Her mother would have loved this.
Her daughter, the television newswoman, out on a national publicity tour with her new book.
"She would be having so much fun now," says Betty Rollin about her mother. "She would be telling me what to wear with Barbara Walters. She would be probably traveling with me part of the time. At the last party I had for a book, somebody didn't know who she was and she said, 'I'm the book's grandmother.'
"The only real sorrow right now," says Betty Rollin, "is that she's not here to share this."
On Oct. 17, 1983, Ida Rollin, 76, suffering great pain from her inoperable cancer, swallowed a lethal amount of a prescribed sedative helped along with an antinausea drug. Her suicide was the last meticulously planned act of a woman who prided herself on her shrewdness and business acumen. It was an act her daughter and son-in-law not only witnessed but helped set up -- to the extent that they researched the information on the drugs.
Betty Rollin's book "Last Wish" is about her mother's last wish -- to die.
"At the beginning I was crying on everything," she says. The curtain in her hotel room flutters in the breeze. "I decided yesterday morning not to cry, and a caller called in on a radio talk show and started talking about her mother and she was crying and I was crying and the talk show lady was crying, and I thought, 'I'm not gonna last.' "
Betty Rollin is on a 35-city publicity tour, making the sweep of talk shows and newspapers. "I'm very interested in the success of this book as I've never been interested in the success of anything I've ever done."
Rollin, 49, had been an NBC News correspondent for nine years before joining ABC News as a contributing correspondent for "Nightline," a job she quit last year to devote herself to writing "Last Wish."
The story follows her mother's last few years, from the time nagging stomach pains sent her to a doctor (the diagnosis was ovarian cancer that had metastasized) to the last day of her life when she swallowed the pills, and, holding hands with her daughter and son-in-law, told them, "Remember, I am the most happy woman. And this is my wish . . ."
Not only is it a personal story of a mother and daughter, it is the story of a planned suicide -- shocking and tragic, perhaps technically illegal. Why write it?
"Something had unfolded before my eyes that was so amazing that I just felt -- it sounds corny in a way -- that I had to write the book," says Rollin. "I thought it was a great story. I thought what my mother did was just an incredible act of bravery and self-determination. To see my mother die with such dignity and grace and courage and such fortitude and the calm of her . . . and the humor! . . .
"She remained herself and she was in charge," adds Rollin, who writes that shortly before her death, Ida Rollin herself suggested she write this story. "I found myself thinking these crazy thoughts as this death was being worked out . . . I thought, 'My God, there's something familiar about this,' and I remember thinking the last time the three of us sat together like this was about our wedding."
Rollin had written about her own successful battle with breast cancer and mastectomy in the bestselling 1976 book "First You Cry," which was made into a television movie. "Last Wish" is her second book dealing with a deeply personal crisis.
"Why am I doing this?" She winces and laughs ruefully, anticipating the question. "I know. I never imagined I'd have another dramatic event in my own life and I hope it's the last . . . I've certainly opened myself up in a way that I never particularly wanted to do. And there's been a certain loss of privacy in doing that. But mostly I feel close to a lot of strangers because of it . . . I like knowing that I'm not the only one, just as the people who say 'Me, too' like knowing they're not the only one." Already, one of the book's early readers, actress Goldie Hawn, has had Warner Bros. option it for her, according to Rollin, whom Hawn will portray. "One reason is her attachment to her own parents," says Rollin. "Her mother is alive and her father died recently. I think she just responded to it."
In her daughter's portrait, Ida Rollin was an indefatigably cheerful woman who adored her only child, an early convert to low-cholesterol foods, a woman who worked her way up in the construction business, who turned into a wise investor. The family lived in Yonkers, N.Y. After her husband died, Ida Rollin, then living in the city, took up piano lessons, bridge and acting.
When cancer hit, she mustered the same optimism she showered on everyone and everything else in her life.
There would be eight chemotherapy treatments over a year that would turn Ida Rollin weak, nauseated and bald. But after that Ida Rollin had a year and a half of a normal life -- until the cancer returned in the summer of 1983. She got two more chemotherapy treatments before doctors said her body was not strong enough for more. She went home with a tumor growing in her abdomen and a chart full of drugs to relieve pain, quell nausea, induce sleep.
"There's no point in a slow death, none. I've never liked doing things with no point. I've got to end this," Ida Rollin said in "Last Wish."
"I certainly felt that her wish to die was, in the first place" -- Rollin pauses -- "real, and in the second place, reasonable."
So Rollin set out to research how her mother could die -- though, the author says, she never mentioned the subject again unless her mother brought it up first. Which she always did, her daughter says.
"I think I felt throughout the whole thing a kind of constant mix of feelings," Rollin says and sighs. "Certainly one of the feelings was a feeling of unreality . . . Another feeling was simply love for my mother. And respect for my mother. My mother and I listened to each other. She listened to me when I was sick. And I had enough love and respect for her to listen to her. And what I was hearing was clear. She never wavered. I just felt I had no choice but to pay attention to what she wanted.
"And yet, on the other hand, I didn't really ever, until it happened, quite believe it would happen."
Mother, daughter, daughter's husband all planned meticulously to make it look as little like suicide as possible: How would they get the prescription? How long would Betty and her husband stay with Ida Rollin after she took the pills? (They had been advised by the doctor who suggested the drug and the dosage to not stay around.) But since Rollin and her husband wanted someone with her until the very end, they needed an ally -- who wouldn't be seen coming in and out by the doorman. They enlisted someone who lived in Ida Rollin's building.
After her mother lost consciousness, Rollin and her husband stayed about an hour. But her husband went back -- this was not part of the plan. "I think he just needed to," Rollin says. "He wanted to, and I couldn't bear to." She stayed at home and took a Valium, "which I never do." Her mother's body was discovered the next day.
"The whole thing would have gone unnoticed if I hadn't done this," says Rollin, meaning her book.
In New York State, aiding someone in committing suicide is second-degree manslaughter, which carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison. Rollin says she didn't care about the legality of what happened. "I just wanted to be there for my mother."
Before she wrote the book, however, she talked to a lawyer "to find out whether what I had done was illegal and he said no. The reason is that my mother in fact killed herself. And I did not directly help her. She saw to it. She didn't even let my husband help her with the bottle of soda water to wash down the pills . She kept saying, 'Don't touch anything' . . . I'm not crazy. As much as I wanted to write this book, if I thought the result would be a prison sentence, I wouldn't have done it."
The New York District Attorney's office would not comment on the incident or the possibility of a future investigation.
"I felt throughout this whole thing grieved," says Rollin. "But on the other hand . . . I felt extremely proud."
In the afternoon before Ida Rollin died, the three of them leafed through photo albums. "We didn't need to say anything, really. She knew how I felt about her. I knew how she felt about me . . . I think we were both afraid if we started talking and getting emotional -- how could we not get emotional? -- if we didn't try to keep our emotions under wraps that she might regurgitate those pills. And again, my mother, the planner, the doer, she had made this plan and she wanted it to work. She didn't want to mess it up, being emotional and possibly throwing up the pills. I think that's what was going on in her mind. And it was going on in mine, too."
"The control of pain in cancer patients is both scientific and art," says Dr. John J. Lynch, director of the oncology program at the Washington Hospital Center and president-elect of the Washington division of the American Cancer Society. Lynch says he understands why people turn to suicide, but can't condone it: "Suicide is not the alternative. Better medical management by a caring, empathetic, understanding physician is."
Rollin boils. "Well, that's lovely talk . . . That really infuriates me when I hear that. Of course, it's nice to treat pain. Swell, and the problem is there are certain kinds of cancers and certain kinds of tumors where the pain is not really treatable successfully. My mother had a tumor pressing against her bowel and her intestine. When she wasn't in pain, she was nauseous. The only time she had any relief was when she was asleep . . . Is that life?"
Lynch says the time when people start considering suicide is "the time when the family needs to say to the doctor, 'We're not getting pain control . . . If you can't do it, we need a referral.' "
"So all that does," says Rollin, "is mean somewhere in America or somewhere on earth maybe there was somebody who could have made my mother's pain less. So, you know, what is that? I think she had good doctors."
Rollin says, "I just worry about people in my mother's situation who won't get help, or who try to kill themselves and don't know how and suffer more. I just think there's an emergency here."