I recently had the unsettling experience of saying a final goodbye to a dear old friend named Lydia, a woman I’d met back in college days and had known for more than half a century.
“Yes,” you might mumble, nodding your head in sympathy. “Death is always unsettling. And old friends are the hardest of all to lose.”
What you would have no way of knowing is the circumstance of her parting, and the ways in which it jarred and unbalanced me.
Lydia was not the first old friend I’ve lost, and will probably not be the last. But she was, in fact, the first person I’ve ever known who chose to end her life by means of an assisted suicide.
If you’re like me, you’re probably recoiling at the very thought of taking your own life. Most everything we know about life argues in favor of not ending it. The beauty of the earth, the love we feel for others and receive from them, the hope and promise of children and grandchildren, the faith we might have in a Higher Power - all conspire to make us shake our heads at the prospect of self-termination.
In Lydia’s case, however, many of those life-endorsing qualities had lost their power. An only child, she had no siblings and few other relatives. She had chosen to move to England after grad school to make a career as a writer of novels. Her Wisconsin parents were both dead. Her marriage of 25 years had ended in divorce. She and her husband had elected not to have children.
And while she stayed in close touch with a number of friends via snail mail and later the internet, and succeeded in writing and publishing several successful books, she gradually fell prey to a number of physical ailments that caused her ever-increasing pain and disability, the long-term effect of which sapped her desire to live.
Chief among her troubles was the devastation to her body caused by scleroderma, a chronic connective tissue disease that causes the skin and internal organs to grow hard and less supple, often triggering a variety of systemic troubles. Once an avid hiker who covered mile after mile with astonishing speed and put my wife and me to shame trying to keep up with her, she gradually found it necessary to limit her daily excursions and eventually became dependent on a rollator, or walker.
A brain aneurysm caused her to lose the sight in one eye, and worsening internal organ troubles made many foods inedible and slowly turned her days into a hell of unremitting pain. Some months ago she wrote that she’d decided to seek help in ending her life, and that, since assisted suicide was illegal in Great Britain, she’d contacted an agency in Switzerland and begun the tedious process of filling out a seemingly endless series of forms required by Swiss law to accomplish her goal.
Along the way she described some of the details in the process, including the fact that her body would be given to aid in scleroderma research before being cremated and her ashes spread in a Swiss forest. With each letter she apologized for her “gloom and doom” and said she wished she could avoid the topic of dying, but that she looked forward to getting to Zurich and was grateful that “good old civilized Switzerland” was sensible enough to allow people in her circumstance to find release from pain.
Then, two weeks ago, in the company of a friend named Judith, she lifted the glass containing her life-ending potion and drank her way into whatever lies beyond.