Invited to a Death

Two years have passed, and I’m still not at peace about my friend “Rachel’s” death. She’d been sick with chronic lung disease for years. Attached to oxygen, she was a dinner guest at our home a few weeks before her planned “Death With Dignity,” the law permitting terminally ill Oregonians to take their own lives with poison prescribed by their personal physicians.  She continued to accompany friends to lunch and managed for herself a few days of the week.  She could prepare simple meals, but also relied on a housekeeper and a loyal and loving partner who traveled from a neighboring city to spend Thursday-Sunday.

Why am I thinking of her today?  I was reading a 1988 issue of “Life” magazine which Rachel gave me shortly before her death. Called “150 Years of Photography,” she knew I would treasure it.

Rachel was always interesting; always fun to be with. She had been a rebellious teen who was raised in Seattle and San Francisco.  She owned a bar, and later an art gallery.  Poisoned by her patrons’ cigarette smoke, she lived until her mid 80s.  One of her husbands threatened her with a rifle, pilfered her savings account and stole her coin collection.  She never saw him again.

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Rachel’s greatest joys in life were music, poetry and art. There wasn’t a bare spot on her wall — it was all filled with beautiful art.  She was proud of her decades of sobriety.  In her first six months at AA, she didn’t speak a word.  When her turn came to talk, she said “I pass. ”

She finally found the courage to say, “My name is Rachel, and I’m an alcoholic.”  She told me that she listened very carefully to other people’s words,  found a nucleus of supporters and “the most wonderful sponsor — a glorious creature who became my mentor and a lifelong friend.”

Rachel loved the out of doors and she always had a soft spot in her heart for animals.  She was a member of an activist church in Los Angeles in the 60s — explaining that she and her fellow Unitarians had eggs thrown at them while marching for  environmental justice and civil rights for African Americans.

She shared her plans to end her suffering with me about 4 months before her death.  I offered to be present, and she asked me to attend.  I joined two of her friends, her daughter, granddaughter and Rachel’s partner of 11 years on that summer day in 2013 when she took her own life.  Just before leaving for her house, I thought of bringing my camera. I asked her if it was ok to take photographs, and she agreed, as did all who were present.

She made a short speech of farewell, then we accompanied her to the bedroom, where she swallowed the bitter medicine, then said, “It wasn’t that awful:  I thought it would taste like cat shit.” She laid down on the bed, and in a few short minutes closed her eyes, and she was gone.   I guess Rachel couldn’t resist making us laugh at the very end — what a brilliant closing, especially considering it had to have been spontaneous.

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I wanted to give her a meaningful gift, so I offered Rachel my talent.  I asked if she would like me to help her write a memoir she could share with a few friends and family after she was gone.  We spent a couple of evenings together while I interviewed her, and I sent her the final draft so that she could correct anything I’d gotten wrong. A few weeks later she called to tell me she had shown it to her daughter, who forbade her from sharing the memoir.  I didn’t fully understand the reason, but I respected her right to make the decision, and I didn’t try to persuade her to change her mind.

Because I loved Rachel and because I still think of her often, I decided to share my memories.

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9 thoughts on “Invited to a Death

  1. Very nice, Eric. You don’t state what prevents you from being “at peace” with this incident. It is clearly something that would have an emotional load, but your description of her, the setting, the medical background, all are matter-of-fact. You are very gentle in your presentation of her history an character, so there doesn’t seem to be an element that you would find particularly troubling. Sad, yes. Sorry for the way her life played out, yes. but I would think the “dignity” – being in control and setting your own terms for the inevitable – would balance those emotions.

    I’ve had some of the same feelings over my mother’s death a year and a half ago. She (typically) made her own dignity, simply refusing nourishment or any more liquid than was necessary to down her medications. I was on my way to see her at the end, but she died before I could get there. I had a chance to see her body before her cremation, but there didn’t seem to be much point. Though I didn’t get to say goodbye to her, I was glad to get there just after, to help my sister sort herself out, as she had been the one with the medical power of attorney, whom Mom entrusted with standing up to the medical establishment. I think the time I spent with Cathy, helping her sort out Mom’s things and gather up the loose ends of her story, were helpful. It didn’t unfold as I had wished, but that’s almost as universal as death itself.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Roger and Joan. To answer your question, “Rachel’s” ability to fend for herself made it hard for me to accept the timing of her decision. I felt it was too soon. This may seem uncharacteristic of me, since I’m a strong supporter of Death with Dignity. Nevertheless, I supported her in every way I could and never let her know my feelings about the date she chose.

  3. Beautiful post Eric. Thank you for sharing Rachel’s touching and inspiring life… her courage and dignity. I hope that in doing so you are closer to the peace that she would wish for you.

  4. I enjoyed reading about your experience with this lovely and interesting woman. People like her make the world a better place and teach us so much. You are lucky you knew her and she you.

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