Raven Midnight continues to advocate for Death with Dignity across the country, while sharing details of her positive experience when her mother, Sandra, used aid in dying in Oregon in 2012.
My mother’s name was Sandra, but we all called her Mammy, or in her last few weeks, Noni. Sandra was a strong willed, enthusiastic, warm-hearted woman and a mother who was fierce, protective, and dedicated to her children and family.
Our Flawed Medical System
In 2011, a mass began to form in her lower abdomen. It was of mildly alarming size, but nonetheless, her medical doctors shrugged her off, claiming it was a result of her being overweight. My mother was heavier set, yes, but this never should have played a part in her medical treatment. This is yet another reason our American health care system is so flawed.
After this humiliating refusal to investigate the mass, she sought out a different medical professional’s opinion. Although, she did eventually find a local doctor who took her complaint seriously, it was too late.
I remember taking my Mammy’s call in early February of 2012. I already knew she was concerned that the mass in her abdomen was cancer. I had also noticed her rapid weight loss, her increased complaints of lower abdominal pain, and other general cues that something was very wrong, including casual discussions with her care team about doing a full hysterectomy. This call confirmed my fears. She had cancer. Leiomyosarcoma. And she needed all reproductive organs removed immediately. This was devastating to hear.
With heavy hearts, we all rallied together and supported her through the invasive hysterectomy surgery. She actually recovered very well, bouncing back quicker than anyone expected. As is the custom, she had several follow-up appointments, to monitor whether all the leiomyosarcoma cells had been removed.
All signs were pointing towards the positive. Our optimism returned. We started planning for future events again. But this joy was short-lived. In March, Mammy called me, and something sounded off. Her first question was, “Are you sitting down?” I remember that moment, frozen in time. I was out with friends, and for whatever reason, in that moment, I did not fully grasp the severity of the question she had just posed. I guess it was shock, maybe fear.
She proceeded to explain to me that the medical team failed to remove all cancer cells, and that the cancer had now spread to her lymph nodes and lungs. She was informed she had about six months to live. This is when the reality of the situation started to set in, and my body, not knowing how to respond, shut down. I can’t remember entirely what happened directly after she had told me she was terminally ill, but the next thing I can remember was that I was outside, surrounded by my friends, on my knees crying hysterically, and begging my mother to tell me this was all a joke. That she was lying to me.
Taking Control Over an Uncontrollable Situation
Watching her decline was heartbreaking. The cancer was terrible, absolutely terrible, and it ravaged her so fast. A few months before she died, the cancer cells turned her tissue necrotic. The discomfort Mammy must have felt is beyond anything I can imagine. “Insurmountable pain” was how she described it. Her ability to eat involved consumption of a few tiny jars of baby food a day. She didn’t want hospice. She didn’t want the humiliating experience of depending on home aids either. Her stubbornness kept her powering through this rapid decline, but that didn’t make it okay or acceptable.
There was one thing my mother knew for certain: cancer would not stop her from being her.
After this declaration, everything moved so quickly. Mammy spoke with her doctor about Death with Dignity. After learning more about the process, she immediately made up her mind. Without hesitation, she knew this was what she wanted to do. She sat all of us down and explained what Death with Dignity was. She told us the cancer was tearing her body apart. Despite the fear of knowing she would die, not if, but that she would die, and regardless of feeling the crippling acceptance that cancer was her doom, she believed full-heartedly that Death with Dignity was the answer. She could have the control over her death that she needed, since she had no control over the ability to keep living.
Death with Dignity meant that she was taking back HER power and ending her life on her own terms.
Ending Life on Her Own Terms
My mom was stubborn. She wouldn’t accept help if she could accomplish something herself. This remained evident for months after she got sick. However, my mom did accept help from the wonderful doctor who wrote her aid-in-dying prescription and who supported her through the entire process. Although highly regarded and busy in her practice, this doctor was so hands on. She actually listened to my mother. She never dismissed her based on how she looked. Most importantly, she advocated for my mom, ensuring that she was as comfortable as possible throughout the last few months of life. This doctor still practices in the Eugene area, and I am so thankful for everything she did for our family.
The Last Breath
She chose a Sunday. A bright, warm, calm Sunday in June of 2012. Our entire family spent the weekend together, crying, laughing, taking photos, making memorable videos. We hashed out anything that we didn’t want left unsaid. We all got the closure we needed to. Mammy chose a Sunday because she felt it the most appropriate day of the week for resting, which in her case would be a forever rest.
Mammy drank the assisted-dying medications around 10AM that morning. Within 15 minutes or so, she fell into a deep sleep. A beautiful, heavy deep sleep. I stayed by her side for the entire passing, holding her hand, crying my pain out, and talking to her. I let her know that she was safe, how loved she was, that she could go, because we would all be okay.
She kept breathing faintly for many hours. I never left her side. In the early evening hours, Mammy took her last breath. I will never forget this last breath. It was a shaken sound of relief. I knew, with that breath, that Sandra would NEVER suffer again. That last breath marked the moment that the cancer, which tore through her body, malnourished her, left her ashen and weak, was done tormenting her. That misery would never take another moment from her again. That last breath, that last…everything, led me to knowing without a doubt Death with Dignity was the right choice for her. It was also the right choice for us, her family, as we were given the amazing gift of saying goodbye, of knowing that our mother got to choose how and when she died, on her terms, in her house.
The memories of the moment Mammy died will be carried in my heart forever. She will be with me forever.
Most importantly, I get to hold on to the positive final moments we shared together.
Continuing to Share Her Story
Although a decade has passed since her death, I remain as committed an advocate for Death with Dignity as ever. Without this option, Mammy would have withered away into a shell of a body, maimed by this devastating cancer, and left to suffer as she struggled to die. Losing a parent is hard enough, but having to sit by and watch a slow, painful death makes the grief so much worse. Knowing my mom took the power back that cancer stole from her by using Death with Dignity, helped the pain.
My hope is that sharing this story could help other children whose parents are considering this option. This hope makes it worth reopening my wounds from her loss. I will keep sharing her story, to advocate for more states passing Death with Dignity, but just as importantly, to provide some peace and comfort to other families going through this process.
Personal stories power our movement. The best way to shift attitudes, correct misconceptions about Death with Dignity, and help lawmakers understand why it matters is to share stories of real experiences. Share your story here.