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To Die With Dignity

(by Lesley Martin)

It wasn’t the quintessential English Christmas dinner that took pride of place in my mother’s handwritten recipe book, but a simple spaghetti Bolognese, so classically easy and satisfying that it became “The One”–the recipe that was handed down. We grew up with it, in New Zealand, a long way from our roots in Bedfordshire. It was a strange companion to our life—not English, not Antipodean, not even quite Italian, but so anticipated and savored that it became our meal.

Spag Bol nourished us through our teenage years of fast and furious sports; it was the meal served the night before those celebratory events that mark the passing of our lives, and it was the meal to comfort us when woe befell. It was spicy and juicy and messy and fulfilling and oh-so-funny when you ate it twirled around your fork, sucked on it loudly, and splattered everyone around you. It was meant to be shared and enjoyed and worn, and was the great leveler in a roomful of new friends. My mother’s recipe was better than any other, but we never did learn the secret ingredient. As my two sons grew, they went so far as to attempt to start their own recipe (with much to learn, I might add).

And so it was that the last time my mother and I shared her spaghetti Bolognese has remained indelibly imprinted in my memory. It was January 10, 1999—the last “proper” meal at home before my mother was to present for surgery, and over the following four months, she wasted away to a shell of her former robust self. She lost all joy in family dinners, and eventually food itself. The all-consuming nausea of cancer had stripped her of not only nutrition for her body, but also sustenance for her soul—the simple happiness of shared meals, warm smiles over raised forks, and the satisfaction of empty plates. When she could no longer face her most favorite of foods, she began dying in earnest.

And so it was that I promised her I wouldn’t let this travesty, this most hideous of insults, drag her out, whittle her down, and rob her of everything she had been. When the time came, I promised, I would help her to a dignified end.

And so, I did. On May 28, 1999, at 3:50 a.m.

In 2002, I published an account of our time together and was consequently tried and sentenced to 15 months prison for attempted murder. On release, I wrote a second book and spent the next decade campaigning for legislative change. Assisted Dying Legislation is now making its way through Parliament in New Zealand, and on the day it is passed, when mothers, daughters, fathers, sons, husbands and wives can all access legalized assistance to die with dignity, my sons and I will share our celebratory meal together and wonder, as we always have, what it is that makes it so special.


Lesley Martin is an actor, writer, and author of To Die Like A Dog. She lives in Buckinghamshire, England, and can be found on Backstage.

Joy Martin’s Spag Bol

chopped onions, to taste

minced garlic, to taste

a dollop of butter

enough minced beef to feed the number of mouths at the table

3 Oxo cubes, increase as necessary with the mince

1 tin of chopped tomatoes, preferably skins removed (2 tins, if using lots of mince)

a hearty splash of Worcestershire sauce

a goodly dollop of sweet Thai chili sauce

a bit of sugar, to taste

a glug-glug of red wine


Brown the onions and garlic in the butter, and add the minced beef, breaking it up and browning.

Add the Oxo cubes, tomatoes, Worcestershire sauce, chili sauce, sugar, and wine.

Mix well, and when absolutely no one is around, add something special to make it your own.

Share with good people—a gift from my mother’s heart, to your table.

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