Published on Sunday, August 27, 2000
© 2000 The Press Democrat
By Susan Swartz
(former) Staff Writer
One day in June, Rebecca Latimer, deciding she wanted to die, stopped eating.
At first she drank fruit juice and then switched only to water, except for a couple of sips of sherry for farewell toasts with friends. It took Rebecca 52 days to achieve a dignified, voluntary ending.
Rebecca was 94. She said she didn’t want to die from a disease, and although she was still relatively healthy the machine was starting to struggle. Two small strokes hit her earlier this year, and while her quick mind barely missed a beat, the strokes left her rocky.
Any number of things could happen to me now,” she said.
The greater calamity was her fading eyesight. Rebecca was an author, best known for the book published when she was 91 called, “You’re Not Old Until You’re Ninety … Best to be Prepared, However.”
She not only wrote books, she wrote letters and people wrote back to her. She read voraciously and loved the printed word. Without that pleasure she didn’t want to continue and, given her age, thought it only a matter of time until her body called it quits.
“People have a fit when they hear what I’m doing,” she said. But she explained it was her decision. “I have a contract with myself. I don’t want to change my mind.”
Her decision was in keeping with how Rebecca had lived the last part of her life.
The first 60 years Rebecca lived by others’ rules. She grew up at a time when an educated woman was considered a marriage liability and so had never gone to college. After marrying her diplomat husband, Fred, she enjoyed the status and travel privileges of his state department job. But she felt hampered in her own growth. That was the story of her book, how at age 60 she began to educate and liberate herself.
Rebecca’s life finally belonged to her. That she wanted to control it now was in keeping with this new strong-willed Rebecca.
I interviewed her when her book came out, and we decided to become friends. We’d regularly meet for tea and cookies at her yellow house in Sonoma, where the typical Rebecca beginning would be, “The most amazing thing happened.” Or, “Let me tell you something.”
It could apply to someone she had just met, for she was always collecting friends, or connected with a favorite memory, like the time she was stranded in an ice storm on the North Sea.
I came back from vacation to discover that Rebecca had taken to her bed. By then it had been 10 days, and I phoned her, surprised to hear the same chirpy voice, this time explaining she had begun to fast.
I’d never seen Rebecca in bed. Normally she was dressed in jeans and sport shoes and had a scarf or combs in her hair. I was used to the spry Rebecca. This one grew as fragile as one of her tea cups. But she never stopped looking like Rebecca. Or talking like her, even when her voice became a raspy, labored whisper.
“It’s all very weird, but it’s interesting,” she said about dying. “I’m not hungry and I’m not in pain. I just lie here and people come and tell me how wonderful I am. I didn’t expect to enjoy it.”
After she made her decision she called together family and friends. She had enough money to hire round-the-clock help for what she thought might be, at most, a six-week process. She didn’t need special medical attention, and toward the end hospice came in to supplement her care-givers.
Her mother had gone blind, and Rebecca, who had macular degeneration, feared total loss of sight. She’d cared for her adored husband, Fred, for years until he died two years ago in a nursing home following a series of strokes. She didn’t want that for herself. Nor did her sons, Doug and John. But they also were distraught about losing her.
“They told me to wait another two months,” said Rebecca. “But then if I did it would be my birthday and then they’d say wait until Thanksgiving and then Christmas.”
Her son John said, “Our biggest concern was that she wasn’t doing this out of depression. But she was very logical about it and she had the willpower to do it. For my mother this was the practical way to go. It was a polite suicide. She didn’t jump off a bridge and shock everyone. We all knew what she was doing.”
Doug needed convincing by his father. Days after Rebecca announced her decision, Doug was in his Redwood City office when he suddenly thought of his late father. It wasn’t a vision, because Doug doesn’t think in terms of visions. He said, “My logical mind doesn’t allow for a sentient consciousness after death”
But it was his father’s face, he said, and while he didn’t hear a voice, three words popped into his mind. They were, “Send her over.”
Rebecca loved telling that story, not only because it comforted her son but validated her choice. “When I heard that, I knew I was doing the right thing,” she said.
Some of her visitors tried to talk her out of it. “They say things like I should wait for God to take me, that I have a job to do that won’t get done and I’ll have to come back and redo it. I’m very polite. I listen to them.”
Rebecca’s doctor visited. Rebecca said, “Can you believe it, a doctor who makes house calls? I think she wanted to make sure I was of sound mind and knew what I was doing. We had a wonderful talk and she told me I was the sanest person she knew.”
Above Rebecca’s bed hung a “Do Not Resuscitate” sign and two maps of Turkey, her favorite of all the countries in which she and Fred lived.
On a table was the book “Light on Aging and Dying,” written by Helen Nearing, who with her husband, Scott, wrote books about simple living. Scott Nearing stopped eating when he was 100 years old. Now Rebecca was following his path, and for those who still needed convincing, Rebecca offered copies of a quote by Helen Nearing in which she supported her husband’s death.
Rebecca believed in a power, although she wasn’t sure if she called it God. As much as she read of philosophy, she said, “No one really knows what happens after, do they?”
I asked her what she thought.
“I think the part with the white light and the tunnel may be true, because so many people who come close to death speak of it. After that, I think you are given something to do. I think we come back. I’d like to come back on another planet. Wouldn’t that be interesting?”
Rebecca became impatient. It was taking too long. “I think I’ve taught people enough now about dying,” she told me one day. Her friend Jean said, “She is not clinging to life. Life is clinging to her.”
She slept a lot. She didn’t want to listen to music. She said, “Music makes me emotional and I don’t want to become emotional.” But she had a tape of an Australian friend’s poetry which she played over and over.
She had so many visitors her caregiver needed an appointment book. Sark, the writer and a new friend, came, as did a Congregational church leader who was not her minister but someone she liked trading ideas with. Her friend Lois was there when a male caller was announced and Rebecca rallied. “Quick. Get my brush. Make me presentable.”
I asked her what she thought of when she was alone.
“I think of how it will be. I’m told it will be nice.”
I’m not sure who told her it would be nice, but it apparently was. Rebecca didn’t sleep the last night but held hands with her sons and friend Lois. She also talked and argued with people only she could see, “someone over my left shoulder,” said Lois.
That next morning she told her son John, “I’m going,” and in the early afternoon she became unconscious, breathed hard for a while, paused, smiled and left.
But the most amazing thing happened. After Rebecca died, her son Doug joined Lois on the back patio. A dragonfly fluttered around both their heads. Then there were several dragonflies. Lois says there were more than a dozen. When the mortuary came for Rebecca’s body the dragonflies left.
Rebecca always said, “If Fred can come back, I can.”
(Reprinted with permission from Susan Swartz, a writer at the Press Democrat in Santa Rosa, California.)