In the summer of 1960 when I was 14 years old my much loved grandmother Mae Inglis Christ died of a cancer that affected her brain. The last time I saw my Nannie was shortly after her diagnosis in the early spring. While we were visiting, the cancer affected her back, and she took to her bed. In those days children were not allowed in hospitals. I never saw my grandmother alive again, but my mother told us that our grandmother was hooked up to tubes much longer than she should have been. Mother vowed, “This will never happen to me.” I was driven to the funeral in a limousine with my grandmother’s girlfriends. They spoke about my grandmother’s last days, describing how (because her mind was affected by cancer) my little grandmother had screamed and screamed at them for not visiting–even though they were with her every day. They found my grandmother’s outbursts so traumatic that they said they were relieved to see her looking so peaceful in her coffin.
In the 1970s my aunt Jeanne Virby Imgram whose family had “adopted” me when I lived on the east coast was diagnosed with breast cancer. She recovered and passed the seven year mark before her cancer returned. On my way to Greece in the 1980s I stopped in New York to visit her one last time. I found my Aunt Jeanne in her home in a semi-comatose state (most probably due to morphine), drifting in and out of consciousness. When she woke up and recognized me, Aunt Jeanne begged for help, explaining that she was ready to die, that she had already died, but then woke up in the hospital after being resuscitated. She said she had begged her husband to let her die, but she was afraid he would take her to the hospital again. My cousin confirmed this, saying that her Dad yelled at her when she broached the subject with him. My cousin said I was the only one who could speak to her father. Speaking to my Uncle Dick was one of the hardest things I have ever done. My Uncle Dick listened to me and began to cry, but he allowed my Aunt Jeanne to die with the last shreds of her dignity a few days later.
In the summer of 1991, my mother Janet Bergman Christ was diagnosed with cancer that had already spread to her bones and her lungs. The doctors told her that with chemotherapy and radiation she might live another year or more. Shortly after her diagnosis, my mother told my brother, “I’m going to fight this as long as I can, but when my time is up, I intend to go quickly.” She wrote her living will in the state of California, stating that she did not want to die in the hospital. My mother submitted to radiation that burned her female parts (“This is normal, Mrs. Christ,” she was told) and to chemotherapy that made her hair fall out. In the end, she lived about four months from the day of her diagnosis. Shortly before she died, my mother (who was not one to question authority figures) began to speak of her doctors as “butchers.” True to her word, as soon as my mother learned that her cancer had not gone into remission with treatment, she “gave up the ghost” quite quickly. As my mother was dying, my father called the doctor to ask if he should take her to the hospital. He was told to let her die peacefully at home as she wished.
A few years after my mother died, my Aunt Mary Helen Bergman Calfee was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Mindful that medical treatment had increased her sister’s suffering, she decided against it. When I visited her a few months before her death, Aunt Mary Helen wore a scarf over the tumor on her neck and spoke openly about her impending death, wondering if she “would be around” when the bulbs she had just planted came up. She wasn’t.
Recently Brittany Maynard’s decision to end her life before cancer ravaged her brain (as happened to my Nannie), and to speak publicly about her decision, has reopened the question of the right to choose the manner of one’s death.
I am certain that my mother and my aunts would have supported Brittany. If my Roman Catholic grandmother had known what her last days were to have been like, even she might have gone against her Church.
While extremely brave and admirable, Brittany’s decision to die with dignity is not available to every American. Only five states (Oregon, Washington, New Mexico, Vermont, and Montana) allow terminally ill persons to choose to die. Brittany Maynard and her husband had to move to another state in order for her to be able to dies as she wishes. This required time and money that most people don’t have.
In the European Union assisted suicide is legal in the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Switzerland. Here in Greece doctors often do not tell patients their true prognosis, and there is no right to die with dignity. My only hope to die with dignity if I come down with a terminal illness is to be able to make it to another country in time.
In my recent blog “The Ancestors Live in Us,” I stated that I have no desire to live on after death. I also have no fear of dying, but like my mother and my aunts, I hope to die with dignity.
Writing this blog has caused me to ponder the meaning of the phrase, “the ancestors live in us.” There is no doubt that the memory of her mother-in law’s death “lived on” in my mother and that the memory of my Nannie’s, my mother’s, and my aunts’ deaths live on in me. I mourn the way my grandmother died to this day, and I am grateful that my mother and my aunts shared their feelings and decisions about death and dying with me.
I know my mother called me to her before she died because she sensed that I would be able to help her in her dying. My Aunt Mary Helen’s children asked me to visit her as she was dying in the hopes that I would encourage her to “let go.”
I was forced to confront death at a very early age. The year my Nannie died, my mother’s father, and our family’s new baby, my brother Alan, also died. In the next few years we lost my father’s father and his younger sister. Lately I have been pondering the ways that I am “not like the others.” I sometimes focus on being “too tall” or “too smart,” but as I write this blog, I also recognize that another mark of my difference is that I have been “familiar with death” for a very long time.
One of the ways I have honored my Nannie’s memory is by learning to accept that death is part of life. This enabled me to spiritually assist my mother and my aunts in their dying process. I have come to understand that in smaller and larger ways, I was able to play the role of the “Good Angel of Death” for them. From all of them, I have learned that death is not to be feared and that it is important to choose how we will die.
My Nannie, my mother, and my aunts live in me as I urge you to talk as openly as they did to me about death and dying and to do what you can to make death with dignity an option for us all.
The images are of the Black Angel statue by Mario Korbel in the Oakland Cemetery of Iowa City, Iowa.
Carol has recently returned from a life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete–early bird discount available now on the 2015 tours. Carol can be heard in a recent interviews on Voices of the Sacred Feminine, Goddess Alive Radio, and Voices of Women. Carol is a founding voice in feminism and religion and Goddess spirituality. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and with Judith Plaskow, the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions. Follow Carol on GoddessCrete on Twitter.