On their 50th wedding anniversary, Ruth and Charles made a suicide pact. They agreed that if the quality of their lives became intolerable because of disease or disability, they would end their lives, together. Ruth said, “We’ve been high school sweethearts for seventy-two years. We wouldn’t know how to live without each other.” Their children were aware of this decision. Their eldest daughter Olivia said, “It would be an act of devotion, not one of despair.”
Charles’ parents both died from dementia in nursing homes. Ruth remembers Charles crying at his mother’s deathbed, “Ruth please don’t let me end up like that, this is no way to live. I don’t want you to carry a heavy burden like this.”
At eighty-eight, Charles was diagnosed with dementia. Ruth vividly remembers how he took her hand firmly, gave her a tender look and said, “’It’s time doll.” She nodded in agreement.
Charles’ dementia progressed rapidly. Time ran out to take action. Within six months of his diagnosis he was placed in a nursing home. Ruth remembers Charles trying to starve himself, but then he forgot his intent, got hungry, and ate. He ate just enough to keep himself alive. He was steadily losing weight and became too weak to walk. He didn’t recognize Ruth anymore. He was put on hospice after two years of living at the nursing home.
Two months ago Ruth attempted to take her own life. She stepped into the shower, turned on the water, and cut her wrists with pinking shears. “I didn’t want to leave a mess for anyone to clean up,” she said. She didn’t bleed to death as intended. The hot water ran out, she got cold. She wrapped her arms in dishtowels and took a cab to the emergency room. She recalls feeling intense humiliation while receiving twenty-one stitches. She briefly pulled up the sleeves of her sweater to show me her fresh scars.
Ruth visited Charles everyday and cried at his deathbed. She felt enormous guilt for not living up to their agreement. Ruth’s ninety-year-old hands covered her face, her voice trembled through her fingers and she said, “He is dead to me. He doesn’t know who I am. I tried to live up to our promise. I can’t bring myself to end my life, I am a coward.”
What words of advice would you have for Ruth?
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