Category: Posts

Review of Book About the Death-With-Dignity Movement

September 5th, 2012 — 2:37pm

Faced with my mother’s decision to end her life after suffering from Parkinson’s disease for many years, I spent the last year of her life wrestling with how to respond. Because her doctors were unwilling to help her – and because assisted suicide is illegal in my hometown (Washington D.C.) — my mother decided to stop eating and drinking, believing it would pose less of a legal risk to my sisters and me. Despite the near total cessation of food and liquid, she lived for close to two weeks and would have lived longer if she hadn’t taken an overdose of morphine several nights before she died in order to speed things along.

Although I did not initially embrace her decision to end her life, I was angry and distressed at how hard it was for her to accomplish her “good death” and, in the years since, I have become deeply convinced that choosing when and how you die is a basic civil right. In his cogent, detailed chronicle of the modern right-to-die movement, In Search of Gentle Death: The Fight for Your Right to Die With Dignity, social historian and author, Richard N. Cote, makes this argument in eloquent, quietly reasoned prose.

In a passage that I found deeply resonant, he writes: “Only the suffering person is capable of determining how much agony is endurable and deciding that the choice of a peaceful, painless death is preferable. The death-with-dignity movement declares that it is an individual’s right to decide whether or not to continue living, not the privilege of someone else to require that he or she must live.”

Upfront about his admiration for the movement and its leaders, Cote assumes a corresponding sympathy in his readers and I was initially distracted by the book’s “preaching to the choir” perspective. But once Cote gets into his story, he spends little time editorializing and is never shrill or polemic. And for a book about illness, death and the hard choices they command, I found the book surprisingly entertaining. With a novelist’s eye for detail, Cote skillfully brings a wide and colorful cast of characters vividly to life, introducing us to the many activists and patients who have shaped the modern right-to-die movement.

Started in the 1930s by a small group of intellectual philosophers, the death-with-dignity movement has evolved into a vast, international civil rights movement. The titans of that movement — Derek Humphry and Jack Kavorkian – are given top billing (appropriately enough), but Cotes also includes a number of less familiar figure including his friend, George Exoo, a liberal Unitarian minister who worked as an “exit guide” and found himself facing a 14-year prison term after helping an Irish woman, Rosemary Toole, to die. Many others, including Dr. Soichiro Iwao of Japan, Ludwig Minelli of Switzerland, Dr. Gustavo Alfonso Quintana of Columbia and Marilyn Seguin of Canada are shown putting their personal and professional lives on the line in the service of their beliefs.

But for me the most powerful stories were those of the patients who were willing to travel, testify and make themselves into “case studies” to help win the legal right to end their lives peacefully and on their own terms. There was Sue Rodriguez, an athletic woman struck down with ALS at forty-one, who was willing to be the “poster child” for the right to die in Canada and whose court case changed the way Canadians view the issue. (Her words, “If I cannot give the consent to my own death, then whose body is this? Who owns my life?” were a haunting challenge to those who would make such an act illegal.)

Or, the fascinating, morally ambiguous case of Holly Bosscher, a Dutch woman, whose hard life and chronic depression led her to an unshakable desire to end her life and whose death changed the legal physician aid-in-dying laws in Holland to include “unrelieved and existential pain” as a legal grounds for a suicide.

Cote also brings a number of rich new details to the by-now familiar story of Derek Humphry’s wife, Jean, who in 1975 asked her husband to help her procure the drugs necessary to end her life. (She suffered from metastasized breast cancer and was in terrible, unrelieved pain.) Despite the fact that it meant committing a felony under England’s draconian Suicide Act, Humphry chose to help his wife end her life and an activist – and a movement — was born.

Humphry’s difficult second marriage to Ann Wickett, which nearly derailed the Hemlock Society, is also described in great detail and, frankly, Hollywood could not have written a more personally and professionally destructive spouse for a man in his position. But somehow, Humphry slogged through it and, aided by the phenomenal success of his how-to-die guide, Final Exit, the Hemlock Society grew and flourished.

Unfortunately, when Humphry stepped down as director in 1992, the group fell prey to in-fighting and lost much of its public support. Re-named “End-of-Life Choices” by its board in 2003, membership plummeted. End-of-Life Choices then merged with another right-to-die organization and became Compassion & Choices in January of 2005, headed up by Barbara Coombs Lee.

Dubbed “the Hemlock Society, decaf version,” by one former Hemlock board member, C&C immediately distanced themselves from Caring Friends, the Hemlock Society’s controversial “dying-member assistance program,” and then returned the insult by likening the teaching of self-deliverance methods to promoting “coat-hanger abortions.”(The Final Exit Network has continued the work of Caring Friends despite the arrests of seven of its members.)

In his low-key, almost pastoral way, Cote admonishes both sides and makes an impassioned plea to end the ideological turf wars. There is a place for pushing legislative reform — and good reason to continue teaching do-it-yourself deliverance methods, he says. And, as In Search of Gentle Death shows us, the death-with-dignity activists have much to be proud of. With this important testament to their achievements to bolster them, the future of the movement — and those of us who will benefit from their efforts — looks bright indeed.

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Saying Good-Bye To Wine

December 15th, 2011 — 6:36pm

Catching sight of the rows of bottles in my neighborhood wine store the other day — a holiday banner hanging merrily in the window — I felt a pang of sadness and regret. Each of the artfully displayed bottles seemed filled with the promise of sensual delight. I could almost taste the chilled chardonnays, the rich, tangy sauvignons. But even more than the imagined flavors, were the happy moments I associated with them: the festive gatherings of friends, the perfect pairings with multi-course meals, the solo glass at the end of a long day.

I admit it, I have really enjoyed drinking wine all these years. So why,why, at the age of 50 did I give it up?

Read the rest at Huffington Post Health

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A Tribute to Kara Kennedy and Eleanor Mondale

September 26th, 2011 — 5:20pm

Kara, Joan, Ted and Edward Kennedy, circa 1968

Kara Kennedy, daughter of Senator Ted Kennedy, died last Friday, September 16th at the age of fifty-one of a heart attack. A day later, Eleanor Mondale, daughter of former vice president Walter Mondale, also fifty-one, died of brain cancer.

As a fifty-one-year-old native of Washington D.C. who tangentially knew both these women, their deaths hit uncomfortably close to home. While Eleanor existed only fleetingly at the edge of my social circle, a glamorous blond presence so unlike her somber, mournful-eyed father, Kara was a childhood friend. We both attended the Beauvoir School, a warm, child-friendly K-3 school just steps from the National Cathedral.

My most vivid memory of Kara is the night we were angels in our third grade Christmas play. We wore long, brightly colored robes and halos festooned with gold foil. She was bubbly and full of fun despite the fact that, as angels, our sole responsibility was to look on serenely as Mary and Joseph approached the inn, and occasionally break into celestial song.

If I were a different kind of writer, I might follow this by saying something about Kara and Eleanor being “taken by angels.” In fact, in a statement released by Eleanor’s parents, they wrote: “After her long and gutsy battle with cancer, (Eleanor) went up to heaven last night to be with her angel.” The problem is, I don’t believe in angels — or heaven, or life after death, or bromides about God “taking people home.” I believe that some people have the misfortune to die way too young and that, when it happens, it is sad, awful, and patently unfair.

It also forces those of us left behind to grapple with the crapshoot nature of illness and death. How else to explain the fact that some people are randomly dealt such a rotten hand? In Kara’s case, she was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer at the age of 42. After having part of her right lung removed and enduring grueling medical treatments, she made a remarkable recovery. But then eight years later, she died of a heart attack after working out at her gym. (Friends have speculated that her heart was damaged by the cancer treatments.)

Eleanor was also hit with a devastating disease at a young age. A seizure on a camping trip in 2005 led to a diagnosis of brain cancer. Radiation and chemotherapy bought her a few more years, but the tumor returned in 2009 and, despite surgery and more medical treatments, she died in hospice care at her home in Minnesota.

Kara’s death especially haunts me. There is something particularly jarring about losing a childhood friend. Because I lost track of her years ago, to me, Kara is still a child, forever running across a sunny schoolyard, or bouncing on a trampoline. The kind of girl who hugged you fiercely and liked to laugh. Of course, I know she grew up, got married, had two children — just as I did — but in my mind, she is still that bright-eyed girl.

I remember making doll clothes with her in art class, and taking ballet with Mme Lateur, an elderly Frenchwoman who kept a bad-tempered Chihuahua tucked in her purse. I remember how agile and athletic Kara was, always the first to reach the end of the blacktop, or the top of the jungle gym. I also remember going to her house and being baffled by the somber, deserted feeling of its well-appointed rooms, so at odds with Kara’s exuberant nature.

Sadly, I lost touch with Kara after we left Beauvoir’s nurturing walls. And it is only in retrospect that I realize how difficult the next few years must have been for her: Chappaquiddick, her brother Edward’s bout with cancer, her mother’s public struggles with alcohol, and her father’s fame and notoriety. Not to mention all the many lost cousins, uncles and aunts, the so-called “Kennedy curse.”

Reading about her over the last few days, I’ve also been struck by how private she was. Unlike many of the members of her family, she chose to stay entirely out of the public sphere. I was glad to hear she had found meaningful work at “Very Special Arts,” an adjunct to the Special Olympics started by her aunt Jean Kennedy Smith, and as a filmmaker. She was also, by all accounts, a devoted mother to her two children, Grace, 17, and Max, 14.

Like most people hitting midlife, I’ve lost a number of friends and acquaintances and I recognize that this is one of the consequences of getting older. But every time it happens, I experience a small frisson of fear, an irrational certainty that death has just taken a step closer to me. There is grief, of course, and a sense of loss. But underneath is always the nagging question: Why them and not me?

In the end it may be madness to try and wrest some deeper meaning from Kara and Eleanor’s deaths, but this is exactly what makes them so difficult to process. Without religion, or angels — except perhaps the ones we played in our polyester robes — I am left to rail at the arbitrariness of nature, the cruel alchemy of genetics and environment that cut their lives short. And so, for them, I rail.

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Dr. Death’s Final Decision

June 4th, 2011 — 9:59pm

After championing the rights of the sick and suffering to get help ending their lives — and providing that “help” to scores of terminally ill patients — Dr. Jack Kevorkian died of natural causes on Friday at the age of 83.

According to Geoffrey Fieger, the lawyer who represented Kevorkian in several of his trials in the 1990s, Kevorkian was too weak to take advantage of the option he had offered others and had long wished for himself. “If he had enough strength to do something about it,” Fieger told a news conference in Southfield, Michigan, “he would have.”

If that is true, there is something almost epically tragic about the fact that a man who fought so long and hard for patients’ right to die on their own terms, wasn’t able to take advantage of this option in the end. But then who is to say “Dr. Death” didn’t simply change his mind? He’d apparently been suffering from kidney failure and pneumonia for over a month, long enough to plan his own death if he’d wanted to. He was a doctor and entirely familiar with how to end a life quickly and painlessly. And given his well-known penchant for drama and attention, you’d think he’d want to make himself exhibit A for what he believed in. (At the start of his third trial, he showed up in court wearing Colonial-era clothing to show how antiquated he thought the charges were and, after videotaping himself helping to kill a patient, he voluntarily handed the tape over to “60 Minutes.”)

The fact that Kevorkian didn’t end his own life is, to me, a potent reminder that our political beliefs are not always in the driver’s seat when it comes to death. Just as one can imagine even the staunchest anti-assisted suicide crusader wavering in the face of extreme pain and disability, I have found that certain pro-assisted suicide people seem to believe that killing oneself is actually a better option than dying naturally. Often, when I mention that I wrote a book about my mother’s decision to end her life after a long illness, people say, “Oh, well I definitely plan to do that. I’ve already made it clear that that the minute I get a disease, I want someone to take me out back and shoot me!”

I get the humor but there is a glib — even fashionable — assumption that suicide, assisted or not, is a good way to go. I want to ask: How would your kids feel if you do that? Your spouse? And how would you feel if it was them making that choice? I’m a big supporter of the Death with Dignity Laws in this country, but frankly, as long as I’m not in pain and have some quality of life, I’m planning to “go naturally,” just like Kevorkian did in the end.

The idea that ending your life is going to be easier and more straightforward than letting nature take its course is something of a happy illusion. Having witnessed both my parents dying in very different ways, I know that even the best laid plans for death can go awry. It reminds me of the “birth plan” I drafted when I was pregnant. Somehow, between planning the perfect play list and specifying that I didn’t want an episiotomy, I forgot to factor in throwing up, forgetting to breathe, and the uncontrollable urge to yell obscenities at the nurse. So much for my beautiful birthing experience.

It may be a cliche, but there really are some things we can’t control and even for strong-minded people like my mother, who was determined to plot the details of her “end,” you simply cannot know how you will feel when the day comes. In fact, my mother set and changed her “death dates” several times, discovering on the chosen day that she wasn’t quite ready to go after all.

In Bill Moyers’ PBS special on assisted suicide a few years ago (“On Our Own Terms: Moyers on Dying”), not one of the people Moyers followed actually ended up killing themselves. There was always one more event they wanted to stay alive for: a birthday, or a grandchild’s graduation. Every one of his subjects waited until it was too late and no longer had the physical capability to manage it. All, except for one woman who died from natural causes before she had a chance to take the pills she’d stockpiled. Pulling the plug turns out to not always be so easy.

Adding to the vagaries of the psyche is the unpredictability of the body. Unless you live in one of the three states where physician assisted suicide is legal (Oregon, Washington and Montana) and have access to a group like Compassion & Choices who will help make sure you are taking the right dose of drugs, chances are you will not know how to calibrate the means of death. In my mother’s case, stopping eating and drinking took far longer than she’d expected, and an attempted morphine overdose failed. Although she did ultimately manage to end her life, it was not the controlled, predictable event she’d hoped for.

I read recently that the issue of assisted suicide splits this country almost completely in half, making it an especially divisive and contentious issue. I would respectfully suggest that both sides may have lost sight of the fact that death can – and will — make a mockery of even the most carefully laid plans, the most passionately held beliefs.

And who knows, when it came down to it, maybe Jack Kevorkian simply wanted to stay alive and was hoping he might recover. Or maybe his lawyer is right and he wished someone had been there to help him speed things along. We will never know and that is as it should be. Because as politicized as it has become in this county, death is ultimately a private experience, fraught with unknowns. And Dr. Kevorkian, like all of us who support assisted suicide as a legal and moral principle, had the right to change his mind.

This piece was published in Salon on June 4th, 2011.

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Passing On A Love of Words: A Mother’s Day Tribute

May 8th, 2011 — 7:59pm

If childhood had a soundtrack, mine would be the hammering keys and intermittent “ping” of a busy typewriter.

From as far back as I can remember, my mother would regularly disappear into her study to write on her IBM Selectric, emerging hours later with piles of papers and empty coffee cups, with a dreamy, satisfied expression on her face. When I was in elementary school, she was working on a master’s degree in literature, and, by the time I started high school, she had begun an autobiographical novel that would consume her for the rest of her life.

To read the rest of this piece, go to AOL’s ParentDish:

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When the Apple Turns: A Mac User’s Broken Heart

April 21st, 2011 — 1:00pm

After years of trusty service and almost no repair issues, my beloved ibook finally gave up the ghost – the hinge between keyboard and screen had actually self-destructed from overuse  – and so, with great excitement, I bought a sleek, sexy new 15-inch MacBook Pro.

I figured that the MacBook Pro, like the ibook, would be my trusted companion for years to come. We would troll the net, write fabulous books and articles, make new Facebook friends, and sing along to itunes together. And despite the threat from rogue viruses and unsecured networks, I was confident that my powerful new computer would stand guard over my vast kingdom of photos and songs, my stories and ideas, like a loyal and brave sentinel. I felt giddy at the thought of our beautiful future together, basking in the anticipation of unlimited possibility.

Basically, it was like falling in love with someone new after years spent in a boring — if stable — relationship.

Sadly, the honeymoon didn’t last. Exactly a year after it came into my life, my handsome new machine began sending me cryptic signs that all was not well. First there was the inexplicable gray screen that appeared when I booted up at my sister’s house in rural Vermont in early March. (I would later learn that Macbook Pro users refer to this as “The Gray Screen of Death,” but at the time, I was still operating on the assumption that, unlike users of PCs who always seemed to have viruses and system crashes, I was safe. I had a Mac! A new, super cool, powerful Mac!)

I chalked it up to being on a “foreign” network in a remote location and, indeed, the gray wall disappeared when I got home. All continued uneventfully for the next three weeks although, in retrospect, the telltale signs were there: the strangely long intervals to boot up, the spinning color wheel while waiting for a new page to upload, but still, nothing to unduly alarm me. And so I went about my business, which happened to include getting struck by one of those rare lightening flashes of inspiration which rapidly developed into an idea for a new novel. Excitedly, I tore through a rough draft of the first chapter and stayed up late outlining the rest of the book.

Three weeks later, my daughter Mira and I boarded a plane for the East Coast and I decided to take advantage of the onboard wifi. But as soon as I got myself signed in and began working, things got strange: the color wheel kept interrupting my writing, applications kept quitting, and the whole machine seemed to be sputtering and limping. Baffled, I turned it off, but once again assumed it was a network issue. Or, who knows – maybe it was sunspots. People weren’t meant to send emails from 30,000 feet in the air anyway, I thought, as I settled comfortably back to watch a movie.

At this point, you’d think my blind faith in my new computer would have wavered just a little. At least enough to start worrying about the fact that I hadn’t backed it up for the previous six weeks. But no, I had a BRAND NEW MACBOOK PRO. I was untouchable.

I didn’t give it another thought until I booted up at our hotel and there it was: The Gray Screen of Death!

Okay, everyone knows where this is going so I’ll cut to the chase. After countless hours on the phone with Applecare trying various key combos to somehow cajole my machine into fixing itself, and then more hours with the so-called geniuses at the Genius Bar back in California, the diagnosis was not good. The hard drive on my gorgeous one-year-old Mac was shot and – sorry — they could not recover any of my data.  The only thing they could offer me was a new hard drive. Fortunately, I had Mozy, which backs everything up wirelessly as you create it. Oh, except – oops, Mozy inexplicably stopped backing up my data on March 14th,, three weeks before my fateful plane ride.

Still, I consider myself lucky: all my operating systems and most of my data were on my external drive and I was able to recover at least a few additional weeks of work from Mozy.

But my faith in Mac?  Gone forever. Along with that fabulous first chapter…

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Doing Time for “Doing A Kevorkian”

April 6th, 2011 — 5:24pm

Most people convicted of murder are understood to have stolen their victim’s life. To have violently ripped it away against the person’s will. Not so Kenneth Minor, a 38-year-old man who was sentenced to 20 years to life this week for killing 52-year-old Jeffrey Locker. Minor’s defense? Locker begged Minor to “do a Kevorkian” on him. According to Minor, he was only helping the guy out.

The story offers a bizarre new twist on the assisted suicide debate currently playing out in courtrooms and hospitals all over this country. Locker was certainly not the typical candidate for ending one’s life via assisted suicide. He wasn’t old or suffering from unremitting physical pain. He wasn’t battling a chronic illness.  He was, in fact, in his prime, a seemingly successful motivational speaker and “behavior modification expert” who lived with his wife and three children in Valley Stream, New York.

So why did he want to die, and why did he insist on involving a complete stranger?

While I don’t profess to know the inner workings of Locker’s mind, according to testimony in the trial, he was in serious financial trouble due to investments in a Ponzi scheme. Rather than face the consequences of his financial misdeeds, he began trolling East Harlem looking for men who would murder him in exchange for money. One of these men, Melvin Fleming, testified that Locker told him he was “looking for someone to make him dead.”

According to evidence presented in the trial, Locker’s determination to make it appear he’d been murdered also had a logical – if morally questionable — explanation: He wanted to make sure his family got the millions of dollars in insurance money he’d left for them. (Insurance companies generally don’t pay out in the case of a suicide, thus the need for a staged murder.)

And so, on a July night in 2009, after a couple of months of looking, Mr. Locker found a willing accomplice: Kenneth Minor. According to Minor, Locker instructed him to bind his hands and then hold a knife against the steering wheel while Locker repeatedly thrust his chest into the blade. This strange act of mercy may have gone undetected — buried beneath an already-steep pile of unsolved murders in New York City — if not for a surveillance tape, which caught Minor entering Locker’s car. (Minor was also later caught using Locker’s A.T.M. card. It was his payment, Minor claimed: the reward Mr. Locker had promised him for assisting in his suicide.)

One can’t help but wonder if Locker’s family might have preferred him to “help” them less, but instead, stay alive and face the financial and legal fallout from his alledged misdeeds.  But none of them were in the courtroom on Monday when Minor was sentenced. Instead, Minor had the last word. Fighting back tears, he offered his condolences to Mr. Locker’s family and begged the judge for leniency.

“Only two people in the world know what happened that night,” Mr. Minor said. “And one of them is not here no more. But he did not want this for me, for me to lose the rest of my life.” He added: “In the end, Mr. Locker is where he wanted to be. I can’t take that back now, but I’m no animal. And I ain’t got no malice in my heart.”

While the jury did not buy Kenneth Minor’s defense and the judge ended up giving him 20 years to life, arguing that he’d been willing to commit an act of extreme violence for money, I think it’s only fair that — in the press anyway — Locker and his choices were also put on trial.

I have never understood the view that committing suicide is a selfish act. How can the motivations of someone who is acting out of extreme pain – either mental or physical – be criticized and judged by normal standards of behavior? But killing yourself to avoid the shame of facing your own wrong doings, engineering your death for the material gain of those left behind, and then involving an outsider in your own violent, bloody end, is enough to make me reconsider my position. Yes, I feel sorry for Locker and his desperate quest for “assistance,” but I feel sorrier still for Mr. Minor who was desperate enough to think that helping someone to die would be worth any amount of money.

In the end, does this case tell us anything important about the meaning of assisted suicide, as it is normally defined?  Perhaps only this.  I don’t think anyone, including the most rabid right-to-die advocates, would say that what happened on the street in east Harlem two years ago was an acceptable form of assisted suicide. And whatever reasons Mr. Minor had for agreeing to accommodate Mr. Locker’s brutal final request, our legal system soundly rejected them. How could it do otherwise?

One only hopes that this case will not distract us from the more important issues surrounding assisted suicide or make it more difficult for those who make this choice — not from selfishness or shame — but from courage and strength, and who choose to do so surrounded by loving helpers, not paid strangers.

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Unexpectedly Explicit: The Pitfalls and Advantages of Watching Television with Your Teens

March 17th, 2011 — 2:20pm

Recently, I was watching a cable television show with my 14-year-old daughter when, suddenly, the couple onscreen tore off their clothes and began having sweaty and graphic simulated sex. I found myself staring straight ahead, face hot, until the camera cut away.

As the show proceeded, I wondered: Should I have lunged across the couch and covered my daughter’s eyes? Turned it off? Said something to make the moment less awkward? (Like, “Check out that guy’s pecs! Do you think he works out?”) Or should I have avoided the show all together, insisting we watch something more firmly grounded in PG-13 territory?

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The Ghost in My Quilt

March 15th, 2011 — 3:50pm
mother's quilt, Vermont

My Mother's Quilt, Vermont, March 2011

After a whirlwind 24-hours in New York City to promote my book and attend an award ceremony, I arrived at my sister Sarah’s farmhouse in Northern Vermont ready to relax and enjoy the deep piles of New England snow.

Straight out of a Vermont Life calendar, Sarah’s house is a gorgeous 1850’s era farmhouse with a large pond and spectacular three-story red barn, and my first evening was spent enjoying a meal with some close friends who live nearby. But as we put away the leftovers and prepared to turn in, my good mood was abruptly punctured when my sister said: “I hope you don’t mind that I have Momma’s quilt on the bed where you’re sleeping. I’ve never brought it out before but I realized that the blue was a perfect match for the trim so I stuck it in your room.”

My mind instantly flashed on the blue-and-white quilt that had covered my mother’s bed during the final months of her life. “My God, I think she even died under it,” I thought uneasily, although not wanting to be overly dramatic, I kept the thought to myself. But I could feel my body recoil. Because I did mind. A lot.

“I’m not so sure I do want it on my bed,” I finally replied, not sure how to explain why I felt such an intense aversion to the idea. I’m not superstitious and I could have viewed this remnant of my mother’s life as a comfort, an opportunity to feel her presence in a loving and peaceful way. But I didn’t. Instead, I felt a painful stab of memory as scenes from the days leading up to her suicide flipped through my mind. In distressing detail, I saw her lying in her bed, lonely and unhappy, plotting how to kill herself — and all the time covered by that damn quilt!

“Really?” My sister looked over at me with surprise and perhaps a slight trace of impatience. “Well, maybe you should get over that,” she suggested. “Think of it as a nice thing.”

“Yeah, maybe,” I said, still not wanting it on my bed but reluctant to insist she give me a different quilt.

Gathering up my suitcase and preparing to go upstairs, I realized that my mother’s old patchwork quilt — an item I’d described in my memoir, Imperfect Endings — was an emblem to me of her entrapment. Entrapment in her room; in her bed; and in her illness. To her, death was the means to free herself from that entrapment, something I came to understand and even sympathize with. But knowing that she’d chosen death because she no longer felt life worth living was still painful for me to confront, even after all these years.

And I couldn’t help feeling that if I slid under that same quilt, I would find myself similarly – scarily – yoked by it. I don’t believe in ghosts but I wondered: Wouldn’t this most intimate of her possessions, the very cloth she’d touched and lain under day after day, night after night, contain some energetic memory of her? Some psychic imprint of her spirit, her personhood? And not just of her, but of her pain, her desperate desire to escape.

Uneasily, I headed up the stairs and entered the room. There was the quilt. A lighter blue than I remember. Pretty. Simple. Just a quilt, I told myself. A quilt that matches the trim.

But the uneasiness stirred again as I climbed in underneath it and I had to resist the urge to unfold the extra wool blanket at the foot of the bed and cover it up. Drifting off to sleep, I wondered if I would dream of her and who she would be in those dreams. Would she be the mother I’d had as a child? The tall, beautiful woman with thick dark hair and broad shoulders who’d made me cocoa and tucked me in at night? Or the depleted, stiff woman who’d lain under this quilt at the end of her life, longing to escape the confines of her body, of the earthly realm itself?

It turned out that none of these ghosts would appear, imaginary or otherwise. Instead, as the snow fell outside my window, adding to the already impressive drifts piled up against the house, I slept as heavily as a child. And a funny thing happened. By the second night, the quilt no longer seemed to hold its aura of entrapment or pain. It was… just a quilt – simple, pretty. A good match for the trim. An object that happened to have belonged to my mother.

And as I pulled it up around me on my last night, ran my fingers along its soft edges, I felt myself held lightly in its embrace.

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Drinking the Kombucha Kool-Aid

February 16th, 2011 — 2:22pm

When I first heard about Kombucha, it was from a friend who told me it was made from fermented mushrooms, a piece of misinformation I promptly passed on to numerous friends and acquaintances.

I later found out that the “mushroom” used to make Kombucha is actually a ball of yeast and bacteria called a SCOBY (Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria And Yeast). While this struck me as being a tad disgusting, it didn’t matter: I was already hooked on the stuff.

Part of it is the taste. Once the SCOBY is mixed with tea and sugar, it creates an effervescent sweet-sour drink with just a slight undercurrent of alcohol — a little like hard cider — that I find strangely delicious. So much so that I am willing to overlook the occasional unidentifiable floating blob (UFB) that is part of the Kombucha drinking experience. Not only do I enjoy the taste, I buy the hype: I am convinced that drinking Kombucha is going to make me a healthier — and yes, better — person.

Maybe it’s the fact that the words “reawaken, rethink, retain, reactivate, relive, rebirth, repurpose, rebuild, reclaim, and restart,” wend themselves across the label of my bottle of G.T.’s Enlightened Organic Raw Kombucha. Or that slogans like “Live long and Thrive” and “Living Food for the Living Body” can also be found there.

You see, Kombucha-drinkers don’t just imbibe this stuff, we believe in it. We are convinced that it is going to detoxify our livers, balance our metabolism and cure us of cancer. I mean, it says so right on the label, right? And even though there is no credible evidence that Kombucha does any of these things – in fact, the Mayo Clinic advices against drinking Kombucha — that does not stop us. (Mayo is not a credible source of information for Kombucha-drinkers; Dr. Mercola and Dr. Weil are our online health gurus.)

Drinking Kombucha is like subscribing to The New Yorker, or listening to NPR; it places one in a very specific cultural/consumer demographic. You will recognize us by our yoga mats and canvas bags, our Priuses and non-paraben body products. You will pass us buying sacks of organic apples at the local Farmer’s Market or scouring the aisles of Whole Foods for gluten-free bread. We drink raw milk and eat grass-fed beef. We don’t believe in flu shots. Our health practitioners are homeopaths and acupuncturists and we nurse our children until they are old enough to ask politely. (It will come as no surprise that many of us reside here in the People’s Republic of Berkeley where I live.)

It’s easy to laugh at us — I laugh at us – but that still doesn’t stop me. Because while it may seem like nothing more than tea and fermented bacteria to you, to me Kombucha is pretty much the elixir of life. Just read the label.

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