March 16, 2017
Nikki Gemmell: I feel like I failed mum at last hurdle …
The Australian Women's Weekly (March 2017)
Elayn Gemmell was a Life Member of Exit International.
Dr Fiona Stewart remembers her as a polite, gentle but intensely independent woman. ‘Elayn was very grateful to Exit for the supportive environment it provided her. In some ways she is typical of our members: headstrong, independent and acutely aware of the unfairness of old age’.
By phone and in person she would want to chat about society’s ‘unhelpful’ (her words) attitude towards a person’s right to decide the time and place of their death. She was immensely comforted to know that she was not alone in the values she held about death and dying.
While, on occasion, Exit did encourage her to talk about her thoughts and feelings with her family, she was not the type of person who could be told what to do.
The decision was hers. Everyone at Exit respected that and her decision to do things her way.
This is her daughter’s story.
Elayn Gemmell – a woman of vivid living and mature years – orders in a home delivery of alcohol. She doesn’t usually drink; it’s always been only the occasional glass of bubbles for her, perhaps mixed with orange juice, at a celebration. But this is different.
She sits down in her favourite armchair in front of the television, pours herself a tumbler of Baileys Irish Cream; an old favourite from her younger, glamorous years. Then she starts swallowing pills.
Opioids. That she’s been collecting. That she’s become addicted to after an operation to fix the chronic pain in her foot. An operation she was talked into by a surgeon of silky persuasiveness.
That cost an enormous amount of money, that did not work. An operation which led to a taste for painkillers that turned into an addiction. And eventually the effectiveness of the opioids waned and this woman of vivid living felt despairing and trapped.
She couldn’t see a way clear of the pain that was now holding her life hostage.
Elayn’s spine had been thrown out of kilter for 11 long months after the operation, her steady gait broken. She was now reliant on a walking stick, twisted around it like a crone in a fairytale. And she was a woman who highly valued independence.
A former model who ended up in the corporate sector, she dreaded getting old and losing her vivacity; dreaded invisibility and a nursing home. Relinquishing control. Not having a choice about how to end her life on her own terms.
Elayn was found by some builders the following morning, who let themselves into her flat because they were renovating her bathroom. Initially, they thought she was asleep.
When two police officers rang my doorbell several hours later, I knew instantly that something was wrong from the set of their faces. “Nicole?”
My chest was clutched in a cliché of dread. There was an internal buckling; their grim faces could only mean one thing.
“The children?” I gasped. “No.” The officers were quick with reassurance; they’d done this before. But their faces were not letting me off. “Can we come inside?” The young female officer didn’t want spectacle at my too-public front gate.
“My husband?” A quick shaking of heads – no, thank God, no – as the three of us were enveloped by the house’s embrace.
“It’s your mother.”
I knew in that instant that Elayn was dead. How she’d done it. And why.
My mum had euthanised herself. At a point of despair, addled by her drugs and a sense of utter hopelessness, and the knowledge that she could no longer drive because of the effect of the pain on her body.
She was facing a future of agony, alone in her flat, without the use of her precious car that gave her her cherished independence – and with crippling pain now her constant, bullying companion.
Elayn did not alert any of her three children of her intentions. She was careful in that respect. This was to save us from possible police charges – if we had aided her euthanasia death, we could have been charged as accessories. She looked after us, but she broke us.
As the police officers were informing me of my mother’s desolate death several hours after she was discovered, one of them pulled out a notebook to record what I was saying.
“Has Mum done something wrong?” I asked, bewildered. A pause. “Have I?” Because at that moment it dawned on me that this was a police investigation as well as a courtesy visit.
What my mother did was shocking and mystifying to a lot of people close to her. I spent a year after her death unravelling her actions, diving into the world of euthanasia, chronic pain and opioid use.
Eventually, it turned into a book called After; an immense healing process for me because I write to answer questions, to understand.
I discovered that Elayn had done a lot of research about the vexed issue of euthanasia in Australia.
She had been in contact over eight years with contentious advocate Doctor Philip Nitschke and had attended forums conducted by his organisation, Exit International.
She had read his manual for a serene death – The Peaceful Pill Handbook. In fact, the police had seized her copy after her body was discovered, along with the empty pill bottle beside her and various other items.
A crime scene was declared as her death was unexplained. After is a detective story, in a way, about an unexplained death; a piecing together of what happened and why.
I had to identify my mother’s body in the morgue, alongside my distraught brother. Have you ever done such a thing?
Sitting until your turn among other grief-stricken huddles, all as stunned and traumatised as yourselves, in a waiting room of affronting, public service beigeness.
Being ushered into a cramped viewing room by a coronial assistant who demonstrates infinite tenderness, infinite understanding (and what a job that is).
Viewing your beloved on a thin table, with just a curtain dropping from waist-height dividing you. Holding the hand you know so well, that has held your own hand your entire life; a hand now clawed in what appears to be agony, as if at some final, futile resistance at encroaching death, yet it was most likely the greed of the rigor mortis setting in.
Feeling the familiar flesh that is a strange, condensed cold now; utter, compacted cold. Being unable to take your eyes from the unsettling, slack set of the mouth, the beautiful, model’s lips.
Holding your face to the unyielding cheek and weeping. And weeping. At your poor, darling mother and her desolate final moments. And accompanying it all: the audacious smell of death, already, that these clinical surrounds could not hide.
Elayn’s bleak and lonely death lobbed emotional depth charges throughout many families, many lives, not least my own. It evoked profound questions about choice and control – and consideration of others.
It flooded my existence with a vulnerability I’d never before known. I felt like I’d failed Mum at the last hurdle, was addled by guilt.
I was a swamped professional woman who had been trying to look after my own four kids and husband, as well as an ailing elderly mum, around the cram of work and had not been doing any of it to the best of my ability.
I ended up feeling like I was failing everyone, while trying to do everything.
School runs and housework, and writing commitments and ferrying kids to after-school activities, as well as Elayn to her doctor’s appointments, as well as picking up her takeaway grilled fish, or not, sometimes, because I was several suburbs away at a kid’s soccer match typing a newspaper column on my laptop while sitting in the driver’s seat of my car.
I was the modern career mother who seemed like I had it all, yet in reality, couldn’t quite manage it all.
And I had failed, comprehensively, with this traumatic situation with Mum, the first reeling failure in my life. A new, prickly, unhinged woman emerged from the desolation of grief. I was broken by despair, felt like I was a danger to myself and others, was falling out with friends and exploding with anger over trivialities in supermarket car parks and on the road.
And what amazed me is that you can feel like you’re drowning, can be in the midst of a breakdown, without anyone around you really noticing.
What my mother did was shocking and mystifying.
Who was my mother? Complex, vivid, charismatic Elayn Gemmell was a Hunter Valley girl who became a model in the 1950s and ’60s.
She was photographed by the likes of Max Dupain and Laurence Le Guay in ad campaigns for Remington, Frigidaire, David Jones and Anthony Hordern’s department store among others.
She then disappeared into a world of marriage and domesticity in the Wollongong suburbs and became someone else entirely. Post-divorce, she reinvented herself as a corporate manager for what was then known as Telecom.
Elayn fought for control over her destiny her entire life. Did she win, finally, with the final, decisive, act of her life? Or was it a fit of selfishness, despair, pique, to go when she did, so suddenly, without warning to those closest to her?
As a daughter, I had failed my mother by not listening to her enough when she had spoken of her interest in euthanasia. I’d get emotional, mention the grandkids, the youngest, my little Jago, then just four.
I’d put my hands over my ears like a child myself and burst into tears – “Don’t you want to see the grandkids grow up?”
In hindsight, I’d do it all differently.
I didn’t give Elayn enough air in the conversation. Didn’t take a deep breath and talk calmly with her, asking questions and attempting to understand where she was coming from.
As I investigated the circumstances of my mother’s death, I got to know Philip Nitschke. Asked him why so many elderly Australians don’t talk of their euthanasia plans with their families.
He said often it’s because adult children try to prevent the situation from happening; they call the police, or bring in psychiatrists, do anything to try and thwart the elderly parent’s intentions.
I wouldn’t have, but Mum wasn’t to know that. Perhaps by keeping relatively silent, she was covering her bases. I imagine she wanted simplicity. No complication, emotional clutter and complication.
The constable who asked me to come into the station and give a statement – who spoke to Mum’s doctors, who prepared a report for the Coroner – told me she can’t believe how many times she’s seen this.
Euthanasia deaths involving elderly Australians taking matters into their own hands and quietly slipping away. “But it’s hidden, no one talks about it,” she said.
I’m haunted by the fact that if Australia’s laws had enabled Elayn to have a legal, carefully thought through, end-of-life plan in place, she would have had peace of mind.
Would have been able to spend her final months with joy, seizing the exhilaration of all her favourite things in life in a great celebration of travel, restaurants, theatre, galleries, friends and family. Instead, my mother endured a joyless final year of despair, fear and terror, which ended in an act of enormous loneliness.
This is a modern story for modern times. A story of busy, swamped, middle-aged children and left-behind elderly parents facing futures of uncertainty and fear.
Parents who may be broken in some way, but are unwilling or unable to articulate it; parents who don’t want to be “a bother” to anyone.
It’s about people who want to end their lives on their own terms, who want to be in control. But how do they do it in a country that doesn’t allow them to do it?
Do they tell their families – or not? Do they make partners, children and doctors culpable? If they do, the law dictates that those people may be investigated as accessories after the fact.
Or do these very determined people in our midst keep silent, but then rock to the core those closest to them with a death bleakened by aloneness.
It’s a universal human desire to be needed, yet Elayn decided she didn’t need anyone alongside her with this, the biggest decision of her life. But she left many people broken because of that decision. Grandchildren as well as children and friends.
Was what she did an act of empowerment – or despair? After is about ageing and failing, mothers and daughters, grandmothers and grandchildren, responsibility and selfishness, the triumph of pain and the destructiveness of guilt, breakdown and recovery – and love, so much love, most of all.
In hindsight, I’d do it all differently.