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Barbara Paymaster: My Friend’s Good Death

Barbara Paymaster is a retiree in Mesa, Arizona.

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One of my oldest and dearest friends used the Oregon Death with Dignity Act in April 2018 to end her life with peace and without pain. I share my friend’s story in the hopes that it will help strengthen the movement to provide death with dignity to people in my home state of Arizona and across the USA.

Friends for Life

Ginny and I became friends when we were 3 years old. We met when we went to a dance class and our mothers became friends. In grade school, we grew even closer. We used to play at each other’s’ houses all the time. We even took a solemn vow to become blood sisters, cutting our index fingers and mixing our blood together to symbolize a lasting bond as only 10-year-old girls could.

We went our separate ways in high school and were out of touch for several decades. When we reconnected in 1990, it was for life. I visited her in Chicago, where we grew up, and later when she relocated to Arizona I helped her move into her apartment. Ginny relocated twice more, once to the East Coast and finally to Oregon. We always remained good friends through email and phone calls, always ending our conversations with “miss you” and “I love you.”

A Diagnosis and a Decision

Well before she received a terminal diagnosis, Ginny had had ups and downs with various illnesses throughout her life. She had respiratory issues for many years and battled tuberculosis for a time. But it wasn’t until she was living in Oregon that a doctor discovered she had kidney failure, anemia, and vasculitis: a combination of ailment that would kill her within six months.

When she called me in January 2018 to relay the bad news, she couldn’t go out and do normal things because she was in so much pain. She did grueling medical treatments, but they just weakened her. She told me she was thinking about using the Oregon Death with Dignity Act to end her suffering.

I understood why she wanted to use the law. If that’s what you want to do, I told her, I will come out and be with you and support you through all this. Initially she said yes, but later decided that she only wanted her son with her when she ingested the medication. I respected her decision.

Preparing for Death

Ginny prepared well for her death. She cleaned out her filing cabinets; she canceled her credit cards; she put her affairs in order. She promised to send me a string of pearls I could use to communicate with her after she died. She’d always been very interested in the supernatural and wanted me to connect with her in the afterlife.

“Dearest Barb, my oldest friend, please know how much I love you and miss you and appreciate you,” she told me. “I will be around, look for me beside you, I will be there. I love you dearly.”

I promised Ginny that I would try to connect with her through her pearls, the way she told me to hold them, but if all else fails, every year I would reach out to her on the anniversary of her death and try to connect with her.

Originally, she had planned to ingest the medication on her birthday, March 30. Due to unforeseen circumstances, she had to push back to April 1. She decided she would take the medication at 11:00 a.m.: the 11th hour.

We spoke on March 30, Ginny’s birthday. I was glad to know that she had received my special birthday card.

“I know you wish me the best,” she said. She told me she was looking forward to her next life as if she were going on a trip. A few minutes into the conversation, I heard static on the line. A moment later, we were disconnected.

The Final Call

I texted her at 7:30 a.m. on April 1. My text read, “As the 11th hour draws near, I want to tell you that I love you. Until we meet again on the other side.” Not 10 minutes later, she called me.

“I can’t talk long,” she said, “but I wanted to tell you I love you one more time.”

I knew she had chosen some Eric Clapton songs to play after she took the medication. At 11:00 a.m., I put on Eric Clapton too. It made me feel like I was there with her.

At 2:00 p.m., I went into my kitchen. While I was standing at my kitchen sink, a plant on the counter caught my eye. Earlier in the morning, it was full-leafed and healthy; now, all the leaves had fallen off. Was Ginny telling me that she was gone? Was this a sign for me?

After she died, I went out of town for a time. When I returned home, I found a package waiting for me. Inside it was the string of pearls Ginny had promised. I was so excited.

I had a way to stay connected to my dear friend.

Freedom and Autonomy

One day not long ago, I started thinking about how profoundly Ginny’s experience with the Oregon Death with Dignity Act had impacted me. I do not live in a state with an assisted-dying law, but perhaps I could help change that and honor my friend at the same time by sharing her story and showing people an example of what a good death could look like.

To Ginny, and to me,

Death with dignity means that you can choose the way that you would like to leave your present existence. This is not suicide. This means you are at the end, choosing to go before it naturally happens.

Ginny taught me how to say goodbye to people, how to plan so that you don’t have to be a burden to anybody else, and how to leave the world with grace. The freedom and autonomy death with dignity allowed her should be available to all terminally ill Americans.

(August 2018)

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