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Ruth Goodman, middle, spent her life fighting for social justice.
Ruth Goodman, middle, spent her life fighting for social justice.

A social activist’s ultimate legacy: advocating for the right to die Add to ...

Her presence hovers as though she has momentarily slipped away – perhaps to the adjoining bathroom – an uneasy feeling that becomes more palpable as I agree to sit in the only chair, a rocker upholstered in pink velour. Mr. Goodman, who brings in a kitchen chair and sits by my feet, begins to cry as he talks about his mother’s long history of peace protests and anti-segregation marches and the hundreds of draft dodgers and deserters who used his parents’ home as a way station on the underground railroad from the United States. “The last time I saw her she was sitting in that chair,” he says, surprised by the expression of his grief. “I haven’t been that sad about it,” he explains, adding, “we had so much time to say goodbye.”

‘A great marriage and a great widowhood’

Born in 1921, Ruth Fisher grew up in Brooklyn, the daughter of working-class Jews who had fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe. At 19, she married Henry Goodman and went to Illinois, where they both worked in war-time shipyards, later moving across the country to Seattle. The desire to remake the world coursed through her veins. Her son, Dean, remembers with chagrin being hauled along at the age of 7 on a protest march outside a Boeing plant. Even worse, his mother was chomping on a corncob pipe in an attempt to quit smoking cigarettes.

Six years after the family arrived in Vancouver in the protest wave of “invisible” refugees from the U.S., Mr. Goodman died of heart disease. His 51-year-old wife was devastated. After a year of mourning, she began again, taking over the mortgage-brokerage business her husband, a contractor, had founded. “I had a great marriage and a great widowhood,” she liked to say, sloughing off any suggestion she should remarry. She had strong friendships with other politically active women and lots of interests, including the pro-choice movement, civil liberties and bridge. A “fantastic” player, according to Michael Goodman, she loved to chat over her cards about the right to die, while the rest of the foursome retorted that there was no shame in changing her mind.

Last visit was like a wake

“We had a pact that we would be there for each other,” says writer and social activist Ginny NiCarthy, 85, from her home in Seattle. The two women had met in the early 1950s in Seattle, drawn together by “common interests and a common willingness to make political action major parts of our lives,” including “the right to control their own bodies” from pregnancy to death.

And so, some 50 years later, when Ms. Goodman decided her time was near, Ms. NiCarthy visited to say goodbye. There were tears, laughter, reminiscences and gallows humour. It was like a wake, says Ms. NiCarthy, except the deceased was there taking part in the celebration.

Nobody is willing to admit being with Ms. Goodman at the end for fear of criminal prosecution for aiding a suicide. People will say she died peacefully and quickly after swallowing a combination of anti-nausea medication and a lethal dose of phenobarbital that had been acquired by a friend in Peru. Before falling asleep, she apparently said, “You have all been such incredible friends to me.”

The Goodmans were lucky. When the police arrived, they found Ms. Goodman’s body, the empty drug bottle on her bedside table, her suicide note and a manual opened to the section on how to end your life.

They could have treated her bedroom as a crime scene and arrested Ms. Goodman’s allies. That has happened a few times to criminologist Russel Ogden, a founding director of the Farewell Foundation, of which Ms. Goodman was a member. He says he wasn’t there; so does Michael Goodman, who feared his presence might speak to motive because he was a beneficiary of his mother’s modest will.

Perhaps that’s why he found it so haunting to be sitting again in her bedroom and speaking to a stranger, the way he once talked with his mother. “If my mother is in heaven, or wherever, I think she would love the fact that we are having this conversation because it was important to her,” he said. “Her legacy is fighting for social justice and this was her last fight.”

Maybe for Ms. Goodman, but for many others it is only the beginning, as baby boomers, having seen their parents die, make their own end-of-life decisions. “It’s a balance,” says Dean Goodman, between timing and health, a decision that he hopes he will “have the nerve” to make some day, as his mother did.

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