Spoiler Alert: We know that parts of this book review are hard to read, but we believe it is worth sharing. The reality is that self-medications can go wrong, not all hospices are the same, and every experience is unique. EOLCCA was founded in large part to address and try to alleviate all of these issues and more, by providing information and support to people who contact us.
What if your elderly parent wanted to end his suffering – but didn’t have a terminal diagnosis?
What if you were honoring a loved one’s wishes – but began feeling, guiltily, that maybe you “just wanted him to die”?
Award-winning author Genanne Walsh examines some of the most complex questions that confront terminally-ill individuals and family members wanting to help and support them. Facing life’s end is no easy task. Walsh’s father Gene faced his own end fearlessly and early, but when it arrived there were roadblocks for him, as well as for his loyal and supportive daughter, that they could never have anticipated.
Favorite breakfast dish
In her excellent new book, Eggs in Purgatory (the title references a favorite breakfast dish), Walsh leads readers through and around those obstacles with her. The tale takes barely 80 pages of text – it’s more long-form essay than hefty book – but brings valuable lessons and insight.
“All my life,” Walsh writes, “I could count on two things from my father: love and upheaval. I felt acutely when he was dying that it was my destiny to walk that road with him . . .”
Raised Catholic, Gene Walsh served as a priest for ten years. After meeting his future wife at a Catholic university in upstate New York, he left the priesthood and the church. But he remained deeply spiritual. Part of that spirituality was a view of death and afterlife his daughter describes as a belief that “his spirit would continue: stardust, essence, universal oneness.” It supported his emphatic wish for a quick exit from this life, with no intervention to extend it when the time came. To that end, Gene Walsh did all the right things: wrote down his instructions, talked with his physician and his daughter – nobody was in doubt about his end-of-life wishes. (See the Planning tab on this website for help with your own!) But this is not always enough.
She dialed 911
Eggs in Purgatory opens with the story of Gene Walsh’s suicide attempt. Finding her father snoring but unresponsive, an empty bottle of over-the-counter “sleep aid” pills on the bedside table and vomit on his shirt, his daughter could not leave him to whatever might come next. She dialed 911. The call led to a weeklong hospital stay that began with a psychiatric hold and ended with diminished mobility added to his already failing hearing and eyesight and a list of other non-life-threatening afflictions. Discharged with instructions about getting better, he had little enthusiasm for living.
A wish to quickly die
After his wife’s death, Gene had moved to California, into a downstairs apartment below the home of his only child, daughter Genanne, and her wife Lauren. It was there, at Christmas, not long after the suicide attempt, that he explained his decision to stop eating and drinking – invoking the California End of Life Option Act and believing that he would then quickly die. A sympathetic physician honored that decision and referred him to hospice care.
Author Walsh writes of what followed in a wrenching tale of good end-of-life plans gone awry. Gene left his physician’s office almost euphoric. The family joyfully received the hospice nurse, a gentle, empathetic young man who outlined the care that would follow. But joy came to an abrupt end when the nurse called his office to get a sign off from the attending physician. That doctor, after reviewing the case, decided that Walsh lacked a terminal diagnosis as required by the California law and was therefore displaying “suicidal behavior.” This required a report to local authorities, a visit from the police, and a narrowly escaped return to the psychiatric ward.
There is a happy ending to author Walsh’s small book. It’s no spoiler to say that her father eventually gets the death he welcomed. What she leaves us with are cautionary lessons, and a wealth of insight into questions that can arise when we or a loved one is facing death.
When calls for help and information come to EOLCCA, our trained volunteers work with clients like Gene Walsh and his family to connect with a sympathetic hospice and get the support needed. We are grateful to author Walsh for sharing her story in order to help others avoid the pitfalls her family encountered.
A lifelong newspaper and magazine writer, EOLCCA Board Member Fran Moreland Johns has published fiction, nonfiction, and several books. Her focus on end-of-life issues includes many volunteer years, numerous articles and one book, Dying Unafraid. She holds a BA in Art from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, and currently blogs at Medium.com and franjohns.net. Her short story collection, Marshallville Stories, was released in April 2022.
EOLCCA supports a strong team of experienced volunteers throughout the state, ready to help anyone, anywhere in California free of charge with information and support regarding all end-of-life planning and choices, including aid in dying through the California End of Life Option Act. You can find comprehensive information on our user-friendly website. To support our work, or request an educational presentation, please visit ways to help. Thank you for your support!