Christmas gifts and losses

by Rob Tiller

Shopping is not something I do for fun.  But with the hard deadline of Christmas looming, today I finally faced up to the inevitable:  I needed to focus on buying some presents.  It is hard to think that anyone in my present-buying orbit really needs any material thing that I might give, but tradition is powerful.  I braved the traffic, the lines, and the bewildering cornucopia of goods, and found some things at last.  Whew.

One thing I like about the fall and winter holidays is childhood memories.  How wonderful it was to look forward to a visit from Santa Claus!  What fun to see relatives and friends!   Ah, the sweets and smells of baking cookies!  It is hard, though, to think of those I loved who are gone.

As I slowly made my way through mall-oriented traffic, I heard an unusual radio story on NPR’s This American Life.   A man explained how his mother committed suicide at age 79 with the knowledge of her friends and family and with his support.  She was not depressed or terminally ill, though she was conscious of struggling with dementia.  She read Final Exit and composed a plan involving an overdose of sleeping pills and a plastic bag.  Then she practiced the technique repeatedly, with her son’s supervision.  The composing and carrying out of the plan took place over many years.

When she finally picked a day, she let those close to her know, and had final visits.  The last person she saw was her son.  She was concerned that he not be exposed to legal risk, and so he left her for some period while she carried out the plan.  He said that he was worried, when he returned, that she might have taken the pills but been unsuccessful.  She was, however, dead.  In recounting this, he was clearly moved and sorry she was gone, but he was neither critical nor admiring of her decision.  It was her decision, he said.  She lived life on her own terms.

The interviewer observed that it was highly unusual for people to be able to talk about death freely and deal with it with such directness.  The son noted that his mother spent time working on it, and it got easier.  They also discussed how unfortunate it was that our legal system makes it impossible for persons who choose the terms of their death to be with family at the end.

I found all this both unsettling and encouraging.  It would be good to be as comfortable with death as with other fundamental facts of human existence.  I’m certainly not there yet.  But it sounded like the mother, and to some extent the son, made it.