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 3642by Vivian Rothstein / July 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
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…