Ruth Goodman died the way she lived – on her own terms. She campaigned for social justice all her adult life: by training as a welder to earn the same wages as men in wartime shipyards, by speaking out for freedom of expression during the McCarthy era, by picketing napalm manufacturers in Seattle during the Vietnam War and by challenging the abortion laws in Canada after she and her husband moved north to Vancouver with their young sons to evade the voracious American military draft.
Why should life be prolonged for an aged social activist who believed the right to die was the ultimate human choice? That’s the question raised in the aftermath of Ms. Goodman’s death by her own hand and in her own bed on Feb. 2.
“People are allowed to choose the right time to terminate their animals’ lives and to be with them and provide assistance and comfort, right to the end. Surely, the least we can do is allow people the same right to choose how and when to end their lives,” she wrote in a suicide note made public by her now middle-aged sons, Vancouver mortgage funds manager Michael and Toronto architect Dean. They can’t remember a time when the right to die wasn’t a topic of conversation with the woman they lovingly called Mrs. Blunt. “She talked about it because she was working it out for herself. It wasn’t a simple decision to make,” her younger son, Dean, said over a cup of coffee in a midtown Toronto café.
Ms. Goodman wasn’t suffering from a terminal disease – other than life itself – but her declining health prompted her to act on the exit plan she had begun formulating decades earlier. At 91, she was suffering from incontinence and other messy complications of the Crohn’s disease she developed in her mid-80s: a badly sprained ankle kept her trapped on the second floor of her house, a series of small strokes sometimes left her disoriented and fearful.
“It was a life-affirming decision because life and death are part of the same package and she was saying, ‘This is my life and I get to choose,’ ” said Dean Goodman, who had noticed a steep decline in his mother’s health between Christmas and his final visit, in late January. By then his mother could barely walk or read and she complained of being in pain from the “top of my head to the bottom of my feet.” His brother concurred: “She was a fiercely independent woman. She wanted to be in control of her life and she didn’t want to have a horrible death.”
Not only did she arrange her own farewell when living became intolerable, she turned her death into a political campaign, advocating “for a change in the law so that all will be able to make this choice,” in a posthumous letter to the editor of The Globe and Mail.
What has surprised, even shocked, her sons is the way some people have misconstrued their mother’s death as a purely symbolic act by a healthy senior. “It was almost like she was a Buddhist monk and decided to throw gasoline on herself as a protest for the right to die,” Michael Goodman said, as he showed me around his mother’s East Vancouver duplex last month. “That wasn’t it at all.”
Ms. Goodman’s wish to push the conversation about assisted suicide further than medical help in dying for the grievously and terminally ill may be revisited next week. The federal government is challenging last year’s ruling by the B.C. Supreme Court that the law prohibiting assisted suicide, in specific and circumscribed conditions, is unconstitutional.
‘I want to go out dancing’
A quick, pain-free death is what most of us want, at some distant point in a nebulous future. Achieving that end can be a convoluted business, as Ms. Goodman’s death illustrates. Wait too long and you may be incapable of finding the means or the opportunity to end your own life. That is what Ms. Goodman feared: being confined to a hospital or nursing home, her cache of drugs confiscated, or her ability to communicate so impaired she couldn’t make her wishes known.
Instead, she celebrated her last birthday in December with family and friends and had her version of a last supper a few days before she died, with toasts, reminiscences and shared food. “I want to go out dancing,” Ms Goodman was fond of saying, and that’s what she did, metaphorically speaking.
Ms. Goodman’s upper duplex is modest – a comfortable living room with aqua-tints and décor dating from the 1960s, and a Cezanne print of the card players on one wall; a long dining table where she entertained family and friends; a small office; a sunny kitchen; and her bedroom. The double bed has a brightly coloured spread, the dresser top is crammed with family photos and pictures of friends, including Dorothy Stowe, one of the founders of Greenpeace. The sliding mirrored doors on the closet reflect the accoutrements of a life that had grown physically smaller. It reminds me of Hagar’s final room in The Stone Angel or the bedrooms in which I have visited ancient aunts and family friends, dear women who lived long and tough lives shaped by the Depression and the Second World War.