Excerpt: 'The Last Goodnights'

John West recounts his agonizing decision to help his parents commit suicide.

ByABC News via logo
February 3, 2009, 9:27 PM

Feb. 4, 2009 — -- In November 1998, John West's father, who had recently been diagnosed with cancer, asked him an extraordinary favor: help him commit suicide.

After the tremendous weight of those words settled squarely on West's shoulders, he looked at his father and said the only thing he knew to say, "You got it."

So, on the evening of July 2, 1999, John helped his father take a cocktail of pills. By morning, he was dead. The death was attributed to the cancer, and only West knew better.

Months later, his mother asked West the same devastating favor and, again, he agreed.

For more than a decade, West kept the secrets to himself, not even telling his sisters the role he had played. Now, he is coming out with his side of the story in a book called "The Last Goodnights: Assisting My Parents With Their Suicides."

Read an excerpt of the book below and check out other books in the "GMA" library by clicking here.

I don't know what my booze bill was for that time, but I'm sure it was big. I had a good reason, though: I had to kill my parents. They asked me to. Actually, they asked me to help them with their suicides, and I did. And if that doesn't justify throwing back an extra glass or three of Jameson's on the rocks, then I don't know what does.

My father was Louis Jolyon "Jolly" West, MD, a world-renowned psychiatrist and former chairman of the department of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, age seventy-four. My mother was Kathryn "K" West, PhD, a respected clinical psychologist at the West Los Angeles (Brentwood) Veterans Administration Hospital, age seventy-five.

Jolly and K were wonderful people—brilliant, academic medical professionals, highly cultured, and well rounded. Neither was at all religious, but both had deep insight into the human condition. They knew what was what. And they knew what they wanted.

So when they made their wishes clear to me, I wasn't about to argue. I respected my father and mother, and I loved them. And I believe, as they did, in freedom of choice, the right to personal privacy and self-determination—which includes reproductive choice (as the law now recognizes, although it didn't used to), the right to refuse medical treatment (as the law now recognizes, although it didn't used to), and the right to choose death with dignity (as the law does not recognize—not yet—although a few states are getting close).

My father's desire to end his life did not shock me, especially since his newly discovered cancer—a particularly vicious type—was literally eating him up and would take him from playing tennis to lying dead in just five months. Should Jolly have been forced to endure a few more days or weeks of agony just to satisfy some people's notions that death should be "natural"?

And what about my mother? K had midstage Alzheimer's disease, plus osteoporosis and emphysema. Should she have been forced to deteriorate into a walking vegetable, soiling herself, wandering into traffic, hunched over like a crab, and coughing up blood, just because some people say that's how it's always been and always should be?

Jolly and K said no. And I agreed.

I had no idea what my father wanted to talk to me about that afternoon in early November 1998 when he asked me to step into his bedroom for a private chat. But I was used to Jolly's secretiveness, so I didn't find it odd that he would suggest it, particularly with a houseful of visiting relatives and no privacy anywhere but behind a locked door. I assumed he had some additional bad news about the status of his cancer, something he wanted to tell me first, since I would be his successor in the role of what Jolly liked to call "the man of the family." An outdated concept, perhaps, but one that, unfortunately, applied more to our family than I liked. After Jolly's death, I would be the one member of the family who could be called solid, competent, and reliable. My mother had once been an ultra-competent professional, but various illnesses had left her needy and dependent. I had two sisters, both older than I, but Jolly never felt they could properly handle complicated or stressful "real world" matters. Years of experience and many disappointments had informed his opinion.

I sat in the big leather chair by the bookshelves, prepared to wait. Whenever Jolly talked to me about something important, he approached it in a roundabout way.

But not this time. Straight away he said, "John, I need your help."

This startled me—doubly so. He was being direct, which was rare enough. And he was asking for help. Jolly never asked for help. His smoothly contained persona, Mr. Totally In Control, had just popped open right in front of me. Not that any outsider would have noticed, because Jolly's demeanor was exactly the same as it was whenever he discussed anything important: His voice was measured and smooth; he sat squarely on the edge of his bed, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees and his hands clasped; he looked straight at me, seriously and intently, but his face showed little more than mild concern. His face rarely gave anything away. Only his words betrayed him now.

"I'm dying," he said. "That's no secret—everyone knows it. I don't have more than a few months, at most. But I do have something that is very important to me. I have options about how and when my death will occur."

He paused to let this sink in.

"At some point," he continued, "not too long from now, I will decide that enough is enough. By that time I will be full of all sorts of drugs, particularly the morphine that I'm already taking for pain. A little extra of that should do the trick, without anyone having to know and get upset."

He paused again and looked out the window.

I sat up in my chair. I suddenly felt hot and cold at the same time, as I realized what he meant. But as powerfully as his words registered, the idea behind them didn't seem strange at all. It made sense. He was about to die anyway, so why linger in pain? I knew I'd want to do the same thing if I were in his position.

I didn't know what to say, so I kept quiet and waited for him to continue. I don't know if I could have said anything even if I'd wanted to, because I was still somewhat stunned, not only by the intensity of what he'd told me, but also because I'd never expected him to share thoughts like these with me.

Still looking out the window, he continued, "My body is full of cancer. If I knock off a little ahead of schedule, nobody's going to know the difference, and I'll have saved myself a hell of a lot of pain."

Then he looked straight at me. "But I'll need you on board, to help me."

A question was implied, but we both knew what the answer would be. I nodded and said, "You got it."

I didn't register much of what he said right after that, because I was still having trouble processing the whole strange scene. Here we were, my father and I, sitting in his bedroom, calmly talking about his committing suicide. With me "onboard," whatever that meant.