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"OH WATERS, TEEM WITH MEDICINE TO KEEP MY BODY SAFE FROM HARM, SO THAT I MAY LONG SEE THE SUN." - Rig Veda
She was eighty-two. The doctor had said she might have cancer again. She'd already lost both breasts to cancer. Now it might have invaded her colon. She told us she would not fight cancer for a third time, and she would not die a lingering, degrading death. She would take her own life instead.
She outfoxed us. On the Monday morning before the Thursday that the biopsy report was due, my niece Clare called, sobbing, to say, "Grandmother killed herself last night. Mom and Dad are talking to the police."
My sister Beth and her husband had gone to Mother's Seattle apartment after her phone went unanswered for too long. The superintendent had let them in. They had found Mother's body on her bed with a plastic bag over the head. She was no longer in her body.
By law, the police had to be called. When Beth said, "I wish she'd told me she was going to do this now, so I could have been with her and comforted her," the cop said, "It's a good thing you weren't here. I'd have to arrest you. It's illegal to help someone commit suicide in Washington."
As soon as I emerged from the emotional tornado that had swept me up with Clare's phone call, I made plane reservations to fly with my son from Santa Fe, where we lived, to Seattle (getting sympathy-fare rates conditioned on my later providing the airline with a copy of Mother's death certificate - a request that seemed both surreal and reasonable).
My two sisters and I soon received letters that Mother had mailed the afternoon of the day she died. She told us how much she loved us and our children and how much she wanted to stay alive to see how our lives turned out. But her body no longer lived up to her high standards, and, furthermore, she was depressed (our family has serotonin reuptake issues).
She didn't care whether or not she had cancer since, in any event, it was time to go – before she physically deteriorated further. The letters are evidence that her mind was as sharp, witty, and original as ever. And most people would have thought her body was in damned fine shape for an eighty-two year old.
But in her letter to me, Mother said she didn't care what the biopsy said. She didn't want to grow older ungracefully. I was, at least, glad that whatever signs of wear her body was showing, her sense of humor was still fresh and irreverent. In her letter to me, she said dryly, "After all this, I certainly hope I have the guts to bag my head tonight."
In Mother's living room was the bestseller Final Exit. The relevant passages about the most painless suicide tactic (the one she'd chosen) were highlighted in yellow. She'd taken the pills; she'd fastened a plastic bag from a local drugstore over her head and tied it securely around her neck.
An autopsy would reveal that she'd even enjoyed a final cup of coffee, a pleasure she'd been denying herself for health reasons. Then she'd wound strips of plastic wrap around her fingers, presumably so she couldn't claw off the bag after she lost consciousness. When they found her, she looked peaceful.
On the day that my sisters, our children, and I began emptying Mother's apartment, we found that not only were the rooms as immaculate and orderly as ever, but also the fridge held enough food to see us through. There were such notes as, "This is my wedding ring in the original Florentine leather envelope." And behind her bedroom door was a flattened cardboard box, apparently because we'd need boxes in which to pack her belongings.
My sisters and I went through Mother's address book and divided up the friends we needed to call. Eventually I also called my friend Carol, who had known Mother well. Because Carol is Catholic, I was afraid she might say Mother was burning in hell for killing herself. But what she did say was the most insightful thing anyone said about Mother's death: "She always wanted to be in control of her life. And she was. Right to the end."
Is it possible for suicide to become a family tradition? All I can say is that I hope I have Mother's courage and self-respect if my body or mind shows signs of deteriorating to the point where I can no longer take care of myself in my own home.
Obrigado Tárique pela correcção.