The Topic At Hand: This Is A Test

In a warm bath with a razor is the most comfortable way to commit suicide. That’s what I remember hearing from my moms at a relatively young (for that kind of information) age. My mother’s first serious male lover killed himself, not in a bathtub but I don’t remember how, after buying the ring but before popping the question. His mother showed my mother the ring, after the funeral. When our distant cousin’s husband killed himself (with a gun, after trying the bathtub thing), her best friend came over to see the scene and to see his body – so that my cousin wouldn’t be alone carrying around that vision in her brain (she had found him, dead in their bedroom). That was a mitzvah, my mother said. At the shiva, my mother told his family that he wasn’t in his right mind, because by definition people who commit suicide are not, and they shouldn’t ever think they could have done anything differently or better, and prevented this outcome.

That was a partial lie, which was also a mitzvah, because sometimes suicide is sane. Euthanasia should be illegal to prevent exploitation, but sometimes letting someone you love die can be a loving gift, and helping someone you love die can be a sacred duty that transcends the level of morality to which law is limited.

I was looking away from the hospital bed, talking to my aunt, when my mother died. Later, my co-mother, who had fallen in love with my mother when they were fifteen and fourteen, told me that she’d held a pillow over her face, to help her go. By then she’d been lying drugged up and unconscious in that bed for three days, after a year of radiation, chemotherapy, wheelchairs, and bedsores. I don’t know if it’s true – by that time my co-mother’s mental state was already compromised with as yet undiagnosed early onset dementia, and I don’t remember seeing her near the head of the bed. But it was comforting for her to think that she could serve my mother, one last time, in this way. They talked about reincarnation. They had found each other, in one life time after another, over centuries. Sometimes they had many years together and some times not even a day. The next time, they would meet and my mother would be wearing red heels.

My co-mother’s dementia, not Alzheimer’s but another kind that begins in the frontal lobe and seems to leave the memory intact as it gradually destroys the mind and body, was diagnosed two years later. Since my mother was dead and I’m the oldest sibling, I became responsible. We signed all kind of forms about my legal power over her. She did understand what was happening to her, and its inevitable course, but even at the time I wasn’t sure about her objective mental competence to sign those forms. At some point it went beyond willful ignorance and I began lying, over and over again, as necessary. ‘Yes, she had consented to me selling her condo.’ Well, she didn’t say anything when I told her I was doing it. By then she had been mute for a year and a half. I needed the money to keep paying for her nursing home – I stopped being able to take care of her when she could still move enough to leave the house on her own but didn’t really respond to things like traffic lights, or traffic.

It was before she moved into the nursing home (for my sake, she said, so that I could go on with my adventures), that she mentioned that she would buy a Roman ticket. ‘What’s that?’ I don’t remember exactly how it all worked, but it referred to a one way ticket out of living. I’m not sure how she would have done it, or when she would have even been able to. But I asked her not to. ‘I still need you. We still need you.’ We, my brother and I, were twenty-three and twenty-one. She stayed. That’s how I became responsible for her dying.

I failed. I continue to fail. She still lives in a nursing home. She makes no sounds. This year she stopped being able to walk on her own. Her right side works even less than her left and she keeps her right hand curled in a tight ball all the time. She can’t read and she doesn’t have the attention span or concentration or acuity to be read to, or even to watch television. She lies down and sometimes she sits. Sometimes she seems to smile/cry with her eyes, and give just the tiniest hint of puckering her lips, when I’m kissing her cheeks. But now I don’t live in her city anymore and I only see her every six weeks or so, and every time I go, I’m wondering, ‘do I still need her? Do I really still need her? Is it human of me to let her live?’

I don’t know how I’d kill her. I’ve never even gotten that far. Every time I think of her not being alive any more, I remember the intensity of the difference between the world with my mother in it, unconscious on a hospital bed, and the world without her in it at all, and I can’t bear to think her really, truly gone. Though every time I come back to find her in the same state in which I left her, whether after a day or a month, I question and despise myself a little more. I’m scared of a murder trial or conviction, yes, but I can’t help but think that if I really wanted to, I could find a way. But I can’t – I can’t help her die. But I don’t know yet how to live with myself, letting her live.

She was a stoic outside a time of stoicism. She loved the story of The Count of Monte Cristo and the ideal of the Jedi Knight. “Wait and Hope” is what she wrote for herself on her computer screen, after she understood her diagnosis but before she stopped being able to play her favorite computer role-playing game. What am I making her wait for now, especially if somewhere, somehow, my mother is wearing red shoes, waiting for her?

Zsuza Florian and Veronika Bognar

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    • robinjessica

      Tara, you have the very special gift of being able to question what most of us fail to notice. I've thought about euthanasia before, but always in a dispassionate, topic-for-formal-debate sort of way — we actually did have a be-it-resolved-that style debate about it in High School.

      But, even after having been familiar with the idea for a decade now, I never stopped to consider the selfishness inherent in NOT assisting suicide. Your personal experience grants you a different perspective and your willingness to interrogate your motives has yielded enlightening results. Thanks for adding new dimensions to my thoughts on this issue.

    • efratp

      Tara, I was very moved by your column. I think it's an extremely difficult choice that you're facing. To think you're supposed to be resposible for your co-mom's death/life is something that you will have to deal with for as long as you live, whatever choice you make ('cause it'll torment you either way). I don't think it's fair to leave this choice to anyone but the person who's suffering and about to die. I hope I'll never have to face this choice, but I know that if it were me, I'd kill myself when I get the diagnosis and when I have the ability to think and act, to not get into this terrible zombie-like quality of life.

    • Ali

      Tara, wow. There's so much love and beauty in your words. You are being forced to tackle such a hard situation, and it seems you're doing it with a lot of grace. Thanks for sharing what you're going through.

    • Jenny

      This a brave and beautiful piece. I am proud to know you, and thankful for the gifted, sweet, and intelligent way in which you think through and write out these matters.

    • ChasyaUriel Steinbauer

      To know that I know you, but how little I knew and still do not know. I cry as I read your words…what pain you carry. I ask Hashem what does She want you to do with this great burden and responsibility…and to know that you have already responded by sharing part of your story and pain with us all, live on the Internet…your words are so raw and powerful, and they teach us all how to have less judgment and more compassion…to not jump at conclusion of matters of euthanasia and suicide, especially when we have not experienced these matters as you are. What a gift you have given. From the ashes comes your offering. I am in awe…I am grateful. I love you.

    • Lizad

      This was quite moving. As I read it, my mind kept casting about to all the loved ones of mine who have died, and how. I have a suicide in my family, too, and a questionable, suicide-like death, both of which still are painful. You are very brave to write this.

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    • Joe

      Beautiful writing about tragic circumstances. My heart goes out to you. Thank you for sharing.

    • Robin Meyer

      Thank you for writing this (I echo the other posters as well). Sincerely appreciate your honesty and unselfish sharing of such personal struggles. Your experiences are beyond my own in orders of magnitude, but I am trying to make sense of some of these issues and it helps to have your insights.

    • Marian Wingo

      Oh Tara, that is one of the most moving pieces I’ve read. I can only hope there may be sufficient time for us to ‘talk’ in years to come. Your brother and my middle daughter have awareness of my future plans that I now understand are called “roman.” Thank you, Marian

    The Author

    Tara Bognar

    tara.bognar
    Tara Bognar is an American-Canadian-Hungarian who grew up in Montreal and Northern Virginia, and may be the first gayby ever. In between studying Jewish law and Talmud in Israel and New York, she earned degrees in Canadian civil and common law at McGill University in Montreal, the home town of her heart. She now lives in Brooklyn, and is working on creating the Berman Jewish Policy Archive @ NYU Wagner while continuing her Talmud studies as a fellow in the Drisha Institute's Scholar's Circle. Her favorite book of the Bible is Ecclesiastes, and she remains unpersuaded of any fundamental meaning or redemptive purpose to suffering.

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