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Vivian Rothstein describes the painful-and doubt-ridden-battle to let her mother die from her self-inflicted wounds. The Boston Review is on 617 253 3642

Boston review

Summer 1997

On national pro-choice day my mother put a gun to her head. I am leaving for a demonstration (dressed in suffragist white) when I get the call. I rush to my mother’s place where police and paramedics are crowding her single room. A trickle of blood runs from her left temple to her ear, but her vital signs are strong. I can barely stand as she is taken out on a stretcher.

At UCLA’s emergency room the police bring in an envelope my mother left on her dresser. In it are a goodbye note, paid bills and a postcard to her dentist that reads: “Please cancel my teeth cleaning appointment for 11.20am. I’ll be out of town.”

When the emergency room doctor stops by to explain the treatment plan, I ask him why they are preparing for neurosurgery. Don’t we have choices to make? He glares at me: “My job is to save lives.” This was not my mother’s first attempt, we explain: a dose of sleeping pills in January landed her in hospital. Six months later I took away a handgun she bought. My sister and I beg them to leave her in peace. Her note, and copies of her will designating me her legal spokesperson make no difference.

The week that follows is hell. After surgery my mother looks frog-like, her eyes bulging. Her head is covered in white gauze. The bullet went through her brain, severing one optic nerve and damaging the other eye. In intensive care she is on a respirator, her lungs pumping furiously. She cannot speak with a pipe in her throat but squeezes my hand as I stand crying over her bed promising I will get them to leave her alone.

I demand to know who is in charge. Don’t they know she wants to die? Doesn’t anyone care what she wants? A neurosurgeon explains that “many people go through this and come out of it and are happy to be alive. Lots of people are blind and find meaning in life.” He will not consider the possibility that at 81 my mother has finished living and wants to leave the world on her terms. The hospital ethicist agrees it is an unusual case, but adds that “the state of California is against suicide.”

The morning of the third day I go to see her. I tell her I know what she wants; soon she will be able to let go. I hold her hand and kiss it, tears streaming down my face. The next day they discover she is a Health Maintenance Organisation patient, and lose interest in her-she will be transferred to a local hospital as soon as she can be moved. I tell her she can let go now.

That night I talk to my rabbi about life and death. I am backing away from my single-minded campaign to help, or to let, my mother die. It is clear there is a difference between the two. The next day she looks bad. The nurse says we seem to have lost her overnight. I ask for a sign-squeeze my hand if you hear me. Nothing.

My sister wants to pull the plug if we can. But she shies away from dealing with the hospital, and seems too eager for mom to die. The problem is, I want a mother who is living, not one who is dead. That evening I get a call from mom’s physician who tells us she has been transferred to the local hospital. We meet there and are told her reflexes indicate damage to the brain. She also has fever from an infection, and the only way to find the cause is through invasive procedures. Why hurt her anymore? The doctor has no problem allowing mom to die. Take her off antibiotics. Keep her fever down to minimise discomfort. Put a “do not resuscitate” order on her chart.

In the morning she is burning hot. Mom’s hands with her neatly polished nails are starting to curl up. This is finally it. She looks so much worse. Was it the move, the fever, the swelling from the surgery and injury? Or did she simply decide to let go once I told her it was OK? The evening of the sixth night I take my son and daughter to say goodbye to “oma.” One last time I stroke my mom’s leg and tell her I love her. The nurse says they will rub her back and turn her over to keep her comfortable. At 1am she dies; her heart just stops.

Free at last! My mother finally accomplished her mission. We are both free; me from the responsibility for her life and her death, she from a life she no longer wanted. Whether for good reasons or bad, she did not want to be alive any longer. I still do not know how to think and feel about my mother’s suicide. As a feminist I respect her courage; as the daughter of a suicide I feel abandoned and resentful.

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