Image: Maxine Poris
Courtesy of Poris family via AP
Maxine Poris plays with her dog in this undated photo. She suffered from a range of afflictions, from an enlarged heart to fibromyalgia, and ended her life on Feb. 9, 2009.
updated 3/30/2009 8:30:38 AM ET 2009-03-30T12:30:38

Maxine Poris spent that chilly January week with her two daughters watching movies, trading stories about their childhood, even ordering the rare daiquiri for lunch.

If there was any time for drinking, they figured, this was it.

One night, Maxine — who at 64 looked more like she was 84 — talked about her mistakes, the things she wished she had done better. She apologized for not being a better mother, for not always being there for her kids, for sometimes being too difficult to bear.

Her daughter, Lisa Lieberman, told her it was OK, that she understood.

Maxine knew her days were dwindling — but not because any doctor had said her condition was terminal. In declining health, she had decided to end her life; in a few days, a group called the Final Exit Network would travel to her home in Charleston, S.C., and guide her to her death.

Final Exit's efforts have drawn the outrage of many — just last month, authorities in Georgia arrested its president and three other members and froze the group's assets.

But Lisa says the network helped her mother free herself. And knowing that the end was near, the girls and their mother had an opportunity to share a long goodbye.

One day, Maxine took her daughters to the shores of Folly Beach. She didn't want a funeral, didn't want a fuss, she said. She just wanted them to scatter her ashes here, the same place where she had spread the ashes of her beloved dog two years earlier.

Both the daughters asked if they could also keep some of her ashes.

"Isn't that kind of morbid?" Maxine asked.

Lisa couldn't help but smile. Then her mother and sister started to chuckle.

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The whole thing was morbid.

Strained past
Maxine was always a bit distant with her daughters. She seemed withdrawn, depressed, emotionally detached through much of their childhood. Lisa thinks it's because her mother got married too young, at 20, and to the wrong person.

Her parents moved from Chicago to New Orleans when Lisa was 14, and they would divorce soon after. Two years later, Lisa went to live with her father's relatives in California.

For years, their connection was limited to birthday cards and the occasional letter. They reunited at Lisa's sister's wedding about a decade ago, and then went their separate ways.

About three years ago, as Lisa neared her 40th birthday, she began to see her parents as folks who tried to do the best they could raising their children. She decided to rekindle her relationship with her mother.

It came at the right time. Maxine was sick and getting sicker.

Her hips, her legs, her back ached. She suffered from fibromyalgia, from osteoporosis, from acid reflux, from a degenerative joint disease. Two knee replacements and one hip replacement didn't help — she told people it felt like she was walking on tree trunks.

She couldn't sleep most nights because she suffered from insomnia. She would tire after walking just a few blocks — or if it was hot, cold or windy outside. She was having bracing pains in her jaw and chest, pains her doctor told her was due to an enlarged heart.

Lisa can't pinpoint the time when or how her mother found the Final Exit Network. But Maxine sent the group a letter in September laying out her case in painstaking detail.

"I am seeking your help because I no longer want to live. I want to die because I have zero quality of life left. I am a shell of the person I used to be."

Maxine couldn't help but compare herself to her 15-year-old mutt, who was put to sleep by her veterinarian about two years earlier.

"I knew it was what she wanted," she wrote. "I could see it in her eyes. She had had enough. Well I have had enough too. Please help me put myself out of my misery.

"That would be the kindest thing anyone could do for me."

'I know this is right for me'
It took a while for Maxine to muster the courage to tell her daughters. She was afraid of their reaction, maybe afraid of her own reaction. But she called Lisa in December, about a week after her daughter's 42nd birthday, to explain her decision.

She spent about 20 minutes laying out her argument, explaining her worsening physical condition.

Lisa didn't want to believe it — she couldn't believe it. She tried to talk her mother out of it. Perhaps Maxine was just lonely. Why not live with Lisa in California?

Maxine didn't want to be a burden.

Why not take more prescriptions, or seek more treatment?

The doctor said he can't legally prescribe any more — she was already taking too much.

What about illegal medications from across the border, or medical marijuana?

She didn't want to be strung out for the rest of her days, Maxine said. And she could not endure a lifetime of unbearable pain.

Slowly, gradually, Lisa began to understand her mother's decision.

She was finally convinced by Maxine's fears that she could spend the rest of her life suffering silently in a nursing home.

"I know I could have called the police, a psychiatrist, because I guess it's illegal," Lisa said. "But she was my mother and I respected her decision. I thought she had the right to do what she thought was the best for herself.

"And she kept on saying, 'I know this is right for me."'

Lisa talked with the Final Exit Network members who were working with her mother, and grew to trust them. The group insists it doesn't assist suicide, but rather helps those who suffer from incurable diseases and intolerable pain end their lives. It says it uses a careful screening process and fights for a person's right to "self-determine" their lives.

The network screened her medical history and sent guides to talk to her. She bought two tanks of helium and a hood. They told her how to put the device together, how to turn it on, that it would be like going to sleep. And that they would be with her to hold her hand.

In a messy cursive, Maxine wrote a letter to her daughters, outlining the plan.

"On Feb. 9," she wrote, "I will end my life because of pain I can no longer stand.

"I killed myself. I am responsible for my death, not FEN. FEN did not urge me to take my life. I alone assembled the helium tanks, and the tubing. I bought the helium, the mask, the tubing. I turned the tank's switch. I alone am responsible for my death."

Contentious issue
Final Exit's critics are many. "Instead of dealing with ways to support" the sick and the disabled, "we can pat ourselves on the back and say we're compassionate and kill them," said Stephen Drake of Not Dead Yet, an advocacy group for the disabled that opposes assisted suicide and euthanasia.

To Ted Goodwin — Final Exit's former president, a man who said he has helped 39 people end their lives — this is not assisted suicide. Instead, he says, he's merely guiding people to end their lives on their own, and he's there to lend comfort and support when they do.

Some of these people may be able to kill themselves on their own. But Goodwin says that the group offers a painless and compassionate way to end their lives. To some, it also might offer a sense of validation, a way to justify their decision.

By the time he spoke with Maxine, he said, she didn't feel she could live anymore. But Maxine wouldn't decide on a date until her family came to terms with her decision.

"Once she had secured their approval — she knew she had their love — but once she knew that this was OK, and that they would go on in a positive fashion, she was good with this," he said.

Goodwin was one of the four group members arrested last month on charges of assisting the suicide of a 58-year-old Georgia man. He wouldn't discuss the circumstances of Maxine's death due to the pending court case. But he was with her as she died.

Death is, inevitably, a tremendously lonely process, Goodwin said.

"We have to go through this alone no matter how much family loves us, no matter how much family and friends are around us — we endure this alone. And it feels helpless as a family member not to be able to do more, to stop this, to reverse this.

"Yet acceptance is the key to going on in life. We are all going to die."

Saying goodbye
Lisa wanted to be there to comfort her mother until her dying breath. But Maxine said it would be too traumatic, so Lisa reluctantly returned to her home in Three Rivers, Calif., a speck of a town more than 2,000 miles away.

The night before Lisa and her sister left her mother's apartment, the family watched the movie "Pineapple Express" together. Luckily, Lisa thought, her mother slept through most of it. She didn't want the last movie they saw together to be a bad one.

Lisa kept watching for any hesitation, any inkling that her mom had second thoughts. If she had wavered at all, Lisa was ready with an alternative.

But Maxine had made up her mind.

The next day, the sisters woke at 5 a.m. to catch their flight home. They piled into the car with their mother. There was little conversation.

They pulled up to the airport and Maxine gave her daughters one final assurance.

"Don't worry," she said. "This is the right thing."

They hugged each other, and then Maxine shuffled to the driver's seat to head home. The family held hands one last time.

And then they said goodbye.

Lisa took off work Monday, Feb. 9, and headed to a gas station to put snow chains on her car. She spoke with her mother one last time to say goodbye.

Then she drove through the white mountains of Sequoia National Park and pulled off to a lonely trail.

She put on her snowshoes and headed into the quiet.

She wanted to be somewhere beautiful.

This story is based on interviews with Lisa Lieberman and Ted Goodwin, as well as court documents and letters Maxine sent to her daughters and to the Final Exit Network.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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