We did not know Avis Vermilye before meeting her Dec. 8, just two days before she died. Avis had decided over a year ago she would be ending her life in order to avoid slipping so far into …
Editor's note: This is part of a special report about medical aid-in-dying and the choice of one Taos woman to end her life rather than succumb to Alzheimer’s. Read the main story, as well as companion pieces including a selection of Avis’ writing, an article about the religious, ethical and legal issues of medical aid-in-dying, and the latest on House Bill 90 in the Legislature.
We did not know Avis Vermilye before meeting her Dec. 8, just two days before she died. Avis had decided over a year ago she would be ending her life in order to avoid slipping so far into Alzheimer's that she didn't know her friends and family, that tipping point when a medical diagnosis seems to become a life sentence. The choice upset some of people around her; they saw a vibrant, healthy woman (other than the Alzheimer's) and couldn't understand the reasoning behind intentionally ending her life. Religious mores, especially Catholic ethics, made some people uncomfortable. So Avis wrote a letter for The Taos News explaining her choice.
Our editor was intrigued by her story and asked if we could report and write about her death -- a rare chance to document the full range of impacts of a decision like this on a person and the people closest to her. Avis was surprised, but agreed. We were welcomed into her home during the final three days of her life, as the team of four caretakers watched over her, choirs sang to her and the last ounces of energy gave way to sleep, a coma and death.
Yet a person's death is not the end of the story. We spent time with her close friends and family as they talked about the woman they loved, cleaned out her house, planned the memorial service, spread her ashes on a grave in Taos and then went back to their lives, trying to "resurface" to some sense of normalcy.
In the same way society doesn't have many road maps for people who wish to end their lives in such an open way, we didn't have a road map for how to report this story -- remaining respectful to the family, and Avis, but needing to document how the emotions and practicalities played out. At the same time, both of us have grandparents who are sick and conversations about death have moved back and forth between our personal and professional lives. As with every person, Avis' connections to the web of life are infinite. This story, though not a full recounting of her life and death, is hopefully an honest rendering of the choices and impacts of intentionally stepping into the fullness of what she saw as the final mystery.
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