Sandy Bem's decision to end her life brought to mind thoughts of my mom. Sandy Bem was a Cornell professor who, faced with a dementia diagnosis, planned her death, discussed it with family and friends, and carried it out with the assistance of her husband. I'm wildly simplifying, of course, but this is what it boils down to. The thing is, in addition to all the other complexities, how do you schedule your escape from a future whose arrival time is unknown?
It's not at all obvious how to navigate these waters.
My mom was smart and strong like Sandy, she was similarly small in stature, and she ultimately faced the same fate and the same decision. But mom's life didn't have the same in-control ending as Sandy's.
Like Sandy, my mom was a fan of the book Final Exit. For years I'd see it on her coffee table in her Austin home. When I spied the book I'd look away, it was too dark to contemplate, though I'd keep that to myself as I knew she felt strongly about the ethical correctness of suicide. She'd freely talk of her plans to end her life should she ever face Sandy's fate. She said she'd saved up pills to do the job. She was adamant: no nursing home for her, no assisted living, she wanted complete control or nothing at all. This was a topic, like a woman's right to abortion and birth control, that held great passion for her.
You can probably guess where this is going. I can only guess as to when the symptoms of her dementia started to appear. I wasn't nearby, she had no other family than me, and she didn't confide in her friends. Consciously or unconsciously, she hid her symptoms from everyone until she couldn't any more, and then it was too late. And once it was too late, once everyone could see she was ill, she no longer had the ability to end her life under her terms. She ended up in my care. I exercised my power of attorney and took over, moving her to a assisted-living facility in Palo Alto. Though it was a well-run establishment, her years there were heartbreaking. No one wants this, of course, but I know that my mom would surely have done what Sandy did given the choice.
A picture of my future mother. The photo's date and location are guesses, but should be close. Shortly after she died I submitted the following obituary to the Austin American-Statesman newspaper.
Angela Gaston, a gifted French teacher who sought to inspire her students to share her love of learning, died on April 10, 2006, at her home in Palo Alto, California. She was 76.
Angela was born in Manchuria, where her family briefly settled upon fleeing the Soviet Union. She grew up in Shanghai. After meeting her future husband Jim, she fled China for the Philippines --- on the last boat out, my father liked to say --- and then Australia, where they reunited and married. They lived in London and several locations in the US prior to settling in Austin. Jim died in 1992.
Angela earned bachelors and masters degrees from the University of Texas. She taught French (and occasionally Spanish and Russian) at McCallum and Anderson high schools in Austin and was an accomplished cook and gardener. Her smiling face and happy disposition will be missed by all who knew her.
I believe the best Memorial Day address yet was given by Lieutenant General Lucien Truscott in 1945 at a military cemetery in Sicily. No full record of his actual remarks remains, only fragments as it was not written down. Truscott stepped up, waited for silence, turned his back on the crowd to face the dead and apologized. Mike Plews in The Online Photographer
My father was a career military guy. Twenty-seven years in the navy, he retired at the level of commander. He loved the military, the shared sense of purpose, the adventure, the travel, the people. And he looked great in a uniform. After he retired he never found a more satisfying career. Now he's buried in Arlington National, a cemetery that is near capacity.
He loved the military life but he didn't always agree with what they were tasked to do, and he wasn't afraid to say so. He was a bit of an iconoclast: he was an atheist in bible-belt Texas and anti-war despite being a military officer. After being stationed in Chaing Kai-shek's China he said if he were Chinese he'd likely have thrown in with Mao. My father was indeed a free thinker.
We talked about war a fair amount when I was a teenager as at that time the US military was fed by the draft and we worried about my fate should my number come up. He was faced with possibly seeing me off to a war he though was wrong or sending me out of the country, to Canada or Europe. He assured me he'd do the latter. As it turned out, the war and the draft ended and it wasn't something we had to face. But it was awfully nice knowing he had my back. Now is one of those times I wish I had a Tardis, so I could go back and see him.
My parents met in Shanghai. It might have been at a bar like this. She was maybe twenty and he, well he was 25 years older. He was also married.
She was in Shanghai because it was her home. Angela, my mom, was born in northern China, near Harbin. Her parents were refugees from the Russian revolution. She was shortly to be a refugee, too.
Future dad, the leftmost fellow in the picture, seated next to plaid-pants future mom, grew up in Texas. He left Texas on becoming eighteen, hopping a train to the city. At the time of the picture he was in Shanghai working as an officer in the US Navy.
Not too long after this picture was taken future mom left Shanghai "on the last boat out" my father liked to say. She was on her way to the Philippines. From there she traveled to Australia. After a couple of years future dad, newly divorced, reappeared. He proposed, they married on ship, and they lived fairly happily ever after.