a kaddish for those who choose their ends

They offed themselves. Both of them, together.

She found out by a letter that arrived the next day, FedEx.

No need to fly out and identify the bodies—they’d taken care of that, through their lawyer, the one who no doubt had advised them on how to make sure nobody had any legal trouble there—the place they’d moved last year, where it’s legal, or at least it isn’t illegal, so that they could do it without leaving a mess behind.

She’s pissed.

She’s distraught, angry, grief-stricken, sad, remorseful, furious, and overwhelmed. And a lot of other things, probably, and who wouldn’t be?

So is he; they’d always been kind to him. Never questioned his questionable career—who wouldn’t be a least a little bit uneasy about their daughter marrying an artist? And his own career had been so stellar—millionaire, actually—so it’s not unremarkable that they were nothing but supportive of him, of her, of their life together in the land of unkempt creative types.

I share their anguish. I can’t even imagine how I’d handle news like that. Even just one of them, and I’d be a complete wreck. I know I would be. Someday I will—I have no doubts about this—be a complete wreck. No matter how long it was coming, no matter how much pain they’d been in. No matter how many of their marbles they’d lost, no matter how much of a hell they’d begun to make our own lives as my brother and I had to do for them what they did for us so many decades ago. I’m not afraid of my own death, or even of theirs, really, but I can’t imagine them no longer being there. I dread knowing that I can’t ring to ask about the confusing part of that recipe, or to kvetch about the latest work problem, or to tease out the sage advice they’re pretty good at not volunteering. But this isn’t about my parents; it’s about hers.

We knew them, too. You wouldn’t call them easy to be around, exactly, but they were good folks. Kind. Generous.

Set in their ways. Blind to their privilege. He was, anyway; it was hard to tell about her. She didn’t say much. You couldn’t quite see her roll her eyes when he went on one of his tears. When she did offer a word, it was worth hearing.

Whenever they came to town, they’d take all of us out to dinner, or an opulent brunch. We got to know them pretty well. I got on well enough with her dad that I even got away with teasing him, working out the details of absurd inventions with him, even debating politics with him—certainly something they never dared to do, much as they wanted to—and he seemed to enjoy it. I guess we both considered each other “characters” and focused on enjoyment—like you can when he’s not your dad, when she’s not your daughter.

We enjoyed them. Good people. Always kind and generous toward us. Enjoying their retirement and each other. Clearly devoted to each other. They weren’t easy on their daughter—or he wasn’t, anyway—but their loving pride was evident all the same.

So I share their grief, and I understand her anger. She’s just lost both of them, all at once, and sooner than necessary.

But I can’t help admiring them for it.

We do this for our dogs and cats. When the lights go out of their eyes, when they’re on their last legs, when we can see that they’re just plain done, we help them leave. It is never easy, but when it is the only kindness we have left to offer, we do not withhold it. Sitting with the quadrupedal love of your life in your lap and watching the vet administer the solution that will provide the easy way out is horrible. It is only knowing that we would want this for ourselves that makes it bearable.

Yet we don’t have that option for ourselves, or for our bipedal loved ones.

She’d been in a tremendous amount of pain for quite a while—nothing fatal, but the sort of thing where her choices were to be miserable with pain or else out of her mind with painkillers. Neither of those choices are what I call living.

He was in his own sort of pain, watching hers, feeling powerless to help. And he couldn’t imagine living without her.

These things we know, almost directly. They told her, and she told us.

She was furious about their plans, and she was enlisting our support—which she got, of course. I mean, how could we not? They were going to leave her alone in the world. Never mind their reasons, that was a horrible thing to ask her to contemplate.

So they stopped asking her to contemplate it. They stopped talking about it. They were sounding better again. They made plans to visit in the spring. We were all to go there later in the year. She thought they had finally dropped their horrible scheme.

From this point in the story, I can only speculate. I think I can follow their reasoning.

They were misdirecting her, to make sure she didn’t torture herself later—why didn’t she try harder to stop them? if only she had…! what if she had…? how could they… if… ?

He didn’t need to die. He was in pretty good health. Mentally sound. Lots of things he still cared about and enjoyed doing.

But she was miserable. She was done, and he knew it. He couldn’t make her feel better. He wasn’t a magician.

He couldn’t kill her. He wasn’t a murderer.

He couldn’t stand the thought of her doing it herself, of making that terrible decision alone, of her having to worry what would happen to him. She wasn’t fearless, and he wasn’t heartless.

So he made a decision—they made a decision—and they put a great deal of thought and planning into how to do it. They moved to a place where the law recognizes the insanity of withholding humane treatment from humans, and they set to work on the details.

They tried to explain it all to her—perhaps hoping to enlist her support, perhaps knowing they couldn’t—ensuring that she wouldn’t blame herself, that she wouldn’t torture herself with questions they could have answered. They made all the necessary financial and legal arrangements so that nobody else would be implicated or have to deal with red tape. They wrote a letter, took it to FedEx. They arranged to be found promptly, just before the FedEx delivery. And then, together, they acted on a choice they had made about how they wanted to finish their lives together.

I think on some level even she agrees that this is an honorable way to finish a long, honorable life together. She understands unbearable pain. She understands caring as much about her spouse as about herself.

Still. She’s furious with them—and who wouldn’t be?

But I wonder, is this really worse than the alternatives?

Yes, she lost both of her parents at once, one of them unnecessarily, we might argue. Devastating. But suppose instead she alone had died, and what followed was the emotional, physical, and mental unraveling of the father who had always expected someone else to handle things. She’d have to deal with her own grief and his, and she’d have to guide this cantankerous old character into a new phase of life where his long-suffering wife would no longer be there to meet his demands and handle all the practical details of daily life that have escaped his attention for as long as anyone can remember.

Eventually he would begin to fail. Perhaps his body would go first, and this highly intelligent, autonomous man would become the witting victim of its decay. Perhaps his mind would go first, and she’d have faced the long goodbye of someone who is already gone but whose body doesn’t know to quit. Either way there would eventually come the day that she would have to take away his independence. Either way there would eventually come the day that she would need to decide whether to act on what she knew was his final wish. Either way she would need to deal with all of her choices.

And in the meantime, he would have to live with himself—with wondering if he hadn’t waited long enough, tried hard enoug. If it had really been about ending her suffering or ending his needing to watch her suffering. Worrying that she felt alone in those final moments, or betrayed.

This way, he knew her suffering would be over. That she wouldn’t feel alone in those last moments, nor would he. That nobody else would have to deal with his slow deterioration. That they’d protected her inheritance from insane medical and assisted living costs. That she would know they loved and took care of each other to the end.

I know their pain is unfathomable. I have no trouble understanding their grief, which I share.

But I’m with him, with her, with the decision they made together. They knew they were done, and they left gracefully, together. They died as they had lived.

A kaddish for those who choose their ends, and a kaddish for the devastation of the ones they love, whom they finally leave behind.

About erin

Erin Vang, PMP, BMus, MMus, is Owner and Principal Pragmatist of the consultancy Global Pragmatica LLC®, offering custom JMP scripting, localization program management, and facilitative leadership services. She is also an orchestral horn player who freelances in the San Francisco Bay Area and plays assorted brass for the celebrated dance bands Midnight Smørgåsbord and contraPtion. More about Erin…
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One Response to a kaddish for those who choose their ends

  1. erin says:

    Comments left on Facebook:

    Adam: Amazing post, Erin.
    Jodi: am so enjoying your writing … thank you … hugs, jodi
    Amelia: It is amazing, heartfelt and powerful
    Paul: Good piece, Erin.
    Lori: Deeply thoughtful reflection. Thank you.

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