I Killed My Parents -- They Asked Me to Do It
In November 1998, John West's father, who had recently been diagnosed with cancer, asked him an extraordinary favor: help him commit suicide. After the tremendous weight of those words settled squarely on West's shoulders, he looked at his father and said the only thing he knew to say, "You got it." So, on the evening of July 2, 1999, John helped his father take a cocktail of pills. By morning, he was dead. The death was attributed to the cancer, and only West knew better. Months later, his mother asked West the same devastating favor and, again, he agreed. For more than a decade, West kept the secrets to himself, not even telling his sisters the role he had played. Now, he is coming out with his side of the story in The Last Goodnights: Assisting My Parents with Their Suicides Counterpoint Press, 2009). The following is an excerpt from the book.
I don't know what my booze bill was for that time, but I'm sure it was big. I had a good reason, though: I had to kill my parents. They asked me to. Actually, they asked me to help them with their suicides, and I did. And if that doesn't justify throwing back an extra glass or three of Jameson's on the rocks, then I don't know what does.
My father was Louis Jolyon "Jolly" West, MD, a world-renowned psychiatrist and former chairman of the department of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, age seventy-four. My mother was Kathryn "K" West, PhD, a respected clinical psychologist at the West Los Angeles (Brentwood) Veterans Administration Hospital, age seventy-five.
Jolly and K were wonderful people -- brilliant, academic medical professionals, highly cultured, and well rounded. Neither was at all religious, but both had deep insight into the human condition. They knew what was what. And they knew what they wanted.
So when they made their wishes clear to me, I wasn't about to argue. I respected my father and mother, and I loved them. And I believe, as they did, in freedom of choice, the right to personal privacy and self-determination -- which includes reproductive choice (as the law now recognizes, although it didn't used to), the right to refuse medical treatment (as the law now recognizes, although it didn't used to), and the right to choose death with dignity (as the law does not recognize -- not yet -- although a few states are getting close).
My father's desire to end his life did not shock me, especially since his newly discovered cancer -- a particularly vicious type -- was literally eating him up and would take him from playing tennis to lying dead in just five months. Should Jolly have been forced to endure a few more days or weeks of agony just to satisfy some people's notions that death should be "natural"?
And what about my mother? K had midstage Alzheimer's disease, plus osteoporosis and emphysema. Should she have been forced to deteriorate into a walking vegetable, soiling herself, wandering into traffic, hunched over like a crab, and coughing up blood, just because some people say that's how it's always been and always should be?
Jolly and K said no. And I agreed.
I had no idea what my father wanted to talk to me about that afternoon in early November 1998 when he asked me to step into his bedroom for a private chat. But I was used to Jolly's secretiveness, so I didn't find it odd that he would suggest it, particularly with a houseful of visiting relatives and no privacy anywhere but behind a locked door. I assumed he had some additional bad news about the status of his cancer, something he wanted to tell me first, since I would be his successor in the role of what Jolly liked to call "the man of the family." An outdated concept, perhaps, but one that, unfortunately, applied more to our family than I liked. After Jolly's death, I would be the one member of the family who could be called solid, competent, and reliable. My mother had once been an ultra-competent professional, but various illnesses had left her needy and dependent. I had two sisters, both older than I, but Jolly never felt they could properly handle complicated or stressful "real world" matters. Years of experience and many disappointments had informed his opinion.
I sat in the big leather chair by the bookshelves, prepared to wait. Whenever Jolly talked to me about something important, he approached it in a roundabout way.
But not this time. Straight away he said, "John, I need your help."
This startled me -- doubly so. He was being direct, which was rare enough. And he was asking for help. Jolly never asked for help. His smoothly contained persona, Mr. Totally In Control, had just popped open right in front of me. Not that any outsider would have noticed, because Jolly's demeanor was exactly the same as it was whenever he discussed anything important: His voice was measured and smooth; he sat squarely on the edge of his bed, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees and his hands clasped; he looked straight at me, seriously and intently, but his face showed little more than mild concern. His face rarely gave anything away. Only his words betrayed him now.
"I'm dying," he said. "That's no secret -- everyone knows it. I don't have more than a few months, at most. But I do have something that is very important to me. I have options about how and when my death will occur."
He paused to let this sink in.
"At some point," he continued, "not too long from now, I will decide that enough is enough. By that time I will be full of all sorts of drugs, particularly the morphine that I'm already taking for pain. A little extra of that should do the trick, without anyone having to know and get upset."
He paused again and looked out the window.
I sat up in my chair. I suddenly felt hot and cold at the same time, as I realized what he meant. But as powerfully as his words registered, the idea behind them didn't seem strange at all. It made sense. He was about to die anyway, so why linger in pain? I knew I'd want to do the same thing if I were in his position.
I didn't know what to say, so I kept quiet and waited for him to continue. I don't know if I could have said anything even if I'd wanted to, because I was still somewhat stunned, not only by the intensity of what he'd told me, but also because I'd never expected him to share thoughts like these with me.
Still looking out the window, he continued, "My body is full of cancer. If I knock off a little ahead of schedule, nobody's going to know the difference, and I'll have saved myself a hell of a lot of pain."
Then he looked straight at me. "But I'll need you on board, to help me."
A question was implied, but we both knew what the answer would be. I nodded and said, "You got it."
I didn't register much of what he said right after that, because I was still having trouble processing the whole strange scene. Here we were, my father and I, sitting in his bedroom, calmly talking about his committing suicide. With me "onboard," whatever that meant.
What it meant, I soon learned, was more than I had ever imagined. And then some.
Six weeks earlier, Jolly had phoned me at my home in Seattle from his office at UCLA. "I have some bad news, Johnny," he said.
I stopped stirring the soup I had on the stove. My first thought flashed on my mother: K had been declining, with a variety of ailments, for a few years now. Had she taken an unexpected turn for the worse? Or was Jolly just being overdramatic about something else, something relatively innocuous? He often did that.
"What is it?" I asked warily, hoping he wouldn't confirm my fear about K.
"Well," he said, taking a deep breath before continuing, "I had a pain in my hip that I thought was just my arthritis kicking up. I tried to ignore it, but when it got to the point where I needed a cane to get around, I thought I'd better get it looked at."
I was relieved that the bad news wasn't about K, but suddenly realized that it must be extraordinarily bad news about Jolly, because he never talked openly about his own health problems. Never.
"The radiologist took an X-ray of my hip but didn't like what he saw on the film, so he did a full-body bone scan." My stomach sank as I instantly imagined the worst.
"When he put the scan film up on the box, it took me about ten seconds to register what I saw. There were metastases throughout my skeleton. Cancer everywhere. I realized I was looking at a death sentence."
He paused, but I couldn't speak. I was too surprised, completely unprepared for this. He'd been just fine, last I'd heard, and now he was about to die?
He continued, almost casually, "The radiologist said he thought I had about six months to live. I think that's optimistic. I'd say it's closer to four."
I stood there frozen, the phone jammed against my ear. I couldn't believe it. This wasn't possible. Jolly had always been extraordinarily healthy and strong. Hell, he still had more hair than I did. And even though he'd been overweight for many years, he'd never seemed unhealthy -- just incredibly big, powerful, sturdy.
Part of what stunned me, surely, was the suddenness of it all, and hearing it over the phone, instead of in person. The soup I'd been making started to boil over on the stove, but I couldn't move. I waited for Jolly to say something else, but the phone was quiet.
I didn't know what to say, so I just blathered the first things that came to mind.
"Jeez, Dad, I'm really sorry. Are you in a lot of pain? What happens next?"
"Well," he said, then sighed heavily, "I'm not in much pain. Not yet. Typically, the next step would be to start a regimen of chemotherapy and radiation, but I'm not sure I want to subject myself to that. I'm going to get additional information over the next few days, and then start making decisions."
Dozens of thoughts jumped through my head, but I tried to focus and concentrate on practical matters. I started to pace, the long phone cord whipping back and forth in my wake.
"What about Mom?" I asked. "How is she holding up?"
"She's okay at the moment, but she's putting on a brave face. I know she's worried as hell, and, of course, I'm worried about her, too. Her health isn't much better than mine. That's something else you and I will have to discuss when you're down here next."
"Of course, of course," I said, the implications of his words starting to ignite in my mind. K's fragile condition could deteriorate rapidly from the stress of Jolly's illness and eventual death.
Then another worry hit me: "What about Anne and Mary? Have you told them about your diagnosis yet?"
"Yes, I've talked with both your sisters."
"How are they taking it?"
"Well," he sighed again, "pretty much true to form -- you know how they are. Annie is wound up beyond all reason." He chuckled sadly. "I had to spend almost an hour calming her down and reassuring her that I wasn't already in extremis. Mary was shocked and flustered at first, but put on a good show of acting calm, even though it's obvious she's frightened." He paused and then said pointedly, "You know that both your sisters are going to need your help with what's ahead."
"I know," I said. Both Anne and Mary had had deeply troubled relationships with Jolly and K over the years, and I'd fallen into the role of sometime caretaker. Relative calm seemed to prevail with them at the moment, but Jolly obviously anticipated that would change. At the very least, I knew that Jolly's illness would be extremely difficult for them to cope with.
He continued, "Annie said she's coming to L.A. immediately -- to 'help' -- which your mother and I are not exactly looking forward to. It'll probably be the other way around, for the most part. And Mary said she'd try to come see me more often, but that damn husband of hers makes it difficult."
"Yeah," I said, "I know."
"What about you?" he asked. "Will your schedule allow you to come down here for a visit? I know you're busy lawyering and helping folks."
"Don't worry," I said, "I'll make arrangements. I'll clear some things off my calendar and come down there as soon as I can."
"No rush," he said. "I'm really not feeling too bad. And I'm not going anywhere. Not yet, anyway."
I could tell by his tone that he was trying to joke about his impending demise, so I chuckled appreciatively and said, "Right." He chuckled too, glad I'd gotten it.
Then I said, "Keep me posted, all right? And if there's anything I can do to help out down there, just let me know."
"Okay, Son," he said. "I'll keep you apprised."
"Okay, Dad. Talk to you soon."
"So long," he said, and hung up.
I stood there staring at the phone, still stunned, until the smell of scorched soup demanded my attention. As I cleaned up the stove, I replayed the phone call over and over in my mind. It didn't make any sense. He sounded healthy, and he was only seventy-four -- maybe his doctors had made a mistake and would catch it any day now. But even as I thought that, I knew it was a typical denial reaction. There hadn't been any mistake. The cancer was there. Jolly was dying.
I knew that Jolly had access to hundreds, maybe even thousands, of doctors at UCLA Hospital, where he worked, and that he'd get the absolute best medical care. My offer to help was an instinct, a reflex, what someone says. I didn't know what help I could actually be. But I found out six weeks later, when he called me into his bedroom for that private chat. Jolly's directness and request for help during that conversation had surprised me, but I understood what it meant: all business. He would be as detached, dispassionate, and professional in ending his own life as he had been during any other medical crisis in his fifty-year career. And he would expect me to follow suit. But although I knew (and he did, too) that I could remain calm and professional in a crisis, this was not a professional situation -- this was my father, and his suicide, and my participation. I knew I'd have to steel myself like never before in order to handle the pressures that would surely come.
I was used to pressure. A career as a trial lawyer is not for the easily rattled. I could think on my feet, stay calm, and keep a straight face. But assisting Jolly with his suicide promised complexities I wouldn't be able to anticipate. It would be like getting plucked out of my office and tossed into the middle of a jury trial without knowing what the case was about. I'd still be expected to do my job -- and maybe I could, to some degree. But this wasn't a court case; it was my father's life.
I knew I couldn't talk about this with anyone, not even my closest friends, because it might put me, and possibly them, in legal jeopardy. They could be forced to testify against me, or one of them might accidentally let it slip to somebody else who might call the cops or possibly . . . I don't know -- I just didn't feel that I could run the risk of exposing such intimate and potentially incendiary information to anybody. Keeping professional secrets is stressful enough, but this . . . damn!
Another thing I found troubling was that I had no idea when this business would happen, or how long I would be involved in . . . whatever it turned out to be. Would I have to be in L.A. a lot? How could I schedule my absences from work? It isn't easy to leave a small law firm, or any small business, for more than a few days at a time, particularly when you're the person in charge. Even though I had a partner and support staff, there wasn't much work I could delegate. My specialty -- representing victims of employment discrimination and sexual harassment -- required an extra level of personal attention because of the intensely personal nature of the harm my clients had suffered. As an attorney I sometimes felt like St. George battling the dragon, particularly when I represented women who had been sexually assaulted in the workplace.
I always put too much of myself into my work. I felt it would be nearly impossible for me to do my job properly if I weren't in the office and able to deal with my clients directly and promptly. All I could think to do, to at least try to lessen the demands on my time and my mind, was stop taking new cases. Maybe that would give me the mental elbow room I knew I'd need to deal with whatever Jolly wanted from me.
A week after Jolly called and told me about his diagnosis, and five weeks before he asked for my help during that bedroom chat, I flew from Seattle to L.A. for his seventy-fourth birthday. We all knew this would be his last, so my sisters came too: Anne from New York City, and Mary from Northern California. Neither brought her husband.
I felt nervous about seeing Jolly, and not just because of the extreme changes looming over him and the rest of the family. Until he'd phoned me with his bad news, I hadn't planned on attending his birthday party -- or any other event involving him -- because our recent relationship had not been good. For a long time, Jolly's philandering had been an open secret in our family, but it had never intruded directly on our lives until two years before. Decades of polite, quiet disagreement about Jolly's behavior had finally become pointed conflict when he made the bewildering decision to start bringing into our home, and into the homes of old family friends, his newly admitted illegitimate child -- an adolescent boy. I had told Jolly that this was highly inappropriate and painful to the family (and embarrassing to the old family friends), and that it was especially hurtful, insulting, and disrespectful to K. I stood up for K because she was in no position to stand up to Jolly anymore, due to her failing health and increased dependence on him. K and I had always been close, and now that her health and strength were declining, I felt more and more protective of her.
I'd told Jolly that if he wanted to spend time with this boy, there were numerous other places they could go -- places on the other side of town, where the boy's mother lived; places that wouldn't be so offensive to basic notions of decency, discretion, and tact. Los Angeles is not a small town; it has plenty such places.
Jolly didn't like my telling him that his flaunting a gross indiscretion was wrong, and he refused to stop it. He even tried to twist the situation on me by saying how sad he was that I "didn't like the kid," but I set things straight immediately: I told Jolly that it wasn't the boy I disliked -- I didn't know him well enough to like or dislike him; I'd met him only a time or two, when he was a small child, and long before I'd learned his true lineage. Rather, it was Jolly I didn't like, for behaving in such an astonishingly bad way, especially toward K, his wife of more than fifty years. He'd had no reply to that.
I'd been angry at Jolly for several months afterward, but over time my anger had faded into sadness and disappointment as I mourned the loss of the man I'd once imagined my father to be, and began to know him -- and try to accept him -- for who he really was.
And now, after learning of his illness and thinking -- a lot -- about our relationship, I decided to put our recent conflict aside and act like a son, not a judge. Jolly and I hadn't resolved our old business, but life isn't governed by parliamentary procedure, and the new business -- end-of-life issues -- now took priority.
Besides, until these rough last two years, Jolly and I had had a fine relationship -- friendly, warm, adult. Other than the standard turbulence during my teen years, we'd had a smooth trip. I always felt like I could talk to him about anything. (The fact that he was a doctor made some of what we talked about a lot easier, especially when I was struggling through puberty.) We had the kind of understanding that some fathers and sons have, where the son somehow intuits what his father expects and does it naturally -- and feels proud to have gotten it right. Behavioral scientists probably have a fancy name for it, but it's a common enough phenomenon: sons learning how to please their fathers. And as much as I always refused to admit it -- thinking I had escaped such mundane motivations -- I realize now that I'd always had a deep need to make my father notice me and be proud of me.
Of course, when I was a child I thought of Jolly as a deity, and his frequent absences from home only added to his mythology. He would be in Washington, D.C., battling with the National Institute of Mental Health. Or in Tokyo, pontificating at an international medical conference. Or just over at the hospital, working late.
Ah, yes, "working late." Jolly was a doctor -- tall, handsome, successful, charming, magnetic, and powerful. Catnip to women. (Picture a young Orson Welles, whom Jolly resembled in his youth.) And so it began, and so it continued -- even after he had aged and gained so much weight that, sadly, he'd come to resemble the older, ursine Orson.
Jolly attracted men, too, but in a different way. Men admired him and wanted to be his friend and colleague. This quality made him a formidable recruiter, and over the years he used his persuasive talents to attract many bright young doctors to his department.
Jolly had a true gift for making people feel special. When he wanted to, he could look you in the eye and talk to you and make you feel like you were the most important, fascinating person he'd ever met. Whenever I received this treatment from him, I felt as if Zeus himself had just smiled upon me. He was perhaps the consummate politician. In fact, many have compared him to Bill Clinton because of his powerful charm and intellect (as well as his marital lapses).
Once I arrived at my parents' house and settled into the familiar living room, my earlier nervousness about seeing Jolly subsided. Somehow, everything seemed as normal as ever. Jolly held court from his usual end of the sofa and, surprisingly, showed no sign of his illness. I sat near him, in a chair in front of the fireplace. Mom sat in her usual spot -- the opposite end of the sofa from Dad -- and tried to keep a poker face, although I could see her fretting. Anne and Mary dealt busily with dinner preparations and last-minute gift wrapping and such, occasionally bouncing in for a quick comment, while I caught up with the folks.
It seemed like old times: The conversation was easy and smooth, the usual rhythms. At one point, Jolly said something a bit too humorous and cavalier about his dire condition, and K gently growled at him, "Jolly, don't exaggerate." He sighed and said, "Yes, dear." She rolled her eyes at his response, then said, "Now knock it off, or you'll scare the children!" And they both chuckled. Classic Jolly-and-K banter.
I finally asked Jolly about his plan for dealing with his rapidly advancing cancer. He replied with great sangfroid. "I'm a physician," he said. "I know when my number's up. It's just a question of how to go through the decline. The 'cure' in a case like this is worse than the goddamn disease. I'm not going to do anything drastic to fight it. What's the point? Maybe I'd live a few more weeks, but I wouldn't be able to do anything except lie in bed and suffer."
I was a bit surprised to hear him say this, because I knew he'd already started chemotherapy and radiation treatments, but I also knew that he often said and did contradictory things. Maybe he felt he needed to "keep up appearances" for his colleagues at the hospital by going through the standard treatment regimen. Or maybe he thought, as he did about so much in his life, that things would go differently for him -- that by the sheer force of his considerable will, he could avoid the inevitable side effects of the chemo and radiation.
As Jolly continued, Mom did a good job of remaining stoic. Anne dashed all across the emotional landscape, alternately weeping and vowing grandly to stand by Jolly no matter what, and help him beat the cancer if it was the last thing she ever did. Mary put on a happy face for the most part, although it was obviously forced, and she seemed to shrink in on herself at times, retreating from the intensity of the conversation. I asked questions, remained calm, and tried to be supportive. So we all stayed true to our established familial-behavior patterns.
Dinnertime came and went, Jolly opened his presents with great gusto, and then the party came to an end because I needed to leave for the airport and catch the last flight back to Seattle. I had to be in court with a client the next morning, so I couldn't stay overnight in L.A. I was about to call a cab when Dad volunteered to drive me -- another surprise. He usually hated chores like that. Perhaps he felt the need, as I did, for a few minutes of private conversation.
I kissed Mom and my sisters goodbye, and then Jolly and I got into his car and headed down the freeway to LAX. Jolly loved his Cadillac -- the fanciest car he'd ever owned. When he'd bought the Caddy only a few years earlier, he'd joked about its being black, saying it would be the last car he'd ever own, and that we could drive him to his funeral in it. Now, as he steered it down the freeway, I realized that the joke would come true. I didn't say anything, though -- surely he'd thought of it. I just shook my head at the sad irony.
As we drove along and made small talk, I could tell he had something on his mind -- probably our unfinished old business -- but I knew it would be hard for him to raise that painful subject. So, as we neared the airport, I waded in.
"Listen, Dad, there's something important I want to talk with you about, and I think it's important that I tell you in person, before I get on the plane."
"Okay," he said; he sounded neutral, but I sensed him bracing himself.
"You and I have been having this big disagreement for a couple of years, but I want you to know that I'm through with it. I've been thinking a lot about the whole situation since you told me your medical news, and, well, life-and-death matters -- like what you're facing -- are simply more important. So I want you to know that all that other stuff is moot. It's over and done with, as far as I'm concerned."
I heard him exhale slowly, and I thought I could see his shoulders relax. He didn't say anything for a few seconds, but I could tell he was concentrating, thinking how to respond. He glanced at me, then looked back at the road and said very quietly, "Thank you, Johnny. You don't know how much that relieves my mind."
Then we had to stop at a red light, the last light before we entered the LAX causeway for departing passengers. As we sat there waiting, I heard him sigh, and then the sigh turned into a sob, and I looked over and saw a tear roll down his cheek just before he reached up and wiped it away. It was the only time in my life I ever saw him cry.
Then the light turned green and we drove on in silence. I pointed out the terminal, and Jolly maneuvered the car over to the curb and stopped. We both got out and he came around to my side, his eyes still a little moist. He put his arms out and we hugged, and again he said, "Thank you."
I picked up my briefcase. "Well . . . I love you, Dad."
"I love you too," he said.
And then I had to go.