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- January 20, 1992
- Vol. 37
- No. 2
Love Unto Death
When Cancer Robbed Ida Rollin of All of Life's Dignity, NBC Correspondent Betty Rollin Took on Her Toughest Assignment Ever: Helping Her Mother Die
At 5:40 P.M., Ida began swallowing the pills in a prescribed order. She and Betty passed an hour looking through family albums. By 6:30, Ida had grown drowsy again. With heavy movements she reached to caress her daughter's hand, then, for the first time in 52 years, Ida took off her wedding ring. "I am a happy woman," she said. "I made a man happy for 40 years, and I gave birth to a wonderful child.... No one is more grateful. Remember, I am the most happy woman. And this is my wish. I want you to remember..." Before she could finish, Betty broke in. "I love you, Mother," she whispered. But Ida, 40 days after her 76th birthday and suffering from terminal ovarian cancer, remained silent. The drugs had begun lifting her to the final sleep of death.
In the Park Avenue penthouse that NBC News correspondent Betty Rollin, 56, shares with her husband, Harold "Ed" Edwards, 55, not a single picture of her mother is in sight. Even today, six years after the publication of Last Wish, the gut-wrenching account of Rollin's decision to help her mother commit suicide in 1983, reminders of Ida are too painful to bear. "It's hard," says Betty, wiping away tears. "It's hard because I miss her."
This week, amid mounting controversy over euthanasia, ABC is to air Last Wish, a TV movie starring Patty Duke and Maureen Stapleton. To some, presumably including most of the 520,000 Americans who have bought Derek Humphry's Final Exit, the best-selling suicide manual for which Rollin wrote the introduction, the story is one of devotion and courage. To others, like the 54 percent of voters in Washington State who last year rejected a bill that would have allowed doctors to aid a patient's suicide, it raises deeply troubling ethical questions about the right to live and the right to die. "I was generally inclined to believe that euthanasia was a sensible, humane idea," says Rollin. "But when your own mother looks at you and says, 'I want to die. Please help me because I don't know how'—that's very different." Though saddened by the emptiness her mother's death has left in her own life, Betty is at peace with Ida's decision—and with her own role as an accomplice in her death. "This is not a sad thing that happened to her," she says. "It was beautiful and extraordinary. Her suicide was her last wish."
From the beginning, Ida Rollin, born Ida Silverman to Eastern European immigrants, was, in her daughter's eyes, more than just an ordinary mother. In the Rollins' working-class neighborhood in suburban Yonkers, adjoining Greater New York, Ida was a free spirit and a sort of semiofficial social director. "After school, she would feed everybody," says Betty. "She was such a question asker. She would be waiting for the bus and she would make a friend."
Ida was also considered something of a local nut. In the early 1950s, recalls Betty, the state announced plans to build a highway over the Rollins' neighborhood and doled out cash settlements for the houses to be demolished. Ida accepted the money for her own home, then bought another condemned house, which she preferred, for $1 and hired a trailer to lug it to another area. As Ida coolly directed the gigantic hulk down the street, her neighbors—and family—gaped in astonishment. "Oh, my God, Ida," bellowed Betty's father, Leon, a wholesale hardware and rubber supplier, "now you're going too far!"
In Betty's eyes, though, it was just Mom being Mom. In fact, Ida directed all her family's affairs—and especially her only child's upbringing—with the same can-do determination. "She was bossy, hardheaded and smart," says Betty. As an adolescent, laboring at Ida's behest over piano, painting and drama lessons, Betty good-naturedly suffered her mother's strict devotion. But by college her tolerance had worn thin. Accepted in 1953 by Sarah Lawrence, Betty made plans to move to the campus 10 miles away in Bronxville. So did her mother. "She understood it would be a nice thing for me to live at college, so she said, 'Okay, live there, but we're four blocks away, so you can come home for healthy food,' " says Betty, who began to rebel in every way she knew how. "I wore nothing but black," she recalls. "I went out with men who were 'inappropriate'—too old or in some weird profession. I chose friends who were dirty and disagreeable. I would have worn a ring through my nose."
There was no need. "My mother," says Rollin, "was miserable."
After graduating in 1957 with a B.A. in liberal arts, Rollin performed off-Broadway, in summer stock and in television productions for five years before deciding that acting was "the stupidest" profession. "I thought, 'You're always looking for work, then you get a job, and you're in this god-awful piece of trash that doesn't do anybody any good. Who needs it?' " For the next five years, Rollin spent much of each week on her psychiatrist's couch, trying to figure out what, in fact, she did need.
To pay the doctor bills, she took up writing. Rollin published her first article, on actresses who did television commercials, in McCall's in 1963. The following year she was hired as an editor at Vogue, then moved to Look. Before long, she was traveling the world, interviewing Coco Chanel in Paris one day, Federico Fellini in Rome the next.
It was professional success by everyone's standards—including Ida's—but as for her daughter's personal life, Ida wanted more. Each week, says Rollin, the two met for lunch in a Manhattan tearoom, and each week Ida tried to set her daughter straight: "She would tell me—as if I had never heard it before—why this was good for me and that was bad. She couldn't figure out why I couldn't meet a nice guy and get married, like everybody else." But the proffered wisdom did little good. Betty continued dating unsuitable men and, worse, writing columns for Look under headlines like MOTHERHOOD: WHO NEEDS IT?
In 1972 Rollin married science fiction writer Arthur Herzog III. Three years later she discovered a lump in her left breast and within months found herself in New York City's Beth Israel Medical Center recovering from a modified radical mastectomy. Suddenly she discovered why women need mothers: Ida was a constant presence at her bedside. "I was really in shock," says Betty. "At first I felt damaged and ugly. I needed to talk, and my mother just sat there hour after hour, day after day, just listening." Typically, Ida approached her daughter's cancer with less gush than good sense. "She wasn't too sympathetic," says Rollin. "When I got cancer, her attitude was, 'At first it was a horrible shock, but it's small, and they removed it all, and isn't she lucky!' It was part of my mother's practical nature to make the best of things."
The cancer forced Rollin to rethink many things, including her relationship with Herzog, whom she divorced in 1975. "I felt, 'I'm in this marriage that isn't great, and I could die soon, and I don't have any time to waste,' " she explains. She moved to Boston and began writing First, You Cry, her 1976 best-seller about the breast-cancer ordeal, which became a TV movie starring Mary Tyler Moore. That same year, her father died of a heart attack at age 72. Betty returned to New York City and her job with NBC, which she'd taken after Look folded in 1972, and moved into an apartment with her mother. "We were both healing," says Rollin, who from that time onward considered Ida her best friend. As for the difficult years, when her every decision caused Ida pain, she says, "I think it was that very necessary dance that mothers and daughters do. You're bonded, you break away, and then of course we were together again."
To Ida, recovering from Leon's death meant rediscovering her own life. She enrolled in piano and folk-dancing classes and took courses in nutrition and philosophy. Then two years after Leon died, Ida met Alvin Rowes, a real estate broker seven years her junior. For the next eight years they saw each other once a week, on Thursday nights. "Thursday was the only day I could never talk to my mother," says Rollin. "She started to prepare in the morning, laying out what she would wear, then having her hair done, making healthful little hors d'oeuvres."
Betty, meanwhile, met a man so unnervingly "appropriate" he aroused suspicion. Ed Edwards, a New York University mathematics professor, was "handsome, funny, brilliant, 40 and never married," she says. "I thought, 'He's gay or he's crazy.' " Having determined he was neither, Betty married him in 1979—to her and Ida's total delight. Recalls Rollin: "I kept thinking, 'Something's wrong here, because life isn't like this.' "
Soon afterward, it turned out she was right. In the spring of 1981, Ida learned she had ovarian cancer. "It was a horrible shock," recalls Betty. "I'd been through cancer myself, so I should have thought it would be possible for my mother to get it, but I didn't." If Ida felt fear or self-pity, never once did she show it. "She said, 'The doctors told me I'll have to have chemotherapy. Well, that's fine. A lot of people have chemo,' " Betty recalls.
Positive thinking, of course, could not dispel the pain that racked Ida's body when, once a month, she was hooked up to an IV. "She would vomit every 15 minutes," says Betty. "It was a torture." Though the treatments ravaged her body, Ida refused to let them crush her spirit. "Go home, you look terrible," she would tell Betty and Ed as they kept vigil at her hospital bedside. "You're too thin. What are you eating?"
When the chemotherapy ended after eight months, Ida wasted little time getting back to her folk-dancing classes. It was with both gratitude and joy that on Sept. 6, 1982, she climbed into a horse-drawn carriage in Manhattan's Central Park with Betty, Ed and Alvin and raised a glass of champagne in honor of her 75th birthday.
At the time, no one believed it would be her last. But her cancer was still growing. In June 1983 her doctors recommended more chemotherapy, and to Betty's astonishment, Ida agreed. "I thought, 'Oh, my God, is she going to put herself through this hell again?' But she wanted to live." If the first round of treatments had been difficult, the second was devastating. "She was so helpless," says Betty. "She'd vomit in the hospital, and then I'd come to take her home and the taxi would be jerking around, and at home she'd throw up some more." After two sessions, the doctors told Ida she was too weak to withstand the treatment.
The prognosis was grim. Ida's tumor was inoperable—and growing. It was pressing against her bowels, hurting her, blocking her intestines, making it difficult to eat or even swallow. "It was at that point," says Betty, "that she decided to die. 'I've had a wonderful life, but now it's over,' she said. 'It's time to go.' "
Betty could not admit that. "When she first said it, I thought, 'She's having a bad day,' " she says. "I couldn't bear to think she meant it." But Ida persisted. "I've got to end this," she told her daughter. "Please help me."
Finally Betty agreed. "Once it was clear to me that this was her true wish," she says, "it was just a question of how." But "how" turned out to be a question as daunting as it was agonizing. Ed and Betty discussed various scenarios. Carbon-monoxide poisoning? No, they didn't own a car, and renting one would seem suspicious. Arsenic or cyanide? They didn't know how to obtain either. "What about a gun?" Betty asked Ed. She'd done a story on a gang in Puerto Rico and thought maybe they would send her one. But even as she voiced the thought, the absurdity made her cringe. "This is crazy," she moaned. Ida deserved to die with dignity, and this was becoming a farce. "We'll have to find a way she can just go to sleep," Rollin told her husband.
If prescription drugs were the obvious solution, it was far from easy. Every time Rollin called a pharmacist or doctor to inquire, hypothetically, "if a person wanted to die, what sort of pills would work?" the answer was the same: "Under no circumstances will I give out that information." Some people simply hung up on her. Nor did it help when she feigned professional curiosity and, introducing herself to doctors as Betty Rollin, NBC correspondent, again inquired, "What would it take?..." Still a curt goodbye was her only response. "It was cutting me up," says Rollin. "I had to get her out of this trap."
Finally a friend put Rollin in contact with a doctor in Europe who supported euthanasia. He told Rollin what pills, in what combinations, would ensure a peaceful death for a woman of Ida's body weight. "I was so grateful, I cried," says Betty. When she told her mother, Ida too was overcome—not with sadness or apprehension but with a reassuring sense of freedom and tranquillity. "She was so relieved just to know the pills were there," says Betty. "Even if she didn't choose to take them, even if she chose not to die, she knew she could get out."
Ida, of course, did choose to die. On Oct. 13, she called Betty and Ed to her home, pulled out her calendar and made a schedule. "She wanted to do it soon," says Betty. "She was worried about her digestion. She wanted to be sure she could swallow the pills." On the morning of Oct. 17, Ida's chosen day, Betty went numb. "I went to the hairdresser and just walked around the city. I was trying to keep myself busy," she says. "I was in such a state, far too tense even to cry." Ida, though, was business as usual. By evening, she'd made sure her finances were in order, advised Betty on how to sell the apartment—"With the furniture, you'll get a higher price"—and then, in the comfort of her home, in the company of the daughter and son-in-law she loved, she bade her life farewell. When she drifted off to sleep, a neighbor came in, as arranged, to sit through to the end, and Betty walked out. "That's when I broke," says Rollin. "I went into the next room and fell on the floor."
More than eight years have passed since that strange, sad day, and for Rollin, who has seen the television version of Last Wish three times—"Each time I cry," she says—life today is generally on the lighter side. Between assignments for NBC's Nightly News and the Today show, she spends evenings with Ed, playing Scrabble and, says Betty, cooking "balanced meals my mother would approve of." Still, since she lost her second breast to cancer in 1985, thoughts of death are never far from Rollin's mind. "I hope to die in my sleep at 90, but I don't especially expect to," she says, glancing at the copy of Final Exit prominently displayed on her coffee table. "If I ever get to a place where my life is virtually gone and I decide I want to get out, I'm glad I know how."
KAREN S. SCHNEIDER
SUE CARSWELL in New York City
- Sue Carswell.
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