Death by Choice

I was riding my stationary bike and since our old boombox is broken and I have no music, I was looking around the sunroom for something to think about, for I was bored with going nowhere. My eyes landed on a metal comb on the windowsill with black hair still in it. It used to be our old cat, Socks’s comb. We had to work it through her fur once she got older and could not keep herself groomed. Her thick black hair once reminded us of a seal, but in her old age, it got grossly matted and looked painful, but perhaps not as painful as it felt to have it combed out.

Socks is no longer with us. She disappeared one day when we were on a trip. When she grew older, she would disappear for days. Every time it happened, we wondered if it was the last time and she had wandered off to die somewhere in peace, from starvation, hypothermia, or both?

Todd and I saved two people in our lives two separate times on Mount Whitney in the High Sierra. We found them sitting sleeping in the snow without gear or protection from the elements. We hauled their butts up to the summit stone shelter, cooked them hot food, fed them liquids, got into sleeping bag with them and saved their lives. They say you get sleepy when you begin to die of hypothermia, after the uncontrollable shivering subsides. It is said to be a very peaceful way to die. “I just think I’ll sit here and take a nap for a bit,” but then you wake up to pearly gates or the hot flames. It seems like a simple and seemingly painless way to go, if you are making plans.

Todd and I saw a Japanese art film years ago, called the Ballad of Narayama, 1983. It is set in a poor 19th century rural Japanese village, where food is scarce, life is harsh and people are desperate and cruel. Anyone who lives for 70 years is hauled to the mountaintop by their children and left to die in the dead of winter.

The son carries his 69-year-old mother, who was still strong, on his back, to the mountaintop. It was difficult for her son, for the climb was arduous, especially carrying live weight on his back. Also, psychologically difficult, carrying your mother to her death-bed, knowing it was the last time you would be with her. Then having the strength to leave her there, by her choice, and returning without her. This scene was startling, as he put her down amongst other skeletons that were sitting in the snow that had gone before her. It was a very powerful scene and one that I has haunted me for decades.

My girlfriend is experiencing a situation where her step mother is clearly ready to die but her birth children are not granting her permission to. They want her to eat, improve, get better, continue living. This 90+-year-old woman is tired. She wants the opportunity to decide for herself when she has had enough living. It is the ultimate personal decision.

Ninety seems like a reasonable age to call it quits. But what about 67? When Guy Waterman, a noted outdoor writer, hiker and wilderness protector, turned 67, he decided he had enough. Famous for his books, “Backwoods Ethics” and “Forest & Crag,” he was no stranger to wilderness, particularly the White Mountains of New Hampshire and knew what happened when you went for a walk in cold weather with inappropriate clothing. Atop Mount Lafayette, on the open, treeless Franconia Ridge, he sat down and froze to death. It was on the same stretch of trail where he and his wife, Laura, had voluntarily maintained for years.

Guy had personal demons and bouts of depression. He lost his two sons, one to suicide, the other to a solo climb on Mount McKinley in Alaska. His wife knew of his suicide plans more than a year before he took his last hike, and said “I can’t agree with him, but I can respect and love him as an individual. He wanted out. And he chose the way he felt was appropriate for himself.” He was executing his personal choice of when he had enough of this life.

I remember when Todd and I stopped to visit our friend, Steve, in Minnesota, who was helping me edit my manuscript., “Journey on the Crest.” We were on your way home across the country and Todd was leaving me there to work for a few days and I would fly home later. Steve’s mom was walking around the home while we both visited, cooking meals, doing light cleaning, when she decided she was going to go check herself into the hospital. She had cancer but was not “dying.”

When I walked Todd to the truck to say good-bye, “I said, “She is going to die while I am here, I know it, so I can help her men through this. She has chosen this time to go.” And she most certainly did. We edited my manuscript in the hospital by her bed, keeping vigil, editing in-between death rattle episodes. I will never forget it. And I was there for days afterwards to help Steve and his dad through the process. They were not emotionally capable of dealing with her death, as well as make all the arrangements necessary for a funeral, without my help.

My own dad seemed to have control over when he died. His cancer had gone from his lungs to his heart when Todd and I were getting ready to head to remote log building school in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota. There was no phone service there and we would be out of contact for 10 days. “Are you going to die while I am gone, Dad? If so, I won’t go.”

And he promised me, “I will not die while you are gone. Go to school and learn how to build your house and I will be here when you return,” and he was. I believed him. I believed he had some control over when he went and how long he stayed. He died weeks after my return.

My friend Lucy committed suicide when the pain became stronger and harder than she could deal with. As was my friend’s Veteran son, Zach, who struggled with PTSD. We who are left behind think it is way too early for them to go and we miss them terribly, but who are we to say that they must continue on, for us?

My mom checked herself into the hospital when she was 57. We found old love letters on the coffee table in her living room. My dad had died three years earlier from lung cancer, also at the age of 57, around this same time. None of us four kids knew why she was checking herself into the hospital. She had never experienced even a small heart attack. They were doing a battery of tests on her, but had found nothing. She looked fine to us. She must have felt heartsick over missing my dad. I thought, along with my siblings, that she should kick herself in the butt and get out of there. Live for us. We wanted a mom still. I visited her in the hospital and brought strawberries in for her to eat fo she was refusing to eat. She laid back in bed, her lips parted, pretending I was not there. I obnoxiously slipped a strawberry into her mouth and she angrily spat it across the room with force and energy and said, “Go home, Cindy,” which I did.

She died that night. When we came to see her dead in the hospital, after “the call,” there was a look of pure joy on her face, her eyes were open and she was smiling, as though she had just seen my dad. I guess she was where she wanted to be, with him. I still felt it was bullshit though, for quite some time, and that she was coping out. But that was my loss speaking.

I definitely think my mom and my dad had a hand in deciding when they would go. Just like Socks, our cat, and certainly Lucy, Zach and Guy Waterman. My girlfriend wishes that her step mother will be allowed that privilege, that gift of deciding when it is enough.

Years ago, when we were sitting by Steve’s mother’s dying bed, and the death rattle was going on for hours, a psychic friend came in to pay her last respects. The friend said to us, “She is concerned about leaving her men. She needs to hear that it is okay for her to go, that you both will be ok.”

We’ll be fine,” Steve and his dad both said loud, “you can go,” and within seconds, much to our utter amazement, her spirit had left her body and she had moved on.

Todd and I told the kids, “If me and dad tell you we are going out camping one day when it is winter and we are very old and we have scant clothing on, just let us go. We are planning on getting hypothermia and dying together.” They said, “That is so gross.” I was kidding, of course, but it is something to think about, when we are very old and are ready, why not? Up to North Lookout at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. They only have to haul our dead butts 3/4 of a mile down. That’s a hellava lot closer than Mt Lafayette on Franconia Ridge!

18 thoughts on “Death by Choice

  1. Cindy, I have enjoyed the book “Journey Of Souls” by Michael Newton. It really made me feel okay with my daughter, Molly, leaving when she was only 3 1/2 years old. You might enjoy it too because you have those enlightened thoughts about moving on when it is time.
    I often wonder why my mother is still here; she told me years ago she was ready. She is now 98. Dad would have been 100 yesterday and he moved on almost 40 years ago.

  2. Hi Cindy, I read most of your posts, but I don’t comment on many. I particularly liked this one. I have been doing an eclectic study of death for a few years now. I just attended a webinair on Monday about preparing for it logistically. I particularly liked this piece of yours. Thanks.

    • todd said he DID NOT like it- one of the few he has read- he said it “was morbid” i guess because he was init at the end but I was only kidding! Thank you though, dear Allen. some things to think about

  3. Interesting reading, Cindy. But did you mean to duplicate fourth and last paragraphs?

    Charlotte Cecil Raymond Literary Agent 32 Bradlee Road Marblehead, MA 01945 (781) 631-6722

  4. So many great personal stories in this post, Cindy! Good for you for all the people you have helped. My mother promised not to die while I was hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, and she didn’t, then I was with her shortly after when she did.

    • thank you sweetheart- stories about dying are fascinating, after all, it will aspen to all of us sooner or later so we as well look at it! and benefit from the exp of those gone before us- xoxo

  5. Cindy:

    Very insightful piece. I will never forget that Ed Garvey told us a number of times that he hoped to die when we was hiking on the A.T. with the Old Pros. We told him that was not such a great idea since we would have to haul him out. So he actually died at home peacefully after a four mile walk.

    Ron

    On Tue, Apr 5, 2016 at 8:26 PM, cindyrosstraveler wrote:

    > cindyrosstraveler posted: “I was riding my stationary bike and since our > old boombox is broken and I have no music, I was looking around the sunroom > for something to think about, for I was bored with going nowhere. My eyes > landed on a metal comb on the windowsill with black hair st” >

  6. I watched my parents, as well as a windowed aunt, go from viable, to needing help, to the dementia ward. No, thank you, I shall pass.

    Although old & “…chubby…”, I still like my bicycle. I still like the thrill of leaning into a turn on a motorcycle. I live for the heeling of my little Precision as the mainsail catches the wind. These things define “life”. When they are gone, so shall I be.

    I will NOT be warehoused in some urine-scented facility until I die. Similar to your assertion, I’ll simply take a walk in the woods. To date, I’ve pretty much lived my life on my terms; I see no reason to change now. Life is precious, but lying in a bed, unable to DO anything, ain’t my idea of fun.

    /s/ Tony S.

  7. The longer we live the closer we get to the inevitable. The mathematical reality of linear time lived and linear time left on this plane is in your face and can’t help but be contemplated as we age. In many ways you are blessed to have had these experiences, thanks for sharing the insightful blessing here with us. It is difficult but also a privilege to be with someone when they pass. I have experienced it twice. it changes how you think about it.

    • absolutely- my grandmother died at 102 and she always complained that everyone died before her, and it was very hard to bury children and in our minds we should go first- who knows what is ahead, as the saying goes, “we will think back to these times and remember how happy we were.” regardless of what we think is not right or perfect now- we are still HERE. and that is a gift to me. love you Jo

  8. I tell my friends all the time they have to allow their loved ones to go. They have to tell them it’s ok. Bleeding out is very peaceful too. I bled so long after a colonoscopy that I passed out. Didn’t even know I was dying

    Better then freezing IMHO

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