Good Life, Good Death
Excerpt from the book "Jean's Way" by Derek Humphry
The first nine chapters of Jean's Way recount Jean Humphry's two year battle with cancer, which started in the breast, spread to the bones, and finally metastasized to all her vital organs. Some nine months earlier the couple had made a pact at Jean's instigation that she could take her life if she wished if the final weeks were unbearable to her. Jean had stipulated that she would only do it with Derek's agreement. In Chapter 10 Derek describes her last day before her self-deliverance at their home in the Cotswolds, England.
When I awoke the next morning, I turned my head on my pillow and saw Jean gazing at me. I sensed that she had been lying there looking at me for some time, waiting for the end of my sleep, and I was filled with the premonition that something was the matter. However, I said nothing apart from the usual, "Good morning, darling. How are you feeling?"
"My neck is very bad. I can't move it," Jean replied. I climbed out of bed and prepared her usual dosage of medicines and pain-killing drugs which she swallowed in a gulp. I opened the curtains, remarking on what a clear and bright spring day it was but there was no reaction from Jean who was quiet and reflective, absorbed in her thoughts.
"Shall I get breakfast now?" I asked.
"Yes, good," she replied. "Just tea and toast."
I picked up the morning papers on my way to the kitchen and began to prepare the snack. I kept thinking to myself, what shall I do if she asks if she has reached the end? Am I absolutely certain that it is close to the end? This was the one time when I could not fail her: I would have to be honest and say "Yes." I realized that the end was near for I had been seriously considering taking her life myself. She could not go on suffering like this any longer, particularly with the risk of more bone fractures which would mean rushing her to the hospital to die there, something she did not want at any cost. I realized that, were she to go to the hospital on the following Tuesday for more radio-therapy treatment, she would never return home either. (Dr. Laing told me later that immediately after he saw Jean for the last time in Swindon, he wrote to Dr. Gornall in Chippenham: "I am not anxious to prolong this womans life at this stage. Nevertheless, one must do ones utmost to control the symptoms."
I recalled Jean's words spoken a few months previously: "When I die, I want to be at home with you, Derek, and only you and me. Whatever you do, don't let me die in the hospital." My eyes filled with tears and burned so much I had to bathe them in cold water. Trying to appear normal, I carried the breakfast tray into the sick-room, tossing the Guardian newspaper in the usual manner onto Jean's bed. For once she ignored it, preferring to sip her tea and nibble at her toast, looking out the window at the rose bushes. We were each buried deeply in our own thoughts. I was so tense I could not bear looking at her and kept my gaze directed towards the golden privet bushes lining the drive.
"Derek?" Jean called softly.
"Is this the day?"
I panicked. My mouth dried up and I could not control the tears which rushed to my eyes. It was the most awful moment of my life. However, I had to answer, "Yes, my darling, it is."
There followed many minutes of silence as we both considered the decision we had taken. Had I done the right thing? Was it too soon? My tormented thoughts were checked in the midst of their chaotic rambling by Jean's calm, measured voice.
"How shall it be? You promised me you would get me something."
"I have," I answered. "A doctor in London has mixed me a combination of drugs which are quite lethal. You have only to take them and that is the end."
We became silent again and I asked myself if I should cross-examine her about the correctness of her part of the decision. However, I resisted this because it was so apparent that she was depending on me for judgment. To raise any doubts at this point would only muddle the certainty and clarity of our instincts and intelligence. We both knew intuitively that this was the right time. To waver would have been wrong.
Again she spoke first. "I shall die at one o'clock. You must give me the overdose and then go into the garden and not return for an hour. We'll say our last good-bye here but I don't want you to actually see me die."
Nonplussed by her coolness, I could not help but agree with her. Jean resumed her breakfast, even glancing at the newspaper although she threw it aside after a few seconds. I realized how trivial the affairs of the world seemed when there were only a few hours left between us. Any indecision I had previously felt vanished now that Jean had confirmed the decision and chosen the time of her death.
I felt a massive load lifted off my mind knowing that I would not have to perform a mercy-killing on my own. Somewhat dizzy from the momentousness and drama of the situation, I exalted in Jean's courage, and sheer efficiency in carrying out her chosen way of death. After more than two years of suffering she was, I felt, entitled to leave this life with style and entirely on her own terms.
"Would you like a bowl of water, beloved?" I asked. She accepted it in the customary manner, washing her face and hands, brushing her teeth, combing her hair and applying a light lipstick. Afterwards, with my help, we straightened her bed. However, as we did this, the fierce pains shot through her neck and hastily I passed her more pain-killers. When they began to take effect and had suppressed the pain, she wanted to talk again.
"I'm so glad it has all been decided," she said. "It's a load off my mind."
However, this reminder of the finality of it all after twenty-one full and happy years together (our anniversary was the following month) undid my self-control and I collapsed in Jean's arms, sobbing.
"You mustn't cry," she murmured. "After all, youre the winner in all this. You're young enough to go on again. You'll find some other woman to love. There are lots of women in the world who need a husband."
"But I don't want to lose you," I replied through my tears. "Please don't leave me."
"It can't be otherwise, darling," she said, almost coolly. "I've got this bloody cancer and I simply can't fight it any longer. But you must make a new life for yourself or else all that you and I have done will be wasted."
She implored me to stop crying and gradually I managed to get control of myself. We talked of our life together, the births of Edgar and Clive, the adoption of Stephen. We reviewed all the happy holidays we had spent in seaside cottages in Wales and Devon, camping holidays in France and Germany, and generally a life of love and devotion to the children and each other.
"I've only ever loved you, Jeannie," I told her. "Ive never been unfaithful apart from that episode last autumn. And that wasn't love, it was a relapse due to strains which I simply couldn't bear. It was an awful lapse and I can only ask for your forgiveness."
"If that was the only occasion in twenty-two years, then we haven't done too badly," she said. "We've put that behind us so don't lets talk about it now."
When she asked me once again what I intended to do with Pinchloafe House I recalled that it was the same day, Easter Saturday, two years earlier, that we had impetuously bought the farmhouse. I told her I would keep it for the time being and perhaps eventually arrange to sell it to the children.
"Yes, I'd like that," she said. "I'm so glad we moved here for the end of my life. It's made it so much more bearable."
She did not want to see anyone other than me that morning but when I left the room I took the opportunity to tell the children that I thought Jean was dying. They took it stoically so they must have sensed it earlier. No one suggested we call the doctor. At that time, I did not know that Jean had spoken to them the day before, giving them her last instructions and obviously saying good-bye to them at that time. When I returned to the room, Jean was sorting out the drawer in her bedside table. She threw away an empty compact, some old sweets, and cleaned off the table with a tissue.
"When I'm dead," she announced, "take off my rings. They always steal them in the crematorium. And give my clothes to my cousin and aunt in Manchester they can keep what they want and sell the rest. And don't forget it's a holiday on Monday and you wont be able to register my death until Tuesday. And I don't need to make a will, I've got nothing to leave."
A naughty smile crossed her face as she made the last remark. She had always made wry comments about families who quarrel over wills and estates and it pleased her to leave the world poor but happy.
There is one thing I want you to promise me," she continued. "You must go to Manchester after I'm dead and tell my father exactly how I died. I don't want him to think I died in pain or like a vegetable. He suffered enough when Mother died because no one would make any decisions. I want him to be sure to know that I died this way. Do you promise me?"
I agreed to do anything she asked, marvelling at how beautifully organized she was.
"Now you'll be able to start the book on Michael X," she said. "Take about a month to get over this and then start writing. But mind you, don't dedicate the book to me, I don't want to be associated with that horrible man."
I decided to tell her that I had dedicated The Cricket Conspiracy to her, which would be published shortly. The book was about the trial of Peter Hain, the anti-apartheid demonstrator who had been charged with conspiracy. Jean was fond of Peter and admired his tenacity.
"Tell me what you've said about me?"
Finding it too much of a strain to speak, I wrote on a piece of paper the inscription I intended: "In Memory of Jean Humphry: Always a Campaigner."
She read this and smiled at me in appreciation. "Thats very nice," she said.
Jean had always stipulated that she wished to be cremated and have her ashes scattered in an unmarked spot. She made one additional request as she asked, "I want you to plant a Peace Rose in the garden for me. Remember the big one we had in the front garden in London, it was the loveliest plant I ever had."
Her state of mind and gracefulness helped me through that vivid morning although occasionally I could not help but break down and cry. She did not weep at all.
"You really must control yourself, darling," she rebuked me. "This is all for the best. We can't alter whats going to happen and I'm quite happy. Of course I don't want to leave you but I can't take any more of this cancer. I'd rather die today in peace of mind, and enjoying your presence and love in my own home than in some grim hospital ward after being knocked senseless with drugs for a couple of weeks. This is the best way, believe me."
I knew in my heart that she was right, that this way it was for the best, and the knowledge relieved some of my agony. In the circumstances, this was the most perfect end attainable to our marriage. Jean had stoically endured tremendous adversity with such dignity for the past two years that it was now her turn to take the initiative. However, something was bothering her when she asked, "Aren't you breaking the law in helping me to take my own life? Won't you get into trouble? I couldn't bear that."
I had anticipated this and assured her that I had thought it all out. "I shall say nothing about it. At any rate, the doctors looking after you know that you are seriously ill. Dr. Gornall thought you would be dead by last Christmas so how can they question your death now? Even if they suspect something unusual, which I doubt, I think they are too intelligent and sensitive to the situation to make needless trouble."
She persisted with her questions. "But it is against the law, isn't it?" I told her it was a breach of the law but that such offences were rarely prosecuted.* "I can handle it," I assured her. "We must not worry on this score. Ive been able to think this over since last August and there is not the slightest doubt in my mind that if this is the way you wish to die, then it is my duty to help you."
She was comforted by this and resumed taking about our pleasant memories. Jean reminisced about the opening of the shop, furnishing the farmhouse, and helping Edgar and Vivienne make a success of their marriage. "Viv has promised me that she will look after you," she said. "And I've told them all that they must accept whoever you choose. I've told them that it doesn't matter how soon you're married after Im dead I don't care if it's a month! Promise me that you will marry again."
Through an abundance of tears which I could not control, I managed to nod an assent which meant that I would keep the promise.
"Stop crying," she admonished me. " Look at the time."
It was just ten minutes before one o'clock.
I dried my tears and went out of the room to get the brew of sleeping pills and pain-killers which I had decided could be best mixed in a cup of coffee. The youngsters were all slumped in chairs in the breakfast room and I suggested, as I passed them, that they prepare themselves, adding, "I think she's close to death." I made two mugs of strong coffee with milk and into one I poured the potion. Putting them on a tray, I went back into the sick-room and placed Jean's on the table beside her bed.
"Is that it?" she asked.
I did not need to reply at all. I took her in my arms and kissed her.
"Good-bye, my love."
She lifted the mug and gulped the contents down swiftly, leaned back on her pillow and closed her eyes. Within seconds she appeared to fall asleep and soon her breathing was slow and heavy.
I did not go into the garden as Jean had asked because I had to be sure that she was going to die. The thought that she might regain consciousness if the drugs were not strong enough was unbearable. I knew that Jean would be distraught if she came round and found that, after so well prepared a death, it had been a fiasco. We both knew that the time had come for her to die, that the disease had gone too far, and that there was no longer anything doctors could do for her.
After fifteen minutes she vomited slightly and as I wiped her mouth the panic mounted in me as I thought that the pills were not going to work. Perhaps she had not kept down enough of the drug? On a chair beside the bed lay two pillows which had been used to prop her into a sitting position. I decided that with the first stirring of life I would smother her with them. It did not matter to me that I would be breaking the law: this was an act which two partners owed to each other, a private death pact. Anyhow, I did not intend that anyone should know.
Jean lay breathing heavily as I continued my desperate vigil. However, she did not need further help. At 1:50 p.m., 29 March 1975, as I sat watching, she died peacefully.
Jean's action in committing suicide was not a crime. But in helping her to do so Derek committed the felony of assisted suicide, the punishment for which in Britain is up to 14 years imprisonment. Law enforcement authorities did not hear of his action until Jean's Way was published in 1978. He admitted his guilt to detectives inquiring into the case, but the public prosecutor used his discretion not to bring charges, holding that this had happened at Jean's instigation.
The book Jean's Way ran through 17 editions before becoming out of print in 1993. There were five translations. Copies are still available from ERGO.
In 2003 Norris Lane Press republished Jean's Way with a new updated preface. Both the paperback edition and eBook are available from the ERGO Store. Also Spanish versions of both the paperback and eBook are available at the ERGO Store.