Maude’s Pill

For some, Harold and Maude, with Ruth Gordon still full of piss and vinegar in her seventies, a young and slim Bud Cort, and an outrageously funny Vivian Pickles, is a cult film, but I have continued to be haunted by it, not because of Harold’s ingenious attempts to look as if he is committing suicide or his rather improbable love affair with Maude. It is the “real” suicide that takes place at the end of the film. Maude takes her life at the end. Why? Because she is eighty, and eighty is a good time to die. She swallows a pill. I doubt the pill Maude swallows will really do her in, unless it is cyanide, but the gesture is more important than the pill. For Maude is ready to go. She cooks, she bakes; when she first meets Harold, she still sleeps with an old gent for whom she poses in the nude, but she spends a lot of time at funerals and at attempts to rescue old shrubs. She has no kids except for Harold, her also quondam lover, but she is not going to lean on him, even if he wants to lean on her. Unlike his real mother, she wants him to have a life. Now, she wants to move over and out.

The only trouble I have with the film is that one pill will do Maude in and still give her time to say good-bye. Nobody has to place a plastic bag on her head.


Of course, I am making too much of Maude. The film was really about Harold, and his outrageous attempts to escape his mother. Call it The Adventures of Harold. There should have been a sequel. But that pill. That magic pill.


I have a lot of young friends. When I was eighty, one of them playfully pushed me, and I fell. She urged me to get up, but I couldn’t. She wept, she cried. She tore her hair. The ambulance came and carried me off. She followed me with flowers. Nothing helped. My pelvis was smashed. My health plan took two days to find a suitable surgeon for my geriatric plight and decided upon a first-year orthopedic resident, and my surgery was followed not by pneumonia but by blood clots. In my lungs. Emboli. Both lungs. And again it took several days for my health plan to figure it out. The staff at my HMO, the best in the West if they say so themselves in the heart-warming ads they throw at us, couldn’t determine why I couldn’t get enough oxygen into my system, They thought I had asthma, although nowhere in my medical files was there any hint of asthma.


Look, there are plenty of horror stories around  about the golden years.

What’s the point? Another one is not going to make the HMOs or the private hospitals more cost-accountable or humane. The tales will supply fodder for the next In-House or Out Patient episode where the patient dies, and the doctor cries. But I did manage to shock all of my attendant staff by asking them to help me die to spare me further pain and grief, should I recover from their ministrations.

For what joy would await me? I knew that as soon as I could take three steps assisted by a walker, the rehab people would deem me sufficiently mobile to take care of myself, and provide me with a physical therapist who would see me twice a week for 15 minutes. My health plan, which takes unto its coffers my Medicare, guarantees me 100 days of skilled nursing, provided I never reach a plateau.

Everyone defines plateau differently. The occupational therapists and the physical therapists are encouraged, perhaps rewarded, for moving dead wood into the loving care of non-existent relatives and a few weary friends, because the patient has reached a plateau. Look: the patient can stand up on one and a half feet. When he grows another half foot, he can return.

Now I am ninety and walking on one foot. Walking? Well, I need a walker and a wheelchair and a helper three times a week. I am also in a retirement facility.


This is what I would suggest: that my HMO, an acclaimed leader in the field of innovation, create a wing, a small one – no beds, just a couch or two, a modest, homely place presided over by a member of the clergy and a social worker. Here a person on olden pond can receive appropriate counseling, and then ask to die. It requires only  a skilled nurse practitioner. Look, it could save the HMOs and the rehab facilities money. Not to mention the agony of both the attending staff and relatives hearing the old folks cry out in dementia or pain for peace of mind and body. Who can dispute the logic? Only the Pro-Life lobby, because they uphold the sanctity of existence – forget the life. And I uphold the dignity. Just one pill. Or one shot and a fond farewell, and a check for The Sierra Club, KQED, Doctors Without Borders. They do it for murderers.

They could call it the Harold and Maude Wing.


Author’s Comment: Even at the best retirement facilities, we see our friends, we see ourselves, dying by inches. Some of us desire fervently to leave it to God. Others would be grateful for an option. I am afraid I will not be dignified when the time comes.



Flossie Lewis is a nonagenarian who has been wanting to die for twenty years, but in the meantime has managed to get her Ph.D. in American Literature at UC Berkeley, and is making life miserable for the residents of Piedmont Gardens.


  1. This is a terrific piece! I’d love to read more of your writing in Persimmon Tree. I imagine you have plenty to say on all kinds of subjects and you are a wonderful writer. — Chana Bloch

  2. I can’t believe Flossie is in her 90s. She is so sharp and clear.

    I agree with her thoughts about being more in control of one’s life and death. I have often said, as does one of the other “repliers”, that in this country we are more humane to our pets than our people.

    It is well known that most people fear dying much more than death.

    Just in the last couple of weeks legislators in California have begun trying to get legislation passed – comparable to Oregon, Washington Vermont – that would allow Physician Assisted Suicide. New Mexico and Montana also have legal rulings that allow authorized doctors to provide lethal prescriptions and declared a constitutional right for “a competent, terminally ill patient to choose aid in dying.”

    I hope many legal avenues are available sooner rather than later. The current legislation is not “The Maude Pill” or the “Harold and Maude Wing” at the local hospital, but it is a step in the right direction.

  3. Your description of health care today — even at the supposedly ‘good’ places — is accurate. My 93-year-old mother and her 89-year-old sister had similar experiences. It seems like a crazy and cruel irony that so many elders lose their lives by inches with bodies still going long after joy has died. Thank you for telling it straight and telling it well.

  4. Flossie was my English teacher at Lowell High School. My freshman year, the school declared “Famous Couples Day” and held a contest in the gym or the courtyard, I can’t remember. I said hey Flossie, you know Harold and Maude? She gave me a look. “You want me to play Maude to your Harold.” That look would have wilted plastic flowers. But she did it. (Somewhere there’s a picture – the Lowell 85 yearbook? I can’t find it.) I don’t remember if we won; if not, we were robbed. In any case Flossie was always and still remains game, giving, brilliant and hilarious, and as brutal as her last years have been I am very selfishly grateful to her doctors for not handing over that pill.

  5. Love the article. I also hope to find a way out of this life before it becomes too unbearable. However, with your great talent for writing, I hope you summon the energy to continue. My godmother, while still in fairly good health, though tired of living, at age 93 stopped eating. Said she wasn’t able to eat, but I think it was a form of Catholic suicide.

  6. Thanks brave lady. My daily prayer/thought is that I will age with grace, which means some humor like yours and a bit of snark, sprinkled with lots of hope anyway. I have hope at 76 that the medical system will get it together. We have assisted living. Why not assisted dying? I loved reading Dr. Atul Gawande’s new book, Being Mortal—new ways of thinking about aging and dying. Thanks!

  7. Harold and Maude was an firm favourite of mine.
    I bewail the US healthcare system that has seen you suffer, Flossie! How dare they! They should have such ‘care’!
    Our own dear politicians are trying their utmost to foister on we Aussies this ghastly system… They too should have ‘such care’!

  8. Dear Ms. Lewis: Thank you for an excellent essay. At a healthy, active 73 years of age, I had a Hip Implant surgery. One year later, another surgery on the other side. I can relate to much about your reports in the medical experience.
    It is very odd to me, to be realizing many things that will never “BE” AGAIN. I only hope to remain peaceful and accepting enough to welcome life’s changes, adjustments, new ways of enjoying the next twenty years. May your writing be doing this for you, carry on!

  9. Your indomitable spirit comes thru in this piece. Oh the indignities of aging. You are a good observer. This seems to enable you to see how ludicrous it all is. Your humor comes thru Love the Harold and Maude wing. Your life sounds full in many ways. We will all be where you are someday soon. We need to figure out how to make it work. Thanks for writing this.

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