing up in a loud, incendiary Berlin. She was abused, emotionally and physically, but she hardened up, swam on the German national team, and was very smart. She made it to the United States, got her master’s and PhD in psychology, but then couldn’t make it through her own psychotherapy. These complexities eventually became an attractive and risky—to those who loved her—mixture that made up her duplicitous personality.

In adulthood, her physical frame rebelled. It began with affliction but included addiction. Her spine was the first to cause her physical pain, but her greatest ache lay deeper and would never out. With the help of doctors and her own observations, she tirelessly commanded surgeries on her back, feet, shoulder, and hips. Continuously in a state of (self) diagnosis, recovery, or both, she somehow heroically managed to swim her way to national records, have a family, and run a widely respected psychology practice. She charged forward ever scoffing at convention, and was adored and feared for it, as an athlete, an intellectual, an artist, and a character.           

So when she said she was feeling tired, no one gave it a second thought. More like, about time. Tired we can deal with.

So no, it was not caught in its infancy.


A shower of good timing,
8 p.m., January 2, 2010

We siblings had been taking turns in order to keep up with what Mom needed, and it seemed like the end was nearing.

I was at home, and I heard it had gotten bad since I had departed several days before. My sister had found Mom wandering about in the middle of the night, delirious, fully dressed for work. Another time, Mom was found at dawn in the bathtub, sitting naked in cold water. And finally, she couldn’t always hold herself anymore. On a trip to the bathroom she hadn’t made it.

As far as Mom’s decision to end her life if things ever got unbearable, there was a line in the sand. She’d told me in her tough, brash way years before, “If I can’t shit on my own, that’s it. Good-bye.”

I knew she’d meant it. I needed to get back up there.

I wondered if she was being given too much morphine. When I showed up, Mom was in bed, not knowing day from night. She was crying terribly and I soothed her and took over, fearful of a long night of the worst, which I’d spend on a couch by her bedside.

Before she went to sleep, I got her to understand that if she wanted morphine she’d have to get it on her own. She watched as I pushed the little brown bottle from where it sat directly next to her, to about 10 inches farther away. Now she’d have to reach for it.

I woke early to a clear view of the city through her massive bedroom window, surprised and relieved to have slept a calm night. When she woke, this day before her last, she was clear-eyed and smiling, thin, but cognizant and alert. She’d always made the best eggs Benedict, and I’d inherited the secret. I put the plate of two English muffins with ham and eggs and drenched in lemony sauce on her lap, and the buttery deliciousness was gone in minutes. She sat up straight and started going through papers. Mom was back.

What followed was one of the best days of our lives. I cooked steak. Made her open-faced sandwiches on dark German bread and served them with small glasses of brown beer. She ate every bite and only occasionally reached over for her morphine.

The difficulties of the last months were fading away. A sense of lightness was becoming pervasive. I smiled deeply into her eyes many times and she into mine. We put our heads together. I was doing the best giving I could imagine.

That evening I took her into the shower. I had never wanted to see her naked because I’m still afraid of the path to death and what the vision might mean, so this was always tough for me. This time it was different. The day had been so sublime, it transformed apprehension into action, fear into love. She sat on a stool and let warm water pour down upon her. I massaged her shoulders and scrubbed her hair and played the fool and made her laugh. At last, I wrapped a white towel around her head and she made to rise. Looking at her clear face, I said, “Stay there. I need to get the camera.”

She hesitated and then followed my command. She could hear in my voice what I had seen, and she always did love to look beautiful.

That night, she told me from her bed, “Tomorrow I want to do it.”

I got up off the couch and sat with her, and we held hands.

“If you really need to say that, fine,” I said, “but you don’t have to. If you want me there, and I do want to be there, I’ll come within a couple hours.”

Through that night I slept in Mom’s bed with her for the first time in my adult life, amazed at what tomorrow could bring, the great change of a life departing the world, and me left behind to live in it.

We held hands and felt warm and smiled and enjoyed the increasingly buoyant feeling in the room.


Rude awakening,3:30 a.m., January 4, 2010

Sleep weighs softly on us. After years of traveling the Third World, Mom knows which back-alley market stalls sell the finest sheets, and we’re wrapped in them, thread upon thread, ceaselessly approaching a world beyond our own. And while we sleep, her house floats above Portland on a tall hill. And the walls are all windows and the city lights are a million sparkles beyond the glass, observers of our warmth. And in a single moment, Mom’s thin hand reaches over and tussles my dozing shoulder, and I wake beside her in her last hour.

Her voice in the thickening darkness: “I want to do it now.”

I audibly wonder, my eyes widening, “Are you serious?”

“Yes, I want to do it now.”

I squint at Mom closely in the shadows and say softly, “Are you serious?”

“Yes,” she says, her eyes clear in the darkness, sitting up, lucid and fine, her legs swung off the bed.

Holy mother of God. Am I ready for this?

“I gotta get my clothes on,” I say. The world as I know it has slowed down and sped up simultaneously, passing us in two directions. The future approaches, hurtling at a meteoric pace, while the present is pleasant, deep and silent. The past is becoming itself, unraveling like the threads on the bed.

“What do we do?” I ask.

She tells me.

Death with Dignity can go like this: You take a few preliminary pills and wait 30 minutes. The fellas kick in, and, as I understand it, they keep the body from puking and shitting when death comes knocking. Those buggers put the D in dignity. Thirty minutes go by, and you drink a mixture of water and the contents of a buttload of emptied barbiturate capsules. Then, as in my mom’s case, you’ve got about 90 seconds to make a statement on your way down to the pillow. You paddle for your greatest wave about an hour from then.

She lifts the first pills to her mouth and swallows them, drinks from a glass through a straw.

She tells me to call three of her friends and my sister. They’d have to answer their phones, and then they’d have no more than 30 minutes to make it to Mom’s bedroom. She’s been dying for a while, and she isn’t waiting now.

The calls made, I go to the bathroom sink to mix the barbiturates, then back to the bedroom, where Mom sits quietly. I can’t believe this is happening.

Kneeling at the bedside, I hold the cup forward. Mom looks at me and takes it. She pragmatically plugs her nose, raises the container to her lips, and drinks until there is no more. Silence. She hands it back to me, and I put it on the bedside table, our eyes locked.

She gazes at me with a smile in her eyes and in her heart. She lifts her arms and pulls me down . . .


I just deleted my “Mom” folder,
4 a.m., January 4, 2010

“Tell Liz how much I love her. And tell Nick.”

My sister and brother.

“I love you so much. You have done such a good job.” Her arms hold me gently and tight, wrapped around my neck as I lean forward onto her from the edge of the bed.

“And now . . .,” she says drowsily and happy, and I realize what the thickness in the air is. There arrives a time when love has weight, is palpable. I’d brought mine to her house above the city, and Mom’s was flowing from her like a lake turned on end, filling the room from bottom to top. Her floodgates had opened, and our love was mingling and perfect in its existence, content to push sublime serenity into every silent corner.

“You just have to let . . . go.”

And her arms open up around my neck, strangely enough as if she is going to fly away, and those were her last words, and her eyes are closing, and two of her friends come around the corner and make it just in time. She turns on her side and snuggles down into feathers. She looks at one friend and takes a kiss, and then her eyelids meet, and we four stay silent in the darkness.


. . .

I kneel at her head, the side of the bed, ultra alert, seeming to take notice of every infinitesimal vibration. What happens when the soul floats away? Does it? The friends sit on the floor to my left, crying noiselessly in the peace. The silence is absolute. On my knees and statue-still, I stay. Then my arm reaches out and gently cradles the back of my mom’s white-haired head.

She appears to breathe for some time.

Moments tick away. Occasionally I open my eyes, let shapes reestablish themselves in the gray, fuzzy darkness. Does her chest rise and fall? To the left, a family hand takes my own. My knees sink deeper into the carpet and my spine straightens, and we sit. Breaths long and slow, love in, love out.

After an hour, I announce, “I’m going to sleep.” Suddenly so drowsy, I lift an edge of the covers and slide in next to her and put my head not far from hers and my hand on her shoulder, and I lie that way until the city is touched and then covered in a blanket of sun and the room is bright and airy and I wake in a state of bewilderment and excitement and gratitude.

I think she is gone.


Predicting the unpredictable

On how not to off oneself.

Saying you’ll kill yourself when the last guest leaves is a terrible idea. Who knows how long they’ll stay?

“I’m going to do it when the last guest leaves,” Mom says two weeks before her going-away party.

Mom had been given three to six months. A few months is not a lot to tie up a lifetime of strings, but it’s a lot more time than what you get when death comes unannounced. My siblings and I intuited that even 60 days would be incalculably precious for setting up for a lifetime of looking back satisfied.

And so we threw a party, one that carried us and killed us.

It was awesome, and everyone pitched in. I printed Mom’s nickname on shirts in every color the catalog had. The family grumbled at first, but it soon became a tugging match for shirts as the guests grew into a cheesy-yet-brilliant rainbow, unanimously declaring love and support. Mom sat doped and vibrant on her upstairs couch, smiling and laughing in a large room absolutely jammed with her family and friends, all of them attentively listening to and recounting memories, crying, laughing thunderously. It was perfect, and everyone got the shared farewell they’d expected. I read some writing to her and bawled like a son losing his mother.

However, through the laughter and tears, having heard Mom’s morbid declaration to depart soon thereafter, many guests thought they were witnessing her final hours. And we siblings felt especially emotional, excited and unfortunately expectant. Because Mom, after all, had said she’d dispatch herself after the party. But she didn’t. The party was a humongous shot of adrenaline, far better than any chemotherapy.

After the guests left, we children wandered around hollow for days, crying in contradictory limbo. We humans seek closure.

Mom ended up having some decent weeks, and in the end, she sprung it on me as she should have, with a tap on my shoulder. She, having seen the havoc her prediction had wrought, admitted she’d made a bad mistake. We forgave her, of course. However, lesson learned.

Get the medications by the bed, and let the loved ones know that a time may be picked in the whim of a wondrous moment. At some point, a sense of love and lightness will invade the room, and you’ll be the second one to know it.

Ben Orion writes from the West Coast; find him and his next project at www.benjaminorion.com. Excerpted from Eugene Weekly (Aug. 5, 2011), the alternative newsweekly of Eugene, Oregon. www.eugeneweekly.com 

Cover-169-thumb.jpgHave something to say? Send a letter to editor@utne.com. This article first appeared in the January-February 2012 issue of Utne Reader.