Winter Solstice Liberation: Mahasamadhi, the Last Asana
In the end—and it will end—your life will seem to have sped by like a fleeting dream.
—Doris “Granny D” Haddock
The Winter Solstice is upon us. It was at this time of year, many years ago, that I rode my bicycle over to Eucalyptus Street, as I often did, to see my old friend Ruth. It was a crisp, sunny day after a long rain, and I was not really in the mood to be stuck indoors, but Ruth had called to say she had something important to tell me.
The moment I stepped inside, I could sense that something was up. Shirley, the next-door neighbor who checked on Ruth twice a day, was in the kitchen dumping oatmeal into the garbage disposal. She didn’t waste any words telling me what was going on.
“Ruth says she’s going to starve herself to death. But I’ll save these oranges just in case she changes her mind.”
“What? What are you talking about?”
“She messed all over herself again this morning. It’s the third time this week. After I cleaned everything up, she got back into bed, and now she says she’s not going to eat or drink another thing.
“I think she had another stroke,” Shirley went on. “I’m not sure. She’s having memory lapses, but I know she’s serious about this. And she says if she waits much longer she might not have enough sense to make this decision.”
My mind flashed back to the many times Ruth and I had talked about death and ways of dying. But even last month she had—except for her fading eyesight—appeared so alert and vital. It was a challenge to keep up with her long, strong legs when I accompanied her on her daily walk to the top of Signal Street. We had gossiped like two teenagers about the lighter side of my love life. Her advice to me had been, “Forget about sex and get on with your life. You’ll feel so free!”
I could barely comprehend the gravity of what Shirley was saying. “The problem is,” she added, “she tries starving herself every time she feels like she can’t take care of herself anymore. This is the third or fourth time she’s threatened to do this.”
“She’s never told me this. How long does she go without food?”
“About three or four days, and then she feels better and starts eating again. But this time I have a feeling she’ll go through with it.”
Ruth had always done things her own way. Most of her friends would have checked into a nursing home by now, but I knew that Ruth would never give up her independence. Unmarried and with no children, she had supported herself as a PE teacher before retiring in Ojai. A Theosophist and lifelong student of esoteric and Eastern thought, she relished her autonomy and privacy.
I walked into Ruth’s bedroom. Her head was perfectly centered on the pillow, and the covers were pulled up to her chin.
“Hi, Ruth. It’s me, Suza.”
“Has Shirley told you about the trouble I’m making?”
“She didn’t put it like that.”
“You know how I feel. I want you to make everybody else understand. I don’t want to live like this!”
I bent down to give her a hug, but she pushed me away. “I want you to help make the others understand. Tell them to leave me alone!”
Ruth was dead serious, and her courage was contagious. “Okay, Ruth. I’ll help you, I promise.”
Coaxing someone as strong-willed as Ruth to eat was out of the question, and I’m not a fan of force-feeding. There were no nearby relatives to help out. Plus, after years of giving end-of-life care, I saw what was ahead. I didn’t want to sentence myself or Ruth to endless days of catheter draining, adult diaper changing, and the spoon-feeding of someone who might eventually no longer recognize me.
The last person I had taken care of, Ada, had been a close friend of Ruth. We had both known Ada when she was still a vibrant, artistic person. But at some point in her late eighties we began to see her slowly deteriorate. Ada didn’t want to live in a nursing home, and she hired me to care for her at home. The day came when her body was nothing more than a bag of bones. She didn’t want to eat. It hurt to breathe. She wanted to die in her own bed. Unfortunately, she didn’t have the energy or mental capacity to resist when well-meaning relatives checked her into the hospital. There, she was somewhat revived. From there, she was transferred to a nursing home where she spent three years strapped into a wheelchair before the end. Ruth and I both visited her regularly, but she no longer knew who she was or where she was.
While visiting Ada, I had seen dying people force-fed chunks of steak and potatoes. Ruth was still sane enough to know that, in a nursing home, the social norms of dying would be imposed on her. It would be almost impossible for her to choose her own way of death.
As if reading my thoughts, Ruth repeated, “Be sure, be darned sure, that everybody knows exactly how I feel.” As if to emphasize her point, she took out her dentures and plopped them into the glass of water on her nightstand. “I won’t be needing these.”
Her face shrank. Without the dentures she looked much older, but it didn’t matter to her how she looked anymore.
“Can you still understand what I’m saying without my teeth in?”
“Yes, it’s just fine,” I replied. “Please just take it day by day. Do what you feel like doing.”
“Ha!” she interrupted. “If I do what I feel like doing, I’ll eat like a glutton.”
Not knowing what else to do, I sat quietly by her bed. Ruth’s room, where she had slept for more than twenty years, felt warm, pleasant, and familiar. There were no offensive smells of urine and other people’s poop. After a while, I absorbed what Ruth intended to do and it started to feel natural. I recovered from the shock of it all. I held her hand, and it felt like holding the hand of a sick person that you want to encourage to recover. Only we both understood that this would be a different kind of recovery. Our hands were warm and relaxed. We had begun the process of letting go.
Three days had gone by before I’d had time to visit Ruth again. She was already so thin from a lifetime of careful vegetarian living, and her spirit so stoic and serene, that I entertained the romantic notion that she would take pleasant leave of her body in just a few days. I envisioned myself holding her hand, just like in the movies. She would give me one last smile, then exhale and enter the great beyond.
When I arrived, a well-fed, oblivious attendant was sitting guard in the living room, engrossed in the TV and a pile of knitting. Shirley had posted a sign on the refrigerator saying, “Ms. Doak does not wish to be disturbed. Do not offer food or water. Only if she asks for it.”
Ruth was flat on her back in exactly the same position, the white sheets pulled tightly up to her chin. Her eyes were closed, but I could tell she wasn’t asleep.
“Ruth, it’s me, Suza.”
“Oh, good, I’m glad you’ve come.”
She opened her eyes and pulled down the covers. Already her face and arms were visibly thinner. We chatted about everything under the sun, just like old times. Eventually the subject came around to her “fast.” I circled her wrist with my thumb and index finger. “Ruth, you’re definitely thinner.”
“Are you comfortable?”
“I’m very comfortable.”
Her sole request was that I wipe the dried skin from her parched lips. The water by her bedside stood untouched.
“Well, what do you think of my little project?” she asked, flashing a toothless grin.
“You mean dying?”
What could I say? That she was brave, sensible, courageous? Crazy?
“Ruth, have you read about other people who’ve done this?”
We discussed certain Zen monks and other people who reportedly refuse all food, water, and medical attention when they feel ready to leave this world. “Most people don’t realize they have that option,” I commented. “Some spiritual teachers gather their family and disciples around them and just leave. Some even predict their exact moment of departure.”
Neither of us had the faintest idea how long the process would take. “Just make sure those attendants Shirley has hired know not to feed me,” Ruth instructed.
I looked at the calendar and counted 18 more days till Christmas. I promised Ruth that I would take time off from work so that I could be with her full-time the whole week before Christmas. Yet, even as I promised this, I doubted that she would survive until then. I also assured her that in a few more days I’d start spending the night and that she could call me at any time.
“This is a good time of year to die,” she said softly. “It’s winter. I’m glad we’ll be together for Christmas. Christmas would be a good day to die.”
“What if you change your mind?”
She shook her grey head and looked at me like I was five years old. “Why would I change my mind? Why would I want to live like this?”
I visited Ruth again on her fifth day without food or water. The scene was exactly the same. She was perfectly still in her bed, with the covers pulled up to her chin. Shirley was changing the sheets as often as necessary, and helping her to shower before putting a clean T-shirt and diaper on her. The room was immaculate, with freshly cut roses on the dresser.
Ruth consistently assured us that she was very comfortable and there was nothing she wanted. She had called up the few friends that would understand and told them goodbye. She was leaving it up to Shirley to deal with the few out-of-state relatives who hadn’t visited her in years.
“What shall we talk about, Ruth?” I asked.
“It’s such a long wait . . . Reading would help pass the time. Could you read to me from Kim?”
As I read, she occasionally interrupted to correct my pronunciation. It was during this hour that she lost her voice. By the time I left, she could barely whisper her request to have the dried skin wiped from her lips.
The warm winter sunlight felt good as I headed for home. It was a relief to step out of Ruth’s house and back into the stream of life. This was only the fifth day, and already I was weary of my friend’s dying process.
A whole week had gone by. As I entered her room, Ruth lay motionless like an empty shell. I took her bony hand. “How do you feel, Ruth?” I asked.
For several minutes there was silence, and I thought she hadn’t heard me. Then, with great effort, she whispered, “I’ve looked forward to this for years.” I sat on her bed with my eyes closed and allowed myself to relax.
Shirley interrupted our reverie. I offered to take Ruth to the shower while Shirley changed the sheets. Ruth clutched my arms and strained to a sitting position. It took a while for her to swing her legs over the side of the bed. I helped her remove her T-shirt and diaper, trying not to stare at her emaciated body.
“These disposable diapers are great,” she whispered as she grasped the portable potty at her bedside to raise herself to an upright position. I put my arm around her and supported her down the hallway to the bathroom.
While Ruth lathered her lower body, I washed her hair and armpits. She liked the water full blast, and very hot. “Oh, the water feels so good. It feels so good to be clean . . .” It occurred to me that perhaps she’d been drinking water in the shower all this time, and that was why she hadn’t yet died of thirst. But I never saw her swallow a single drop. I dried her with her favorite pink towel and eased her skeleton back into a clean T-shirt and diapers.
The shower had completely exhausted her. She thanked Shirley for the crisp feel of the clean sheets. Even with my ear right up to her lips, I could barely hear her.
“I’m so lucky to have friends like you.” She asked us to pull the covers right up to her chin, then added, “You can leave any time you want.”
We kissed several times. “Goodbye, Ruth. I love you very much.”
“And I love you.”
Days Eight and Nine
I returned late the next night and slept in Ruth’s living room. When I checked her in the morning, she was in an unusually happy mood. Perhaps she felt that her “little project” was nearly over. Yet I still had doubts that she could see it through to the end. I worried about her becoming disoriented. In a moment of weakness and hunger, she might ask an attendant for breakfast.
“What day is it now?” she whispered.
She looked puzzled. “It’s Friday morning,” I repeated. “It’s the beginning of your eighth day without food.”
It seemed to take her a few minutes to understand, or was she finally feeling the full impact of her intent? “Oh, the waiting takes such a long time . . . I can live a long time without fat on my body . . .” she finally whispered.
I took a deep breath. “How much longer do you think it will take till you’re dead?”
“I don’t know. I try not to think about it. If I say four more days I might be wrong and still find myself here talking to you!”
Shirley rarely hired strangers for the night vigil, but several different women “babysat” during daytime hours when she or I couldn’t be there. The note forbidding any food or drinks remained posted on the refrigerator. Since Ruth slept most of the time, I don’t think any of the attendants actually realized she was starving herself to death.
On Friday night my boyfriend, Paul, came over. Ruth’s emaciated form didn’t faze him. Ruth was pleased to see him, and motioned for him to put his ear by her lips.
“Aren’t you a chiropractor?” she whispered.
“Yes,” he replied, unsuspecting.
“Well, then,” she responded with a naughty look, “isn’t there something you can do to my neck to hurry things along?”
“I can’t do that!”
“Sure you can! I won’t tell!”
“That’s easy for you to say! You’ll be free and happy. I’ll be in jail!”
Days Ten and Eleven
I always knew Ruth had the option of changing her mind. Yet I was shocked when she confided on the tenth morning, “Shirley and I talked about my fast again yesterday. Tomorrow I’m going to make a decision.” Then she added wearily, “I’ve come this far. Maybe I can see it through . . .”
Part of me resented that I might be going through this whole ordeal for nothing. Not that I wanted her to die, but if she began eating, and then changed her mind about living a month from now, I knew that Shirley and I would have a hard time finding the patience to help her again.
When I returned the next day, the look on Shirley’s face startled me. She informed me that the night nurse had never told the daytime attendant that Ruth didn’t want any phone calls. Two out-of-state relatives had called, and had begged Ruth to “eat a little something—sip some tea and try to hang on till Christmas so we can see you.”
Shirley was furious. She had consulted Ruth’s lawyer, who said that as long as Ruth was of sound mind she had the right to stop eating. “These relatives haven’t visited her in years!” she fumed. “I told them that if they talk Ruth into eating, we’ll put her in a rest home and they can just come and get her and take care of her themselves!”
Following the call, Ruth had drunk half a cup of chamomile tea. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise. That night, her urine smelled of strong chamomile tea, and she expelled foul-smelling gas into the toilet. When I thought she was finished, I half-carried her back to bed. As we sat talking, I could hear her insides rumble. That should have warned me to grab a diaper.
Suddenly she whispered, “I think I have to go!” I pulled back the covers and frantically grabbed bunches of paper towels to clean her. Then I opened every door and window to air out the house. As I washed her and changed the bedding, I thought, “If Ruth keeps on living, someone else will have to do this job on a regular basis.”
Just as I was about to put another diaper on her, it started again. I grabbed more towels and buried everything, sheets and all, in a double garbage bag. Cleaning her up the second time, I felt more convinced than ever that Shirley and I should encourage her to see this through to the end.
Ruth’s mind is definitely still intact. On the twelfth day she whispers, “Have you heard about the commotion my fast caused on Sunday?”
“Yes, I did!”
“Well, everything is all right now. At first my niece didn’t understand, but now there’s peace in the family.”
That answered my next question. Ruth had taken in nothing but half a cup of chamomile tea in twelve days. Her withered face was serene as she whispered, “I’m so glad everyone understands.”
There was a full moon that night. We held hands for a long time. Again, there was that feeling of letting go—a long unspoken goodbye. Late that night, with the full moon shining on her shrunken face, she whispered clearly, “I feel the change is coming.”
About midnight she asked, “What day is it now?”
“It’s Tuesday . . . it’s been twelve days.”
“That’s a long time. I think it’s coming soon.”
I prayed that she would die this night.
I was feeling utterly naïve. I told myself to stop anticipating that Ruth was going to die soon. This morning both her regular doctor and her osteopath were coming to see her. They had both known Ruth for years, and Shirley and I had great hope that they could give us some idea as to how much longer she would live.
“How’d you sleep, Ruth?” I asked.
“I sleep the sleep of the dead.” She laughed at her own joke, and appeared incredibly alert.
The osteopath, a tall, solemn-looking fellow, arrived first. I assumed that Shirley had informed him of Ruth’s condition. After the long days of silence, his loud voice seemed to echo in the room. Maybe he thought she was hard of hearing.
“How’s your appetite, Ruth?”
You stupid fool, I thought. He’s probably asked that same question for the last ten years.
I took him aside. “Hasn’t Shirley told you that Ruth hasn’t eaten for two weeks?”
He shrugged and automatically continued his exam. He listened to her heart, took her blood pressure, and pronounced that everything was normal. I felt relieved when he finally took her hand and sat briefly by her bedside.
The doctor’s presence felt somewhat like the long-awaited arrival of the midwife at a home birth. “How much longer do you think Ruth will last?” I asked.
“It’s impossible to say. All her vital signs are normal. It could be tonight or it could be a long time still.”
The MD arrived just as the DO was leaving. He was well acquainted with Ruth’s philosophy and, in prior discussions concerning death, had agreed never to do anything to prolong her life against her wishes. His main concern was that she be kept comfortable. “I won’t order any life-saving measures,” he assured me. “Ruth and I discussed this a long time ago. If you have any problems with friends or relatives, have them speak to me. Our aim is to keep her comfortable. Give her chipped ice or water if she wants it.”
He, too, checked her vital signs and confirmed that there was nothing unusual.
“Do you want water?” he asked her.
“Do you feel hungry?”
“Are you comfortable?”
“Yes. Very comfortable.”
Shirley was in the kitchen baking Christmas cookies. It didn’t seem quite right to be baking goodies with someone starving to death in the next room! I worried that the sweet, spicy aromas would arouse Ruth’s appetite.
A neighbor knocked on the door and asked if she could visit. She’d heard that Ruth was ill and might be dying. I went into the bedroom and asked Ruth if Mrs. Perry could come in.
She motioned for me to wipe her lips, which are now completely shrunken inside her mouth. “Tell her she can come in.”
Like the doctor, this neighbor assumed that Ruth was hard of hearing. As soon as she shouted, “I came to say goodbye,” I regretted allowing her to invade Ruth’s sanctuary. But Ruth whispered back, with all the spunk she could muster, “I may be here a long time yet!”
The neighbor burst into sobs. “You’ve known happier times, haven’t you?”
Mortified, I pulled her aside and told her not to say things like that. No wonder Ruth didn’t want visitors! I escorted Mrs. Perry back into the kitchen and left it up to Shirley to get rid of her.
Closing my eyes, I waited for the room to feel peaceful again. “Ruth, I think we’d better post a sign over your bed that says I CAN HEAR YOU PERFECTLY. I AM NOT DEAF.”
“They mean well.”
Like a midwife checking on a laboring mother long overdue, I peeked in on Ruth briefly the evening of the fourteenth day. She lay so still, and the spark of life in her dehydrated body seemed so faint that I placed my face close to hers to be sure she was still breathing. She was deep asleep, and I left the room without disturbing her.
A new attendant was watching TV. “How has Ruth been today?” I asked.
“Oh, she just sleeps all the time. She never wants to eat.”
None of the attendants seemed to notice how close to death Ruth was.
When I returned later that night, Ruth was still sleeping. I really believed that tonight she would die. The house was deathly still, and for the first time I started to get the creeps. Shirley had decorated a Christmas tree, but even the blinking lights failed to dispel my sense of foreboding.
When it was close to midnight, Ruth woke briefly. I reassured her that I was spending the night. She clutched my hand and then sank back into her deathlike state. But sleep eluded me. I could hear Ruth fidgeting.
At around 2 a.m., she struggled to get out of bed to use the potty chair. I lifted her skeleton into an upright position. She moved so slowly, I feared she would collapse. She slumped over on the potty, but insisted on waiting there until a bit of urine finally dribbled out. I couldn’t comprehend how her kidneys continued to function.
Now I was really getting the creeps. Ruth’s eyes were glassy and unfocused. Her body continued to endure, but her spirit seemed to be ebbing in and out. It was 3 a.m. before I got her bones settled back under the sheets. Finally I, too, lost consciousness.
Christmas was only six days away. We had all grown weary of waiting for Ruth to die—especially Ruth herself. Her body was unusually restless this night, and I wished we’d rented a hospital bed with rails. Instead, we barricaded her into the bed with six chairs.
Again at midnight, she began to fidget as if her spirit were fighting to fly out of her body. I checked on her frequently. Fear gripped me. Why couldn’t her flesh release her spirit? Why couldn’t she relax and let go?
The house felt cold and eerie, and was filled with a foul, musty odor. We had invited death, but my instinct was to let life flow into the house. I opened all the windows and let the fresh air in. Ruth didn’t care how cold it was. I buried my own body deeper under the blankets.
At almost the exact moment as the previous night, I heard her struggling to get out of bed. The sight of her skin dangling off her bones was unnerving. She no longer had the strength to sit upright, and doubled over on the potty chair.
As I helped her to lie down, I prayed over and over, “Release this woman from her body.” But Ruth’s body continued its inherent task of surviving. Even her hair and nails were continuing to grow. Her heart continued its ceaseless repetitions—the senseless task of pumping life force through her dying body. I felt that the time had come to give Ruth a merciful injection, but had no idea what that would be or how to get it.
I couldn’t understand why she didn’t just die in her sleep. Was there something worrying her, something unsaid? Several times I asked her, “Is there anything else you want to tell me?” She always shook her head, murmuring, “No. No. No.” She seemed as perplexed to find herself still living as I was.
It had now been sixteen days. On this night I was so exhausted that I napped at home before going over for the night shift. Shirley had called earlier to say she had to leave by 9:00 p.m. When I woke up it was already past 9:00, and by the time Paul drove me over I was half an hour late and still half asleep.
As I walked in the door, I tried to assure myself that Ruth was asleep as usual and probably hadn’t even noticed that no one had been at home with her. When I entered her room, her bed was empty. My mind went blank. In panic, I quickly searched the bathroom. Had my worst fears of someone “rescuing” Ruth and rushing her to the emergency room come true? As I yelled for Paul, I saw that Ruth had fallen off the far side of her bed and was hanging face down, half-on-half-off the floor. She was tangled up in her bedding and it looked as if she had bumped her forehead on the nightstand.
Shaken, we maneuvered her back onto the mattress. Paul checked her pulse. Ruth was still in this world. I placed a cold compress on her head while Paul rearranged the covers. We had no way of knowing whether she’d fallen just after Shirley left or soon before we’d arrived. She could have been hanging off the bed like that for more than half an hour!
Ruth began to fidget in a state of frustrated agitation. She coughed and spat, then motioned frantically for a Kleenex. She spat up globs of mucous several times, being very careful to spit only in the Kleenex and not make any mess. I didn’t know if she was coughing and spitting because she had been lying face down or if this was the death rattle I had heard about. Then she wet her diaper. I thought, If she’s dying, why change it? Why disturb her? But, being uncertain, I asked her to lift her bottom while I arrange a new diaper underneath. She seemed to understand everything. I hoped she wasn’t angry that no one was here when she fell out of bed.
She remained restless. I felt how sick and tired she was of still being alive, and cursed myself for not getting rails as we made another barricade of chairs around her bed. We had to keep moving her back to the center of the bed. Later on I realized that we were witnessing the final moments of her spirit wrestling with her body for release.
Then Paul took charge. Like a labor coach, he held her hand. “Let go,” he whispered. “Let go.”
Ruth pursed her lips and motioned for the Vaseline. I asked if she wanted me to clean her mouth with a wet cloth. She shook her head vigorously. Absolutely not. For the last time, I wiped her lips. I had done all I could. Once more I said goodbye, and then left her alone with Paul. I could hear him softly talking: “Be at peace, Ruth. You’re going somewhere beautiful . . .”
Later he told me that she had stared intently at him for a long time. She had squeezed his hand as much as she had strength to and then turned her head away. He’d had the strong impression that she wanted him to leave, that she wanted to die alone.
Winter Solstice Liberation: The Last Asana, Mahasamadhi*
When I woke up it was Sunday at 4 a.m., the morning of the Winter Solstice. Ruth must be dead, I thought. But then I had thought that so many times before. I examined her closely in the dim light of her night light. Still unsure, I woke up Paul. He turned on the overhead light. Ruth’s head was perfectly centered on the pillow. Already she was turning yellow. Paul checked her pulse. He closed her eyes and covered her face with the sheet. Ruth was gone. This time she was really dead.
I called Shirley. Upon hearing the news, she told me that Ruth had been unusually alert and talkative the previous afternoon, and that they’d had a wonderful, warm final visit.
Ruth’s doctor arrived to sign the death certificate. [When did Paul leave?] An ambulance arrived to take the body to be cremated. Ruth hadn’t wanted a funeral.
I walked up Signal Street in time to see the sun rising above the snowcapped Topa Topas. It was an incredible relief to be alive and out in the open air.
Now, years later, I think about everything that I experienced in helping Ruth to leave her body while awake, aware, and alert. I close my eyes and clearly see Ruth’s image. I can still see her striding vigorously up North Signal Street with her long, strong, independent legs, a smile on her face. Looking back, I see that spiritually I was just a child. I didn’t fully grasp the great gift Ruth was giving me by asking me to be her guardian through her last days on Earth.
* * *
Mahasamadhi (the great and final Samadhi) is the act of consciously and intentionally leaving one’s body at the time of death.  A realized yogi (male) or yogini (female) who has attained the state of Nirvikalpa Samadhi (enlightenment) will, at an appropriate time, consciously exit from the body and cease to live. This is known as Mahasamadhi. Each one prepares for and enters Mahasamadhi in a unique fashion.
* * *
Adapted from Suza’s forthcoming memoir, Ojai Stories. A version of this story appears in the book, Sixty Seconds: One Moment Changes Everything, a collection of stories by Phil Bolsta. Foreword by Caroline Myss. Atria Books, 2008.