On a Sunday evening in July 2018, my 81-year-old mother raised a small red glass to her lips. In it was a mixture of water, grape juice and 10,000 milligrams of Seconal powder, a massively fatal dose of a barbiturate most commonly used for insomnia. She was sitting up in a hospital bed in her Washington, D.C., home, bathed in warm early evening light and wearing a thin white nightgown. She had spent the weekend calling close friends and loved ones to say goodbye, and chatting and passing time with me, my sister and all her grandchildren. A matriarchal figure, always vocal in her opinions, she took the time to dispense some final grandmotherly advice. “Don’t drink too much in your first year of college.” “Stop worrying so much about applying to college.” “No more tattoos.”
Finally, there was nothing more to say. Surrounded by family, she seemed composed and unafraid, ready to shed the anxiety, pain and humiliations that come with terminal lung cancer. Without the slightest hesitation, she drained the glass and lay back on her pillows. Within a minute, her features softened and her eyes closed. She fell into a heavy sleep, her breath audible. It wasn’t long before her breathing slowed, and then stopped.