Tonight I watched PBS' Frontline special "The Suicide Tourist," which detailed the final days of a 59-year-old American man named Craig Ewert, who chose to die with the help of the controversial Swiss death-with-dignity organization Dignitas. By Craig's side throughout his six-month struggle with ALS and on the final day of his life was his beloved wife of nearly 40 years, Mary.
At first it seemed as though Mary was almost eerily zen about her husband drinking a barbiturate cocktail that would kill him. She hugs him, kisses him on the cheek and wishes him a "Safe Journey" moments before he drinks the lethal dose of medicine. Mary then massages Craig's feet and moves on the bed to stroke his hand and chest as he closes his eyes one final time. It was incredibly moving, and I was in awe of her courage to stay so at peace while her partner in life died.
When they interviewed Mary after her husband's death, she explained through teary eyes that in some ways she had lost her husband -- the healthy, vibrant man she married -- six months earlier, when he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease. She added that although she had spent a great deal of time with her husband as his daily caregiver in the months preceding his death, that was not the way she would remember him. She would remember the amazing 37 years they shared before he was too sick to walk or breathe without aid or shave himself or hold a phone or wave goodbye. She was supportive of his ultimate decision to die before he was completely paralyzed and lost the ability to swallow, and my heart ached for Mary as she got in the Swiss taxi back to the airport... alone and widowed and probably relieved that Craig was no longer suffering.
I don't mean to write about Craig's death to open the door for a debate about assisted suicide, but only to share my awe at how a loving wife could come to accept her husband's decision to die on his own terms. There were no hysterics from Mary -- just a tender embrace, a short goodbye, and the promise to join Craig wherever he was (they were both agnostics) some day in the future.
I've been with my husband 14 years and married for nearly nine. I can't fathom how difficult it would be to live without him. I think about my mother, who was widowed at 37 after my father's asthma attack too an unexpectedly ugly turn into cardiac arrest. Poof. One moment she thought she had another three decades with my father and the next he was gone. It might as well have been an accident that took my father's life, because it was just as sudden. And my mother was numb and aloof and shattered.
If I had to choose between my mother's widowhood and Mary's, I'd choose Mary's -- and by that, I certainly don't mean to imply that I hope my husband contracts a terminal disease and then commits physician-assisted suicide. I mean I admire the way Mary was able to come to terms with and accept her husband's death in a way I know my mother wasn't fully able to after my father died. I want those Final Gifts, that last goodbye, that moment of knowing this is the end of your body but not the end of our love.