SAN DIEGO – In early July, Betsy Davis emailed her closest friends and relatives to invite them to a two-day party, telling them: “These circumstances are unlike any party you have attended before, requiring emotional stamina, centeredness and openness.”
And just one rule: No crying in front of her.
The 41-year-old artist with ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease, held the gathering to say goodbye before becoming one of the first Californians to take a lethal dose of drugs under the state's new doctor-assisted suicide law for the terminally ill.
“For me and everyone who was invited, it was very challenging to consider, but there was no question that we would be there for her,” said Niels Alpert, a cinematographer from New York City.
“The idea to go and spend a beautiful weekend that culminates in their suicide — that is not a normal thing, not a normal, everyday occurrence. In the background of the lovely fun, smiles and laughter that we had that weekend was the knowledge of what was coming.”
Davis worked out a detailed schedule for the gathering on the weekend of July 23-24, including the precise hour she planned to slip into a coma, and shared her plans with her guests in the invitation.
More than 30 people came to the party at a home with a wraparound porch in the picturesque Southern California mountain town of Ojai, flying in from New York, Chicago and across California.
One woman brought a cello. A man played a harmonica. There were cocktails, pizza from her favorite local joint, and a screening in her room of one of her favorite movies, “The Dance of Reality,” based on the life of a Chilean film director.
As the weekend drew to a close, her friends kissed her goodbye, gathered for a photo and left, and Davis was wheeled out to a canopy bed on a hillside, where she took a combination of morphine, pentobarbital and chloral hydrate prescribed by her doctor.
Kelly Davis said she loved her sister's idea for the gathering, which Betsy Davis referred to as a “rebirth.”
“Obviously, it was hard for me. It's still hard for me,” said Davis, who wrote about it for the online news outlet Voice of San Diego. “The worst was needing to leave the room every now and then, because I would get choked up. But people got it. They understood how much she was suffering and that she was fine with her decision. They respected that. They knew she wanted it to be a joyous occasion.”
Davis ended her life a little over a month after a California law giving the option to the terminally ill went into effect. Four other states allow doctor-assisted suicide, with Oregon being the first, in 1997.
Opponents of the law in lobbying against it before state legislators argued that hastening death was morally wrong, that it puts terminally ill patients at risk for coerced death by loved ones and could become a way out for people who are uninsured or fearful of high medical bills.
Davis spent months planning her exit, feeling empowered after spending the last three years losing control of her body bit by bit. The painter and performance artist could no longer stand, brush her teeth or scratch an itch. Her caretakers had to translate her slurred speech for others.