Denied a Dignified Death: Elizabeth Ann Tasseff

by Tommy George

2015-10-18. Today would have been her 100th birthday. During the shortening days of December 2005, my mother, probably the only real friend I ever had, fell into a deep depression from which she never recovered. "Failure to thrive" was doctors' enigmatic diagnosis. It seemed more apt for an infant than a geriatric patient, but it had by then depleted most of her life reserves. 

Most recently she had lost her ability to walk. Her world had been steadily shrinking, a bit more confining, sadder and weaker each day, until now . . . she had no mobility at all. Common sense had compelled thoughtful Betty Tasseff voluntarily to relinquish her driver’s license and car at age 85. Now at age 90, she had made another hard choice of her own free will--to leave her cozy assisted-living apartment in Westland, Michigan for the new horizon she had to face, the darkening horizon of end-life times.

She had made her final relocation with no prompting from others. She had spent her life under nobody's authority but her own, and chose not to relinquish autonomy as it drew to a close.

She was well-liked by residents and administrators of the assisted-living situation she was leaving behind--so much so, that her framed picture was one of only two residents so honored with their portraits displayed on either side of the main entrance to the complex. Her tastefully furnished apartment was a regular stop on sales tours given by staff to prospective new residents.

She had made the most of her life there, and she would miss her friends, but she understood quite intuitively that her time to go had arrived, and so she made the arrangements herself--before some bureaucrat tried to make the arrangements for her. She was fiercely independent and sometimes surprisingly outspoken.

Her final accommodations were a semi-private room in a full-care nursing facility with an excellent reputation. Once settled in, she began planning the final leg of her life's journey, to abodes of death and beyond. Death was not a feared or unnatural appointment for her; she had lived with a clear conscience, speaking only clear truth. She was ready to meet the end as quickly as possible, for life had lost its fun.

However, Michigan State legislators had thrown up a road-block across her intended route, by making anyone who dared assist people like my mom in her intended self-deliverance guilty of a capital crime, Assisted Suicide. The euthanasia tools allowed in ending a beloved pet's misery did not extend to humans--or should I say, pets and unborn humans.

I traveled from Iowa to Michigan for visits as often as possible. She had fallen into such a dreary mood. I could sometimes squeeze a bit of mirth from her with my remedy for the blues, sheer silliness.

Oy, Betty, the unfairness! my best blue-haired Miami Beach voice would commiserate, as I spoon-fed her chicken soup, --feeling so bad, but looking so good! Nobody around here will ever believe that you’re sick until you start looking the part, Betty! Enough with the beauty already! 

My mother had always taken pride in her appearance, and pursued it with greater diligence than ever--now that grooming had become one of very few activities that she was allowed to do for herself.  Still, it was hard not to betray my own despair at what her end-life promised to be.

She could boast of having the oldest prosthetic hip on record, dating back to 1970, but even the brightest of miracles deteriorate, and her orthopedic problems returned with a vengeance in the new millennium. A 2004 surgical revision only made matters worse, and began Betty Tasseff's end-life blues—a slow journey down ever-rougher roads that by December of 2005 had deposited her in her present situation.

Her joy of living had departed, her independence was lost, yet she continued to see with the same discerning mind that had earned for her the highest female position in the Detroit office of World War II’s Manhattan Project.
The Audrain Family of Fairland, Oklahoma 1919.  Richard Audrain, top center, donated
Betty's Biological Inheritance on the Paternal Side, but He Met Her in Later Life only Once. 
She was a liberated woman well ahead of the feminist movement, and a free-thinker of the practical variety all of her life--advocating the right to arrange one’s own death well before Detroit-area pathologist Dr. Jack Kevorkian attracted local notoriety.

In 1990, when Jack Kevorkian was undertaking his first recruiting effort for terminal patients, Mom had me investigate him and his "suicide machine" for my father George Tasseff, then terminally ill with bone cancer. Dad was suffering the pains of the damned, and saw nothing ahead but more misery--and how he detested hospitals!

Large doses of narcotic painkillers had knocked my dad into a perpetual hallucination, in which he believed himself was back in 1925 elementary school, ten years old again. His catheter must have been bothersome, for he kept raising his hand like a kid in the school room, asking each unrecognized visitor to his hospital room for permission to “go to town”—depression-era Highland Park euphemism for using the boy’s room--as in, "Teacher! Teacher! May I go to town? Teacher! May I go to town?"

Over the phone, Jack Kevorkian made it clear that any test-pilot for his lethal contraption--his highly publicized, but still untested suicide machine--had to be in full possession of his mental faculties before such an agreement could be reached. I had to call Doctor Kevorkian a second time only days later to let him know that my father hadn't regained his mental competency, or even regained consciousness.

In fact, my dad died just a couple of hours after his rotation radiologist--eager to enroll him in a pilot-study of experimental pain-reduction technique--had prognosticated that he "might live for another six weeks, another 6 months, or even another six years"—in the excruciating pain caused by his cancer, should we choose not to enroll him.

Apparently, my dad hadn’t heard about the doctor's schedule, for he died the same day. God dismissed George Tasseff’s classroom early that day, a mercy. Jack Kevorkian continued on to become the national caricature of assisted suicide which he drew broadly and droolingly, showing its worst predilections. Though he was on the right side of the issue, “Doctor Death” tarred death-with-dignity with a gruesome face caused by his personal eccentricities.

Mortality per se didn’t bother Mom. She knew that nobody ever escapes death--especially terminal patients. What did bother Betty Tasseff, a lot, was the mandatory route she had to take to get there--through pain and dehumanization. 

Emily Dickinson’s “although I could not call on death, he kindly stopped for me” did not apply to Mom. Her strong vital signs made for worrisome prospects. Death would creep over her at a snail’s pace, and in the end, did result from starvation and dehydration--but not until after an embarrassingly long decline, capped of by many days of terrifying hallucinations. 

I detested such end-life punishment for an accomplished, gentlewoman like her; and remembered her frequent declarations over cocktails--that when her quality of life was gone, she would find a way to shuffle off the mortal coil, by herself if necessary. Still, I was taken aback when in early 2006 dear old Mom quietly solicited my assistance with the act. She had already waited too long.

She asked me first to get her "something to knock me out . . . permanently." And she had more than just a quick departure in her mind. She wished to depart life in the same manner she had lived it, in control and with a bit of class—cocktails, dinner, home-movies and departing endearments--followed by a self-elected, painless deliverance from final indignities.

How had her end-life been negotiated without her consent?--not for the purposes of faith, hope, and comfort, but by occult mechanisms of support offered by health-industry lobbyists and their deep-pocketed cronies to law-makers. The Michigan legislation wanted to appear justified by pious, abstracted rationale, but my mother's reflections on the applied right to self-deliverance were far more honest.
Betty Zane, age 21, and Richard Scott Audrain (her bio-dad)
pictured at their one and only adult reunion in 1935 Tulsa, OK

There languished my mother, actively planning her illegal act, with me as its Master of Ceremonies. Misery! In a desperate emulation of latter-day bureaucratic doublethink, I prevaricated. I agreed conditionally to help her commit suicide in the Final Exit style, if only she would put her plan on hold for a score of days before carrying it out.  If her heart still cried out for a self-charted final egress on Mother's Day, 2006, my next scheduled visit--well, I would have the necessary ingredients waiting in the car, and I would mix up the lethal concoction and serve it to her myself.

We planned more than a fast getaway. First, the family would enjoy a going-away party for Mom--an affair forever to be remembered, and upon its unhurried conclusion, with my assistance, she would deliver herself in private, and according to the terms dictated by her. She would leave this life well-groomed and in command: just call the mortuary and have them pick me up, she said, and she wasn't kidding. She'd already made her own funeral arrangements; now she was arranging her own demise. It would be the ultimate in Mother's Day gifts. At one point I had made a decision to go with her, to avoid the legal hassle and prison time I would have to face.  Ergo the lie.

Since I was the aspiring writer of our family, the drafting of her final communiqué was left to me. It should lay out the facts to Mom’s sympathizers and detractors alike.  It would have made a spectacular feature piece on Mother's Day, but my cowardice got the better of me.

We all have a natural and a constitutional right to determine our own deaths; and the AMA is long overdue to endorse an acceptable ethic. It was time in 1990 and 2006--and it still is time, more than ever--to jam it down a few key corridors of power. Legal abortion but the illegal right-to-die yourself smacks of the most debased hypocrisy.  All for a few lousy bucks.

The document was never written. This piece is probably as close as I will ever come.

We planned the act for Mother's Day, then some three weeks away. However, following my Spring visit, I began to regret my promise. I could serve many months—years, even--in prison for helping my mom kill herself, despite her desperate desire for euthanasia. From the reports I was getting over the phone, she was almost there anyway--disoriented, incontinent, nauseated, depressed and suffering.  Maybe all the dope had helped her forget the pact we made.

Doctors had enrolled her with a visiting hospice service that began pumping morphine into her by the hour, aiming to build up a lethal dose over time--so much dope that it would be a miracle if she remembered anything at all. I prayed that my mom would have forgotten our suicide confabulations by the time I saw her on Mother's Day, because I just couldn’t go through with my promised assistance under any circumstances.

When I arrived for her special day, her greatly deteriorated condition was evident and awful. She could barely speak—or simply didn’t care to--and was not looking at all her usual well-groomed self. She didn't know day from night and confused present events with the happenings of many years past. She would no longer even look at food, and had even stopped drinking fluids—but when the others left us alone, she looked hopefully at me with the last brightness I would ever see in her eyes, and inquired, had I gotten the stuff?

In 2005, end-of-life services (those tendered in the final year of life) accounted for 20 - 40% of all expenditures made by mammoth Medicare and private co-insurers. An egregious ethical incongruity exists between assisted feticide’s legality and the criminalization of assisted suicide.

Not only had she remembered our pact, it had been ever in her mind--and now her last hope to regain control of a mortal battle had failed her. My shamed look and mumbled excuses said it all. The brightness departed and her look collapsed, utterly crestfallen—like a long-marooned sailor as she watched her rescue-ship sink in plain sight. She only mentioned it once—her son was a big-talker, short on delivering--and let the matter go.

Elizabeth Tasseff wished to die as she had lived, independent and in control of herself. A cocktail hour, shared meal, and evening of conversation would have been vastly preferable to everyone involved than what actually happened. I know she would have presented a happier aspect to me when I was summoned to confirm the ID of her 60-pound remains. It has been years now, and I believe she is still mad at me for being such a coward. But I will not accept all blame for the cruelty of her death. What Michigan's health care system inflicted upon her was disgraceful and egregiously out of line with Hippocratic ethics too.

* * *

A couple of weeks after Mother's Day of 2006 my mother took the precipitous nose-dive we had been warned to expect. Suddenly she was a "gomer"--in the disgruntled, minimum-wage parlance of caregivers--for patients finally rendered comatose and uncomplaining. However, her coma was in no way serene.

We all gathered around her the first night, cradling her hands, touching her, and stroking her hair; but watching in horror as her increased hourly morphine-dose triggered hellish reactions. Her eyes would open in fright, but they registered no sign of recognition, only terrifying hallucination.

We would comfort her until she settled, until the next dark specter would rear up from subconscious depths and tear into her, causing her blind eyes to pop open again, and her hands to grope blindly for someone to cling to--for reassurance she was still alive, I suppose. So the first of her final nights continued, in cycling horror. 

Each labored breath sounded like her last to us, until a hospice nurse apprised Mom's family that her gasping, hallucinatory torture would probably persist for 2 or 3 days before death might kindly stop for her. I remained by her bedside the first night after the others had departed and tried to find anything redeeming in the process. The medical establishment had grown increasingly powerful over my lifetime, and now it was riding rough-herd over highly intelligent men and women seeking to ease and dignify their own exits from life. Frankly, it smacked of racketeering that no self-respecting gangster would stoop to do. 

Although her breathing sounds were absolutely terrifying to me—stertorous, loud, and so labored she might’ve been drowning—and maybe I was hallucinating, but I could swear I heard her subvocatively singing "The Star Spangled Banner" beneath all those awful sounds of struggle. She had always been sincerely patriotic, owing to the real menaces of WWII she helped eliminate.

Maybe not all of her hallucinations were so petrifying. I wasn't with her 24/7. But I do know she must have been ashamed and disgusted, having to submit to this corrupted sinkhole of regulation. There is no market for the kind of suffering she had to swallow--no market except the one that held her captive, created by a handful of unconscionable privateers. 
Elizabeth Ann Hickox Audrain Zane Holly Prill Tasseff
--geez, you piled up a bunch of names, Mom--
born October 18, 1915 in Fairland, Oklahoma
* died May 27, 2006 in Howell, Michigan
Mom had always wished me "an occasional shining moment" as we ended our long-distance, good-night phone calls over the years. I hoped that she was having some shining final moments too, inside her troubled mind, and not entirely tied up in the netherworld of a haunted end-life--five days of agony--but I have my doubts. Saturday May 27, 2006, around dinner time, my mom gave up the ghost.

Smart, practical lady that she was, all she had wanted was permission to skip those last weeks--no big deal, just a bad time avoided. But I know, and I suspect most of us boomers know, as end-life expenditures balloon for the post-WWII generations—already well en route to record-breaking stays at overcrowded 2020 hospices--our Michigan plutocrats will eventually not only be forced to reconsider assisted suicide, soon they'll be peddling it wholesale, basing the improved ethic on nothing beyond financial considerations.

I can’t wait to hear the slogans of fifty years hence--probably slogans like “Death with Dignity and an Ice-Cold Coke” or “Passing Away as It Was Always Meant to Be.” Then, dear Mom, you will have proven your thinking well in advance of the times, as usual. 

Well, you fly off to that happy hour beyond life, Mom, and I'll meet you there once I am done here.

Your loving son,

--Thomas Tasseff, 2006, revised in 2015
Interested in reading about the unusual life transitions of my mother? Click here.