You may have heard about Brittany Maynard. She’s the 29-year-old newlywed who recently moved from the San Francisco area to Portland to avail herself of Oregon’s assisted suicide law. She’s got inoperable brain cancer, a prognosis of imminent death, and wants to assert her right to die under Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act rather than endure the pain and suffering of a long, drawn-out end to her life.
I support the Oregon law (enacted back in 1997) and I don’t begrudge Brittany at all for her decision, nor any of the national media attention she’s garnered.
Almost certainly, though, you haven’t heard of Carol, an elderly neighborhood resident whose recent passing prompted me to write a short Facebook post about how sad it must be to die alone.
In the days following her death, I noticed the memorial flower pot someone had left on her porch was gone. A couple days later, there were two giant Dumpsters parked outside her house — one in the driveway, one in the street. A five-person crew of workers in white overalls and face masks made countless trips in and out of the aging house, carrying out black plastic garbage sacks filled with who-knows-what. The job isn’t finished yet, either, as Carol lived in a massive two-story house with a full basement and third-floor attic on a corner lot.
Seeing the twin Dumpsters — an estimated 20 feet long, 8 feet wide, 7 feet tall — fill up with trash made me think of another neighbor one street away, who also died alone earlier this year, and of my mother, who died a little over a year ago. In the case of the two neighbors, it was an unceremonious process of emptying out a place that had filled to capacity with personal possessions that now were destined for a landfill.
In my mom’s case, we had moved her into a group home and begun a similar process of cleaning out the home while she was in the final months of her life. It was sobering to realize that so many things she had saved through the decades had to be discarded, of necessity, to make room for an eventual buyer of the house.
Seeing Carol’s house emptied of its contents made me realize another sad aspect to her death. Once those Dumpsters are gone, and not long after someone buys the house and puts in the work to make it a home, it will be as if Carol never lived there.
What a contrast to Brittany Maynard.
Here you have a young, attractive woman with a terminally ill disease who’s about to experience a very public death. She’ll be remembered by many as “the new face of the movement to give dying patients the choice to end their lives faster and more humanely.”
And here in my neighborhood you have just the opposite: an ordinary woman named Carol. A woman who died old, poor and alone. Anonymously.