Today is my 76th birthday,” the letter began. “Unassisted and by my own free will, I have chosen to take my final passage.” Suicide. My friend Frances died in a cold, impersonal hotel room after taking an overdose of sleeping pills, with a plastic bag tied over her head suffocating the life out of her body.
Frances was not a happy woman. She had family troubles. She suffered from chronic lymphatic leukemia and was facing the difficult prospect of a hip replacement. She also had a chronic nerve condition that caused her to feel a burning sensation on her skin. But Frances was lucid, aware and involved. And she certainly was not terminal, at least not in the sense of impending death. In all likelihood, she had years of productive and meaningful life ahead of her.
I am still in control,” she wrote. “The choice is mine–this act is not one of ‘suicide’-I consider that it [is] my final passage.”
Why would Frances want to do such a thing? Those of us who knew her best understood. She had been talking about killing herself for years. She was a follower of Derek Humphry and was a member of his Hemlock Society. She approved of Dr. Kevorkian. She held a schoolgirl’s romanticism about suicide, seeing it as noble and an act of strength. For Frances, suicide was not only an answer to life’s miseries, it was her cause.
Those of us who considered ourselves Frances’s closest friends spent years trying to dissuade her from killing herself. It was like some perverse dance. She would plan the thing, we would change her mind, and then for no apparent reason, she would announce that she was planning it again.
I had come to believe that she had a whisperer quietly urging her on. After her death, I learned there was indeed such a “voice.” I discovered it among her possessions that her executor sent me. Frances had a suicide file (ever the organizer, she kept a file for everything), filled with publications from the Hemlock Society and other writings extolling the moral correctness of self-termination and euthanasia. That these writings had a major influence on Frances there can be no doubt. They were carefully clipped and highlighted in yellow marking ink. Many were dogeared from frequent reading.
One of the articles was a “how to” piece that told the reader the best drug to take and the proper use of a plastic bag placed loosely over the head to make sure death was not foiled. As I read the piece, I felt chills run up my spine. It was as if I were reading an exact description of Frances’s suicide, so closely had she followed the instructions. I also found several articles recounting stories of “good” suicides. These tales, eerily comparable to the religious practice of “witnessing” to spread the faith, had a consistent theme: that suicide could be empowering, beneficial and a positive, even uplifting, experience.
I began to feel sick to my stomach. The arguments and euphemisms in the stories were the very ones Frances professed in her prosuicide philosophy. Some stories recounted in warm and glowing terms the gathering of friends at the suicide to wish the soon-to-be-departed a loving and heartfelt bon voyage. That was exactly how Frances had told me she wanted to die. A short time before Frances killed herself, she invited friends to a party where, she said, she would take her final passage. (I wasn’t asked. I live in another city and Frances knew how strongly I objected to her plan.) When her friends refused, she told them she had changed her mind. But unknown to those close to her, she paid a distant relative $5,000 to be with her as she swallowed the deadly pills. The very thought of someone accepting that money makes my skin crawl.
Moral ideal: Frances once told me that through her death she would be advancing a cause. It is a cause I now deeply despise. Not only did it take Frances, but it rejects all that I hold sacred and true: that the preservation of human life is our highest moral ideal; that a principal purpose of government is as a protector of life; that those who fight to stay alive in the face of terminal disease are powerful uplifters of the human experience.
Of greater concern to me is the moral trickledown effect that could result should society ever come to agree with Frances. Life is action and reaction, the proverbial pebble thrown into the pond. We don’t get to the Brave New World in one giant leap. Rather, the descent to depravity is reached by small steps. First, suicide is promoted as a virtue. Vulnerable people like Frances become early casualties. Then follows mercy killing of the terminally ill. From there, it’s a hop, skip and a jump to killing people who don’t have a good “quality” of life, perhaps with the prospect of organ harvesting thrown in as a plum to society.
Over the years, Frances and I went around and around over these issues. In the end, neither of us was able to convince the other. “For I would be like a seed planted in all of them,” reads an underlined clipping in the suicide file, I I and when they would think of me, my memory, my spirit, I would blossom again, live again, be with you again, love you again and be alive within you.” Underneath these words Frances wrote, “This is what I believe.”
At least in this, if she were still among us, I could prove to Frances that she was wrong. She would see that she has not left behind a sweet garden of memory. Her death is not viewed by those she cared for as noble and uplifting. Not one of her many friends appreciated the morbid experience of receiving photocopies of her suicide letter in the mail after she was dead. We all feel abused by her passing-and betrayed.
“The friends I leave behind will not forget me,” she wrote in her letter. In that, she was right. We remember you, Frances. But not in the way that you had hoped. For your life is now symbiotically connected with the way you chose to leave us-and that makes us wish we could forget.