Lawrence Hill’s books include The Book of Negroes and The Illegal. He is a professor of creative writing at the University of Guelph.
The morning of May 17, 2018, my mother ate her last meal in the breakfast room of the Passage, a hotel in downtown Basel, Switzerland. Mom had black coffee, a croissant and a piece of cheese. She lingered over a small chocolate truffle that I had picked out for her at 7 a.m. that day in a store in the old quarter of the city. My mother had always had a weakness for chocolate and I had a weakness for indulging her.
Then we waited for Ruedi Habegger to pick us up at the hotel and drive us to the designated apartment in nearby Liestal, Switzerland, where people go to die.
Mr. Habegger – an affable, middle-aged man who co-founded the Eternal Spirit Foundation, an organization which facilitates assisted deaths – offered my mother the use of a walker to get up a flight of stairs when we arrived.
“I still walk perfectly well,” she told him, although she held the railing carefully as she mounted the stairs. Five foot zero, hazel eyes, a white shock of hair and in practical black shoes, my mother climbed slowly but steadily.
Mom died that day. Her name was Donna Mae Hill, and she was 90 years old. She died by her own hand. I was present for her death, along with her 29-year-old granddaughter, my niece Malaika; we had travelled with her to Switzerland to comfort her in the act.
I have loved my mother unreservedly and unequivocally for all of my 61 years on this planet. I always felt understood by her, connected to her and able to understand her. Even when I have lived in other provinces, territories and countries, Mom was present in my life.
I am heartbroken, but I am also happy. My mother got her wish, which she had expressed verbally and in writing to her family, to lawyers and to doctors for some 40 years: When it came time to die, she wanted to exit on her own terms. Dying in Switzerland was not my mother’s first choice. She wanted to die in Ontario, her home of 65 years. But under Canadian law, she did not qualify for a physician-assisted death.
My mother has always known what she wanted, and has never been afraid to advocate for it. I am proud of my mother’s courage and determination to die peacefully and beautifully, and proud that I helped her. For me, accompanying my mother on the last trip of her life – the only trip she ever asked of me – was the ultimate act of love.
My mother’s maiden name was Donna Mae Bender. She was born left-handed – and was proud of it – on March 18, 1928 in Watertown, S.D. Her identical twin sister was born right-handed, and named Dorothy Ann (called Dottie). Her mother, Ruby Duryee Bender, was a housewife and her father, George Bender, was a hobby photographer and a pharmacist who spent most of his working life writing articles and books about the history of pharmacy and medicine. In her early childhood, my mother moved with her older brothers Frank and Bob, her sister and her parents to the Chicago suburb of Oak Park.
Mom grew up in a highly conservative, white family. They never discussed issues of race, or racism. There was no talk of Adolph Hitler, or the war, or the rise of civil rights in the United States. Mom could not remember a black person coming into their house. But they couldn’t all have been Republicans, because the only sentence related to politics that she ever heard in her family home was one that she remembered for decades and repeated to me in a restaurant in Basel: “Don’t tell your father,” her mother had whispered to her, “but I’m voting for Roosevelt.”
Her older brother Bob served as a pilot during the Second World War. When he was home on furlough, my mother challenged him on the way he talked about African-Americans. “How can you say that,” she said, “when you love Ella Fitzgerald?”
Somehow, my mother and her sister developed completely different politics. After high school, my mother and Dottie both went to Oberlin College, intentionally choosing a university famous for being a leader in admitting women and black students. Mom graduated in 1950 with a B.A. in sociology and a commitment to civil rights. It was a passion that directed the course of her life – from the man she chose to marry to the values she passed on to her children (who passed them on to her grandchildren) to her decision about how and when she wanted to die.
In her final days in Toronto, I could not stop myself from thinking that my mother’s date of death was drawing closer by the hour. I spent an absurd amount of time driving back and forth between my home in Hamilton and my mother’s home in Don Mills. On our last morning together in Toronto, I made her poached eggs and tried not to worry or fuss as she struggled with her trembling hands to move the food from fork to mouth. After eating, we sat over coffee – I gave her just half a cup at a time, to minimize spillage – and split the newspaper between us.
In early May, we took our last walk together on the street where she had lived since 1965. We discussed the forthcoming provincial election, and she said she regretted that she would not be able to vote against Doug Ford, the Progressive Conservative candidate. In my childhood, our neighbourhood went mostly Tory blue, and I asked her if she had felt self-conscious, when I was a child, to live in the only home on the street with an orange NDP sign planted in the yard. “No,” she said. “Your dad and I were rather proud of it.”
For me, the hardest thing about the countdown to my mother’s death was watching the people I love come to the family home and bid my mother adieu. Alone, I was usually able to hold back my own sadness, but it became impossible to keep my emotions in check when I watched the tears and hugged the trembling shoulders of my son, daughters, closest friends and even my Aunt Dottie, who flew from San Diego to Toronto to say goodbye to her sister.
People in her immediate circle knew about her plans to die, but my mother did not advertise the fact widely; she did not have the energy to explain herself over and over again, and she did not want to go through the difficult process of saying goodbye to hundreds of people. On the other hand, my mother was incapable of lying. In early May, a friend who did not know of my mother’s plans called the house to ask if they could visit soon. My mother said that it was not a good time. Her friend asked if they could meet the following month.
“I’m afraid I can’t commit to June,” my mother said.
My mother joined Dying with Dignity in the 1980s and, as early as 1991, she began writing living wills and sharing them with her doctors and family. Mom told anyone who would listen that if she should ever fall victim to a stroke, heart attack or major accident, she did not want to be kept alive artificially or with the aid of machines or technology. She desired only to have her pain controlled and to be allowed to die.
My father had also joined Dying with Dignity, but when his health began to decline in the early 1990s, he opted to receive all the medical help he could get. My mother believed that he did so only out of love for her, to stretch out the more generous pension benefits she would receive while he was still alive.
My mother cared for my father night and day for the 10 years leading up to his death. He had three amputations. He required dialysis. He had many infections, and was in constant pain. He was in and out of hospitals. His mental lucidity diminished profoundly. Mom kept constant vigil over him, and appeared to age 30 years in a single decade. She repeatedly told my siblings and me that she did not want to die that way. Once, when Mom learned that an old friend had died suddenly in his sleep, she said to me: “He was a lucky duck.”
After my father died in 2003, my mother continued to live alone in the four-bedroom childhood home where we grew up in Don Mills. She loved to be visited, but she did not want to live with anyone else or to move into a nursing home. Mom had numerous medical issues. None of them were life-threatening, but together they increased her desire to die before things got worse. For the last 15 years of her life, Mom was living with short-term memory loss; a painful hernia the size of a cantaloupe; irritable bowel disease that often caused her to flee public events in embarrassment or to cancel social commitments; and pronounced hand tremors that made it difficult to cook, slice food or eat and made it unsafe for her to handle hot food. In addition, she had near deafness never resolved by expensive hearing aids or by multiple visits to the audiologist. She could not hear or follow any group conversation. Speaking on the telephone, going into public places or visiting cafés or restaurants were exercises in frustration. She could only hear and respond when there was silence in the room and one interlocutor at a time spoke close to her ear. Her social life was limited to one-on-one conversations.
Mom also lived with what she called “low-grade depression.” Worst of all, however, was the dread that she would soon lose further control of her body and mind.
Sometime around 2011, my mother asked me to help her take her own life. I inject insulin daily to manage diabetes, and Mom asked me to show her how to use the insulin pens and to leave enough on her kitchen table so that she could kill herself.
I felt a wave of sympathy for Mom, and thought again about how profoundly her own health, vigour and zest for life had dwindled during the years she had nursed her dying husband, and in the years after he died. I felt sad that my own life, and that of my brother and sister and wife and children, was not enough to motivate Mom to go on living. But I could understand that she was all used up. Even in her final years, she always gave us a big hug when we came in the door, and had us take turns sitting close to her so she could hear about our lives, and stood by the door waving as we drove away – but I could also understand that she was done with living. When Mom asked for my help in dying, I felt moved by her utter trust and faith in me. However, I also knew that I could not fulfill her request.
I called a lawyer, and a day or two later, I told my mother that I could not agree to her request. To do so could expose me to being charged with assisted suicide. Conviction, I told her, could result in a 14-year jail sentence.
“I thought you would say that, Larry,” she said, gently. “Don’t worry. I wouldn’t want to get you into any kind of trouble.”
Later, my brother Dan told me that Mom also asked for his help in dying; he, too, refused. I wished I could help my mother, but I would not break the law.
I understood that my mother was ready to die. I felt that she deserved to end her life on her own terms. Why shouldn’t my mother be able to make this decision? Why shouldn’t anyone?
On May 17, my mother entered the apartment in Liestal, sat down at a table and promptly began signing papers. While I brought out my mother’s Canadian passport and birth certificate, my mother signed a “Declaration of Voluntary Death” that began with the words “After in-depth and long-time reflection, I want to make use of my right to bring my life to an end by myself…” and another paper authorizing Eternal Spirit to deal with all legal issues relating to her death.
As soon as the paperwork was done, the nurse rolled an IV unit up to a single bed; my mother stood up, walked over to the bed and got onto it. Mom had already told me that she had been waiting for years to die; there would be no wasting time when she was finally able to go.
But my mother worried about Malaika, who had slipped out of view to sob in an adjacent room. “I don’t need any help,” Mom said. “Please go take care of Malaika.” I reassured her that Malaika would return in a moment, and I continued to hold Mom’s hand. I had spent the better part of a year helping my mother prepare her final journey and I would not leave her side until she took her final breath.
My mother met my father in 1952 in the interracial housing co-op where she lived in Washington. She was serving Barbadian rum to friends on the front porch; he came to visit another woman. My mother and father looked at each other and that was it. “We both knew exactly what we wanted,” Mom told me.
She was volunteering with the civil-rights organization Americans for Democratic Action, which staged sit-ins at department-store food counters that refused to serve blacks. She also worked as a secretary in the office of Democratic senator Herbert Lehman.
The senator was among the people who congratulated her when she said that she was marrying an African-American. Not everyone responded so positively. Her brother Bob, she said, “suggested that I be committed to a mental institution.”
My mother and father left the United States the day after they married and drove to Canada, where my father had been accepted into a PhD program at the University of Toronto’s School of Social Work. Because they were an interracial couple, they could not find a landlord who was willing to rent them an apartment in the city. So my mother went with a white friend to rent an apartment, and as soon as she secured it, the friend moved out and my father moved in.
While my father began his doctoral studies, my mother supported him by working for the Toronto Labour Committee for Human Rights. Mom led the Labour Committee in asking the Ontario government, under the leadership of premier Leslie Frost, to enact anti-discrimination legislation. According to my mother, “Premier Frost or his people told us that there was no discrimination in Ontario.” My mother and her cohorts went about proving it existed. She pioneered a simple system she called “testing,” which involved sending a black person (who was acting on behalf of the Labour Committee) to apply for a job, an apartment or even to ask for a meal in a restaurant. Inevitably, that person would be told with quintessential Canadian politeness that the job, apartment or meal was unfortunately no longer available. Then my mother would send in a white person – sometimes she would go herself – to see if they could get the job, apartment or meal. Often, they could.
Mom documented case after case and presented the information to the premier’s office. But after the province eventually introduced more vigorous human-rights legislation, it was my father who would become the first director, and later the chairperson, of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, as well as the Ombudsman of Ontario. Although my mother had been an activist long before my father developed a public reputation as a human-rights leader, she quickly slipped into the background. She quit her job to give birth to her oldest child, my brother, Dan Hill, on June 3, 1954. Over the next decades, it frustrated and saddened my mother that she had to put aside her career ambitions to become a wife and mother. She never sought attention or accolades, but she did want to work. She loved my father and he loved her, and their 53-year relationship was one of the most playful and affectionate that I have ever seen, but Dad did not want Mom to work outside the home and, for the most part, he prevailed.
With my father and friends, my mother co-founded the Ontario Black History Society and for many years she volunteered behind the scenes to manage their affairs. She edited and typed – on the same L.C. Smith manual typewriter that she later gave to me – my father’s University of Toronto PhD thesis, Negroes in Toronto: A Sociological Study of a Minority Group. She also wrote her own book, A Black Man’s Toronto, 1914-1980: The Reminiscences of Harry Gairey, which was an oral history of the life of a Jamaican Canadian immigrant who became a railroad porter and civil-rights activist. In the 1950s, she travelled to Ottawa to petition the federal government to repeal immigration policies that discriminated against black people from the Caribbean. She volunteered with Peace Magazine in Toronto.
Mom brought me into the world in 1957 and my sister, Karen, the following year. She sang and read to us every night before we went to bed, inspiring in me a love of story, and a love of words. One of my earliest memories is of her sitting on the edge of my bed and chanting the lines to A. A. Milne’s poem Disobedience until I memorized them.
In addition to her love, my mother brought activism into the home. One of my most vivid childhood memories relates to my mother’s prohibitions in the kitchen: There should be no buying or consuming any Aunt Jemima products because of the racist stereotype of the happy black slave woman; there was to be no buying of any fruit or wine or any product whatsoever from South Africa, for as long as apartheid lasted; and there should be no buying of fruit from California for as long as Latino farm workers were exploited in that state. These prohibitions didn’t just apply to our house. If I was served food in another house, Mom said it was my duty to ask where the fruit came from. Same thing for syrup and pancakes. There was no eating unless I knew the provenance of the ingredients.
Once my mother declared a social imperative, she didn’t feel the need to explain it. She trusted that we, her children, would catch on. She knew that we would uphold her values. She was right.
In the room in Liestal, Mr. Habegger asked Mom to sit up again, so he could prepare the video recorder. He had explained three days earlier, when we first met, that he would have to film the death to prove to Swiss police that she had died by her own hand and in conformity with the country’s laws about medically assisted deaths (the Swiss call it assisted voluntary death, or AVD). She hated photos, and had generally refused to pose for them in the last 10 years of her life. But this time, sitting on a simple single bed in a sparsely furnished apartment in a small town in Switzerland, she posed willingly. She looked calm and happy. She looked more than happy – she looked radiant.
After the photos, she laid back down. The nurse approached her. “Don’t bother with my arms,” she told the nurse, “I have lousy veins.” The nurse inserted an IV needle into the back of Mom’s left hand. Mom winced. She saw a look of concern flash across my face. “It’s okay,” she said, “just a little prick.”
I sat on the bed near my mother’s hip and held her free hand. Malaika, who had come back into the room, sat a foot away on a stool. I told Mom how much I loved her, that she had inspired me to live beautifully and to love well and that I would never forget her. In return, Mom told Malaika and me again – as she had so many times over the past days in Basel – that she loved us, and how fortunate she was to be loved by family members who supported her wish to die on her own terms.
“Larry,” she said, “you are such a wonderful son.” She smiled playfully. “You’re a great catch, and not bad looking either.”
Mom then thanked the nurse and Mr. Habegger for helping her have a medically assisted death. “You have been completely kind to us all, and I thank you very much,” she said.
Leaning close to her right ear, I started singing the Brahms Lullaby that Mom often sang to me when I was young.
“Lullaby, and goodnight in the soft evening light/ Like a rose in its bed/ Lay down your sweet head.”
Mom sang along with me, enthusiastically and in tune. It astounded me that she sang with such gusto in her final moments. Once more, I was awestruck by her courage. She showed no remorse. No fear. No hesitation. The fact that she loved me, and all the others in our family, didn’t alter the simple fact that she wanted to die.
In 1965, when Mom was 37 and I was 8, she developed bipolar disorder. She had to be hospitalized for a long time. I still remember the ache of missing her, and the horror of seeing her leave the house with my father and him returning alone. When I finally got to see her, she looked like a shell of herself. She barely looked like my mother at all.
Her twin sister, Dottie, developed bipolar disorder within a year. Their psychiatrists conferred and each began prescribing lithium, which my mother took until her last days in Switzerland.
For about 20 years, Mom entered into periodic bouts of mania, followed by hospitalization, followed by depression. She would get ill every five or so years. I learned to read the signs: She would stop sleeping, start pacing the house at night, move from one activity to the next to the next without stopping to accomplish anything and her mind would be on fire. I often became the one to say it was time to take her to the hospital. Sometimes I sat with her in the back seat while Dad drove. Later, I drove. I assimilated the language of emergency rooms. It is not easy to get your mother admitted to a psych wing. You have to say just the right things – especially as a curly-haired mixed race child who is talking to white doctors.
Mom met regularly with psychiatrists from 1965 until the final year of her life. Although her hospitalizations lasted weeks and her dysfunctionality continued for months before and after she was in hospital, when she wasn’t sick, a person meeting her wouldn’t have any idea about her bipolarity. I don’t believe Mom had another psychiatric collapse after 1981. Occasionally, family friends asked me if my mother’s desire to die was a sign of mental illness, but I do not believe it to be so. I believe that my mother had learned to cope decades ago with her bipolarity, and that her wish to die reflected her personal, philosophical and political values.
Mr. Habegger began to record my mother.
“What is your name?” he asked.
“My name is Donna Mae Hill, H-I-L-L.”
“When were you born?”
“March 18, 1928.”
“Why have you come?”
“I have come because I want to die, now.”
Mr. Habegger then said: “Donna, we have set the intravenous infusion. Do you know what happens when you open that valve?”
Mom said: “Yes, stuff will drip into me and I will finally die.”
My mother attempted suicide three times in the last five years of her life. On two of the three occasions, I was the one to find her, call 911 and accompany her to the hospital. Every time I called and she didn’t answer, I worried until one of us went to check on her. Every time I drove from Hamilton to visit my mother, I worried about what I might find when I opened the door.
After Mom’s first suicide attempt, the circumstances of her life took a turn for the worse. Her youngest child – my sister, Karen, the mother of my niece Malaika – died in an accident in 2014. She was far more than just my mother’s daughter. Twice a week, the two would get together. Mom would buy the food, and Karen would make a feast. They ate together, laughed together, went out walking together and got along like a house on fire. Mom was unable to shed a single tear when Karen died. I think she believed that if she opened up the tap of grief, she would drown in her own sadness.
Meanwhile, my mother’s driving became increasingly erratic, and in 2013 and 2014, she caused two car accidents. In the second one, she injured another driver. Her own face was cut and bruised. I held Mom’s hand while an emergency room doctor stitched her face and revoked her driver’s license. My mother resented the loss of her independence, hated having to call people to ask for rides and felt increasingly isolated and house-bound.
After Mom recovered from her second suicide attempt, Dan and I arranged to have a formal meeting with her.
“I guess you are going to give me hell,” she said.
We both told Mom her suicide attempts were traumatizing. She apologized. She said she wished she had succeeded. But while she wouldn’t attempt suicide again “any time soon,” she said she would try again.
We talked about assisted death. Mom wanted to die in Ontario. But my mother’s kind of suffering did not qualify for assisted death in Canada. In 2015, when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favour of medically assisted deaths, it gave the federal government time to come up with new legislation. My mother, my brother and I felt a glimmer of hope – maybe my mother would finally have the chance to end her life painlessly. We felt crushed when, in 2016, the federal government announced new legislation, Bill C-14, which was too restrictive. According to the bill, a person’s natural death has to be reasonably foreseeable. He or she must have a serious and incurable illness, disease or disability. He or she must experience intolerable physical and psychological suffering.
For my mother, nearly 90 years old, dedicated to her adoptive country for 65 years, there would be no relief at home. How old did she have to be for death to be considered imminent? She was ready now. But Canada would not allow it. The restrictive conditions infuriated my mother personally and politically.
Reluctantly, Mom considered the option of leaving the country. A family friend looked into possibilities overseas and came back with the news that Eternal Spirit seemed legitimate and respected. (Later, I learned that, in 2017, Eternal Spirit helped 19 Swiss citizens and 61 foreigners die. Forty per cent of the patients are men and 60 per cent, women. About two Canadians come to Eternal Spirit to die each year.)
Mom, Dan and I met again to talk about it. But she balked when she heard the price tag.
“I’m not spending $25,000 of my good money to go die in Switzerland!” she said.
But, eventually, she brought up the subject again.
We met as a family with Mom’s psychiatrist, Dr. Carole Cohen, at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. Mom said again that she wished she could have a medically assisted death in Ontario, and Dr. Cohen said that would not likely be possible.
Dan and I both wanted to make it absolutely clear, not just to Mom but also to her psychiatrist, that we did not want Mom to take her own life. However, if she truly wanted to die, Switzerland would be a much better alternative than one more botched suicide attempt at home.
Mom first contacted Eternal Spirit in early 2017. After receiving Mom’s handwritten application and a letter from Dr. Cohen indicating that Mom was of sound mind, Eternal Spirit notified my mother in November of 2017 that it had accepted her application.
My brother and I were having dinner with Mom when the e-mail arrived. Surprisingly, Mom had very little to say about it. Wasn’t this what she wanted? The next day, I couldn’t get my mother on the telephone. I rushed back to her house and found she had attempted suicide once again.
We felt shocked and betrayed. As she recovered, my mother once again explained that she had wanted to end her life at home. She said, as she did after each suicide attempt, that she regretted that she had failed.
Dan and his partner, Mary, and their dog moved in with my mother after that. But she still wanted to die. With the assistance of Dr. Cohen, who drove to my mother’s home several times to meet with all of us, Mom applied to have a medically assisted death in Ontario. In the fall of 2017, she met with another psychiatrist at Sunnybrook and stated her case. I did not attend, but Mom told me – in Ontario and again in Switzerland – that at the end of the meeting she was informed that her application was rejected “because my natural death did not appear to be imminent.”
In the end, she felt her only option was an exhausting and expensive trip, out of the reach of most Canadians, to exercise what should be a basic human right. On December 18, 2017, Mom received an email from Eternal Spirit, providing her with the date that she would die: May 17, 2018. The countdown began, and her spirits rose as the date approached.
We had five months to prepare, and there was much to do. Mom had to meet with her psychiatrist, and obtain another letter indicating, once more, that she was of sound mind. She also needed a letter, listing her medical problems, from her family doctor.
We would have to spend about eight days in Switzerland. We had to be in the country for three days before her death so my mother could be interviewed by two doctors and one nurse. Malaika and I would stay another five days after her death to wait for my mother’s remains to be cremated. I booked airline tickets, which Mom paid for. Dan wanted to join us but was unable to do so. He paid for us to be upgraded to business class, because he wanted Mom to travel in comfort.
I booked a mid-priced hotel recommended by Eternal Spirit. I thought it would be too painful (and too expensive) to wait in Basel five days to pick up my mother’s ashes, so I booked a second hotel in nearby Strasbourg, France, for Malaika and me to spend our first days without Mom. I arranged for my mother to go to the bank to wire two payments totalling $13,000 to the bank account belonging to Eternal Spirit. We had to send another $351 to pay in advance for death certificates.
My mother had to get new photos and apply for a passport. She didn’t know where her birth certificate was, and when she found it, Eternal Spirit said it was unacceptable because it did not have a stamp. We negotiated a compromise: Mom would obtain a letter from a lawyer notarizing the birth certificate as authentic. We also had to provide a death certificate of her husband, and a property tax bill indicating my mother’s street address in Toronto. All in all, the trip – including the payments to Eternal Spirit, fees for cremation and death certificates, and transportation, hotels and meals – cost us $41,000. My mother, Dan and I shared these costs.
Mom, now 89, would have to have been 10 or 20 years younger to manage all those tasks unassisted. But if she had been much younger, she might have been rejected for an assisted death. If she had been any older, with the degenerative effects of aging, she could have been deemed mentally unfit to make the decision to die. My mother had a small window through which to climb, and she squeezed through it just in time.
In the Frankfurt airport, my mother nudged me and said: “Don’t tell them about any of our funny stuff. We are just in Europe for tourism.” She had no reason to worry. The agent at immigration control took a brief look at her, stamped her passport and gave it back.
We’d left Canada on Mother’s Day, and we arrived at our hotel in Basel at about 4 p.m. on May 14 – some 18 hours after Mom had left her home. Mom was exhausted, but she was also hungry. There were no restaurants in our hotel; they were all in the lower town. “How far?” Mom said. We would have to walk about 300 metres and then take a long flight of stairs down into the lower town. “Let’s go,” she said.
We walked through an urban park, passing a school as we went. Mom studied the trees and the graffiti and the teenagers, and then we came to a beautiful statue of a man riding a horse and spearing a dragon. Mom stopped and admired it. (After my mother died, I sent a photo of the statue to my daughter Evangeline and learned that it was a representation of St. George, the patron saint of Basel, slayer of dragons and defender of prisoners and the poor.) Something about passing by that statue and walking through the old town invigorated my mother. She was calm and purposeful. She showed no sign of worry. She travelled down the steps in the old town and then back up five times – that is, five times each way – in the three days we spent in Basel. There were 58 steps. She reminded me to thank her personal trainer.
We had hoped to go to the botanical gardens the day before she died, but it rained steadily. Instead, we took Mom to lunch in the fanciest hotel in town. The restaurant had huge windows onto the fast-flowing Rhine, and my mother asked the waiter to open the patio door so she could get a better view. We stood out on the rain-soaked tiles, and Mom smiled ruefully and pointed to a bright red neon sign in the distance. It said “Auf Wiedersehen.”
She had been promised that she would have a painless death and I sought reassurance on this point. I asked Dr. Christoph Weidmann, one of the doctors who carries out medically assisted deaths for Eternal Spirit and who came to interview my mother in her hotel room, if he was absolutely sure that the dose of barbiturate would be enough to kill her quickly. He gave me a gentle smile and said that 15 grams of Natrium Pentobarbital was more than enough to kill an elephant.
The final interview was conducted by Erika Preisig, a physician who works in palliative care and is the founder of Eternal Spirit.
Dr. Preisig asked my mother why she wanted to die.
“I have a difficult time in social life because of my hearing problems,” Mom said. “I can only enjoy one-on-one company. Being 90 years old, I don’t imagine I will be living much longer without a long and dreary hospital stay. At age 90, I expect that I will have a fall or some kind of bodily problem that will put me in a bed for months or years… It is my decision to die and I arrived at it all alone.”
Dr. Preisig told us that she already knew that my mother had attempted suicide three times in the past five years. Two drug overdoses and one failed attempt to kill herself by going outside to sleep in the snow on the patio behind the house on the coldest night of the winter. Dr. Preisig said: “Did you forget the alcohol?”
Mom looked at her, intrigued.
Dr. Preisig continued: “When it is very cold, if you drink lots of alcohol, you die much quicker.”
Mom laughed and said: “I’ll remember that next time.”
“Donna,” Mr. Habegger said in the dying room, “if you want to die now, you can open the infusion.”
I turned on a CD player and started to play the song my mother had requested: Hold On by my brother, Dan. Mom had told me earlier that she would activate the valve on the IV unit when he hit the first chorus in the song.
My brother wrote Hold On in the summer of 1976 in our mother and father’s kitchen. Mom had listened and watched while Dan composed the song.
So you flung your fist high in the air
But the world remained the same…
I turned up Dan’s song good and loud so she could hear. “I love you, Mom,” I called out over the music. She told Malaika and me once more how much she loved us.
Mom rolled a wheel on a small, hand-held device that released the fatal barbiturate into her vein. The last thing she said was: “I am going now.”
In her final moments, Mom did not shudder or tremble or move at all.
As I sat beside my mother with my hand on her hip, I watched closely as she took her final breaths. I saw no sign of discomfort or suffering. Within 30 seconds, she fell into a deep sleep. Less than a minute later, I held a finger against her mouth and felt no breath. I asked the nurse if it was over and she nodded.
After my mother died, I stroked her face, kissed her one last time and waited for the Swiss police to arrive. Within 30 minutes, they showed up in the dying room. They were both young. One man and one woman. They shook my hand and asked for my name and double-checked the place of my mother’s birth, then left me to grieve in another room while they, a judge and a doctor examined my mother’s body and determined that my mother died in accordance with Swiss laws. It took about an hour.
Before leaving, they came to say goodbye. One of the officers was about the same age as my daughter Caroline, and I imagined how hard it would be for any young person – police officer or not – to come upon a scene such as this. I thanked her, and she wished me well, and I could see that she was fighting back tears.
I sit writing and grieving in my little room on the third floor in the Hotel Suisse in nearby Strasbourg. As I look out the window at the 579-year-old Strasbourg Cathedral – with its 320 steps that my mother would have loved to climb – every molecule of me is proud of her and happy that after years of trying to leave this world, my mother finally got her wish. She leaves behind her beloved son Dan and his partner, Mary Sanderson; my wife, Miranda Hill, and me; grandchildren David, Malaika, Geneviève, Caroline and Andrew Hill and Evangeline and Beatrice Freedman; and great-grandson Daniel Hill. We will all miss her terribly.
I find myself experiencing vastly different emotions. I feel heartbreak, happiness and fury. I am heartbroken because I have lost the mother who brought me into this world, and to whom I have always been tied. I am happy because my mother finally succeeded in dying painlessly, quickly and on her own terms. And I am furious because Canada failed my mother. There was no more passionate Canadian than Donna Mae Hill. She threw herself into the life of this country as a classic immigrant who adopted Canada as her promised land. She lived by the words of her fallen hero, John F. Kennedy, who said “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” She gave of herself for 65 years in Canada – for nearly three quarters of her 90 years – as a human-rights activist, volunteer, employee, philanthropist, wife, mother and caregiver who nursed her own husband through an awful, 10-year death. And yet, when she was 90 years old and could see that her only fear in life was fast approaching – the surging of pain, the disassembling of her faculties and the loss of independence – Canada refused my mother the right to die with dignity in her own country.
I believe that the right to die with dignity should be a fundamental human right. With the support of our laws and our health system, there must be a better way to help our loved ones navigate their final days, if they choose to write their own ending. The government of Canada must enact a law that allows those of sound mind to end their life, even if death does not appear imminent, and even if the patient is not suffering a serious and incurable illness, disease or disability or experiencing intolerable physical and psychological suffering. As long as we respect the rights of others, we get to make almost every imaginable decision about how to live. Why do we not have the right to plan and manage our own deaths?
My mother was an activist her entire life. She fought for what she believed in. I hope her death will set in motion the changes necessary so that others in her situation will not be forced to journey across an ocean, away from their homes and loved ones, to make what is the most personal of choices.
When I was in my late teens and 20s and began travelling in Europe and Africa, I wrote scores of letters to my mother. Mom was a strong writer and an astute, merciless editor. She read and commented (sometimes acerbically) on the drafts of every book I have written, and I used most of her suggestions.
In recent years, as a result of her trembling hands, she eschewed handwriting and preferred her trusted 35-year-old IBM Selectric. However, on the day that she died, I entered the Swiss hotel room that Mom shared with Malaika and found that she had left me a handwritten note. It must have cost her some effort to do so.
What can I say to a son who’s turned into a great writer??? But who also projects love, compassion, strength of purpose!!! And, who helped provide me with loving grandkids.
Larry, I’m proud of you but mostly grateful for a child/son/adult named Lawrence Arthur Hill. Love you to death and beyond.