HALLOWELL, Maine — Polly Keller had watched her father die slowly and painfully from a terminal, degenerative disease of the brain.
When the retired researcher and clinical psychologist from Yarmouth was diagnosed with the same genetic illness, she decided she wanted to choose a different end to her own story. Keller, 67 at the time of her death last December, talked things through with her husband, Bill Jose, and their grown daughter, Elizabeth. The couple read “Final Exit,” a book about how people who are dying can hasten their deaths through suicide, talked to hospice providers and medical professionals, and made some plans.
Then Keller, who had suffered symptoms of the disease for years and didn’t want to live on for decades with increasing debility and dementia, simply stopped eating and drinking. Her death came just two weeks later, Jose said Saturday at the annual meeting for the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Maine at Granite HIll Retirement Community in Hallowell. He described it to the captivated roomful of people as a good death that allowed his wife the time to say goodbye before her disease made that impossible.
“Her decision was ‘I just don’t want to live like that. That’s not living,’” Jose said. “I don’t have regrets. I knew she was going to die prematurely. Suicide is a loaded word. I say that Polly chose to hasten her death.”
Under Maine law, a person is guilty of aiding or soliciting suicide if he intentionally aids or solicits another to commit suicide and the other commits or attempts suicide. A bill that would have allowed for doctor-assisted suicide was defeated in the Maine Legislature in June. But Jose, a retired medical researcher who this year has been teaching a course on end-of-life planning and decision making at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in Portland, said that people ought to make decisions about the way they die.
“I think we need to not have such a phobia against death,” he said. “Polly used to say that living is a terminal condition. You begin to ask yourself questions about how do I want to die? At what point might I be ready to give it up, or do I want to struggle to the bitter end?”
Keller’s obituary described her as an adventurous person who had traveled around the world, climbed two of the highest mountains in the United States and who was one of the best listeners and laughers around. She was also very smart, and very determined, her husband said. The couple had been together for 40 years, and while he was very sad to see her die, he also understood why she wanted to leave life on her own terms.
“She lost a lot of things that are hard to quantify, when she had these random events going on in her brain,” he said. “Every morning she would make instant oatmeal by heating up a cup of water in the microwave for three minutes. One day, she forgot how to do that.”
He tried to teach her again, but her brain, changed by the many strokes she was suffering, couldn’t relearn the simple task.
“That’s pretty scary,” he said. “She was afraid that three months, six months from now, she might not be able to have the wherewithal to stop eating and drinking.”
When Keller did stop, she had about four days of being able to walk around before her body grew too weak to leave their bed. During that time, Jose was struck off guard by how hard it was not to fix her a cup of coffee or hot chocolate or a snack while she was reading in their sunroom, which had long been their routine.
“It was a sadness that I couldn’t give her this gift,” he said. “When Polly stopped eating and drinking, it was immediately clear. Polly was dying. Actively dying.”
The family used those last weeks to share favorite memories with Keller, to tell her they loved her, to laugh with her, to cry with her.
“What’s a good death?” Jose asked. “If you just let things happen, you’ll die in an [intensive care unit], full of tubes, comatose. If you find that appealing, fine. … But increasingly, people think that quality is more important than quantity. I don’t know if it necessarily means physician-assisted suicide, but there ought to be more acceptance of the legitimacy and honor of one ending one’s life at an appropriate time.”