The New York Times Magazine dated May 14, 2015, has a piece by Robin Marantz Henig entitled “The Last Day of Her Life”, about the death of a woman named Sandy Bem.
I read the Times online now, after having been a print newspaper reader for decades. I scan the articles, reading some right away and coming back later to pick up on others when I have more time.
I passed by the life and death of Sandy Bem, not because I didn’t have time but because I wasn’t sure I wanted to read the article at all. I passed it by two or three times before I finally clicked. Just below the headline is a photo of 65 year old Sandy smiling joyfully in her garden, her small grandson Felix in her arms. Not long after that, Sandy died at the time and place of her choosing, in her own home, her own bed, with her ex-husband Daryl by her side. Diminished by dementia, Sandy obtained two vials of pentobarbitol. Before she was too impaired to use it, Sandy took her own life.
Having turned 70, I know that death is on the horizon. Being a practical and matter-of-fact person, I know that death is the natural culmination of life. I’ve had many loved ones die. My husband Jerry had what’s known as a good death. He had a normal day, talked to our son Matt on the phone, went upstairs to our bedroom and fell to the floor, dead within seconds of a massive cardiac event. Friends who are physicians tell me he probably didn’t even have time to feel afraid. My dear friend Bern had a terrible death, suffering for months with badly controlled pain that took away her hope, joy, and most of what made her the person I knew. Friend Rita tried experimental treatment for her cancer, and by the end she was unable to put together words in a sentence. I think she was trying to tell me how hard she tried. Another friend stopped her experimental treatment because of the devastating side effects, and died bitter and angry that cancer had visited her again. Friend and neighbor Anne was so deeply into dementia I’m sure she didn’t even know she was dying.
Death takes many forms, and I won’t get to choose the manner of mine, only my response. Or, perhaps like Jerry, death will be too sudden even for that.
So do I read about death, when it’s an event almost totally out of my control? Why did I click on the article about Sandy Bem? I actually found the story so intense I read it twice, to make sure I was getting the whole narrative and not zoning out mentally in parts because the content was so difficult.
Sometimes we read to bear witness, and I did that for Sandy Bem. I think she was a woman of great courage and integrity. I would have liked her. Had I been her friend I would have respected her choice of time and place but wished, like her daughter, that she’d have given us a few more days with her in the garden.
Sometimes we read to learn, to de-mystify something that looms large and frightening. Sandy’s process in deciding to die before dementia robbed her of herself was logical and deliberate. I already knew that if you’re going to do this, you have to do it while you still can. What I think I didn’t know is that dementia can take you to the point that not even holding a small, sweet grandson in your arms is enough to make you want to hold on. Ouch. That’s a tough one.
Sometimes we read out of curiosity. The New York Times also has two blogs by women living with cancer. One is young and in remission, Suleika Jaouad. One, Susan Gubar, is around my age and fighting to put off the inevitable. I read both every time something new is posted. Their writing is brutally honest about what living with cancer, and cancer treatment, entails. I think the difference between their writing and the article about Sandy Bem is that they are living. That makes their stories easier for me, because I can say, “Well, the treatment might be terrible but look, each of these women has a life.”
I read the article about Sandy Bem because, in the end, I couldn’t not read it. People think of me as a highly competent person, but I’m not competent around death. I think that stems from the death of my father when I was 14, a devastating event in my life at a time when I had little support to help me emerge with some sense that a loss of this magnitude is survivable. In three cases more recently, I’ve chosen not to visit friends who were near death, because I could manage talking with them by phone but didn’t want to see them. I know that Bern forgave me. If she could have, she would have said that my presence in her life was more important to her than my being there just before her death. I’m not sure about the other two. Perhaps they were disappointed in me, and wished I’d come.
I think I read the Sandy Bem article because I’m trying to grow in wisdom and grace around death. I think I’ll try to push myself to go beyond reading, and beyond talking with terminally ill loved ones by phone, before death calls out to me. I don’t have to do that, because death will come whether I’m ready or not. But I choose to.
Another goal of conscious aging. My but this stage of life is hard.