I love having lunch with Mary Ellen. We begin with cheese, crackers, veggies and dip while we kibitz about our lives. Mary Ellen was on the search committee that called me to the church. She is a retired English teach from the same high school that I attended. (I'm so grateful that I never had her as a teacher; I was a serious underachiever in my youth.) She sports a stylish short, platinum blonde haircut and she wears sandals well before Easter and well into the fall. She's been an elder for most of my time as a pastor, re-vamping the Outreach Team and working toward more encounters with hurting, broken people in the world. I'm deeply grateful for her skill set, her honesty, her heart and her ministry.
After the cheese and crackers, she whips up her usual Caesar salad with shrimp. I hardly ever eat fish because Pete is allergic. She knows this and that's why she always makes me shrimp. She says a prayer for the meal, giving thanks for friendship and for lengthy lunches together. Amen.
Mary Ellen knows loss. She is acquainted with sadness. I would even call her an expert on grief. She has buried three husbands and two best friends. She lost her mother to Alzheimer’s. She has also quilted together an incredible family from the broken pieces of three families. She loves them; and they love her. She is grandma in her own unique way while always honoring the other grandmothers involved. When Mary Ellen cries, her tears come in every color of grief. I have learned to stop dead in my tracks when she begins to cry. Her tears have shown me colors of the rainbow I did not know existed.
One of her best friends that she watched die was also a member of my congregation, Jean. Jean was diagnosed with ALS. While Jean suffered, I often found myself at Mary Ellen's lunch table sharing wine and sadness.
“Mary Ellen, how are you doing with Jean?” She gathers tears in her eyes, finds a tissue and says, “I don't know why I bother with mascara anymore.” After a pause and bite of shrimp, she tries to start again, “It's hard, it's really hard. She's suffered already with the breast cancer.” Sniffing, she finds her forceful voice to say, “And she fought hard, she won and look at this now. I can't bear to see her suffer like this.”
I finish chewing and say, “How can I help you through this?”
This afternoon, she began talking about her mother and the awful disease of Alzheimer's. “I thought it was the worst, until this happened to Jean. This must be the worst diagnosis.” She continues with, “I don't ever want to go through this. And I won't. I don't think I've told you this yet but I'm going to take my life if I ever get Alzheimer's disease.”
Looking up from my salad I say, “I'm sorry; what?”
“I might as well tell you now, Jean and I have spoken about suicide at length. We've even purchased this book. I will lend it to you when I finish. It's all about how to kill yourself. And did you know that none of the options are ever really secure. The author suggests that you always put a bag over your head just in case your first choice doesn't work.”
I take a deep breath, put a smile on my face, pour another glass of wine and say, “Stop, just for a second.”
She laughs with her wonderful chuckle, shaking her head at this youngster pastor who she has grown to love and need. “Start over. Jean wants to kill herself?”
“Well, we've talked about it but I don't think she'll be able to do it. She's always been such a good, Christian girl. But we've been looking into which pills she is taking and how she could collect some on the side. The thing that makes me most mad is that there isn't assisted suicide in NJ. I told Jean, 'I love you but I'm not going to jail. You're going to have to do this on your own. I'll be there with you but I can't help you do it.”
“What does Jean say to that? I ask.
“She agrees and also laments that there is no assisted suicide in NJ. If there was, this would not be an issue. She would be able to talk to her physician about her wishes. The problem with ALS is that by the time it's too much for her to handle she won't be able to do it herself. She'll be too weak or she'll have lost the use of her arms or even her voice.” We pause and look at one another.
Who gets to have these conversations in our culture? Clearly doctors don't. Families may. And if they're lucky – pastors get to have these conversations.
My training would tell me that thoughts of suicide are signs of disease, severe signs of an unhealthy human being and that this conversation needs to be shared with a professional. After a second consideration, I realize that I am the professional with whom it is being shared. Don't get me wrong, I don't have delusions of grandeur and I “refer, refer, refer” all the time. This conversation was meant for her pastor; I am her pastor.
So in all of my inexperience, I respond with these words, “well, I don't think that any of this should happen alone. I don't think anyone should die alone and I certainly don't think any of us should go to jail for helping someone die.” I don't know exactly what that's going to mean practically for Jean or for you. But when the day comes, if the day comes, I want to be there. I think your pastor should be there.”
Jean wasn't able to take pills to end her life. Instead, she entered hospice care where a nurse administered doses of morphine. Mary Ellen laid beside her on the hospital bed. Along with others, I sat beside them. For now, the book about how to kill yourself is on a shelf.
What is this blog about?
These are some of the reflections that I am fashioning into a memoir about coming to peace with my husband's diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.