In April 2017 Francie and Charlie Emerick marked their 66th wedding anniversary. But they were aware that time was of the essence. After a lifetime of doing nearly everything together, there was one last act that they wanted to perform. And though they knew every aspect of it needed to be just right, they were ready to take the ultimate step.
Francie first met Charlie in 1947 while at York College in Nebraska. In a family video posted on Vimeo, Francie recalls that encounter as if it were yesterday. “Porter,” Charlie called from the end of the dormitory dining table to Francie some way down, “Could you pass the butter?” She replied, “I have a first name.” And it was a name that Charlie quickly learned.
Charlie and Francie soon knew that they wanted to get married. However, at their parents’ requests, they completed their education first and then wed on April 4, 1951. And just nine months later, Francie gave birth to Jerilyn, the first of their three daughters.
Charlie subsequently graduated from the Creighton University School of Medicine in June 1956. The family then relocated to San Diego, California, where Charlie was employed as a doctor in the Navy, while Francie was a stay-at-home mom caring for their growing family. And it was in San Diego that they met a medical missionary.
As a result of that meeting, the Emericks relocated to Miraj, India, in 1964. Here, Charlie founded an ear, nose and throat (ENT) department in a local hospital, where Francie had a job in the PR department. They returned to the U.S. in 1972, when Charlie secured a post as chief of ENT in a Portland, Oregon, medical facility. He remained there until his retirement in 1990.
The Emericks, then, had led what appeared to be a fairytale life. They’d lived in places that they’d never even heard of as youngsters, much less dreamed about. They raised three daughters. And they pretty much did everything together. But in 2006 things would take a turn for the worse.
It was discovered that Charlie had developed prostate cancer. Yet although his treatment proved to be a success, that wasn’t the end of Charlie’s health issues. In fact, with the couple by now well into their 70s, their physical and mental well-being was likely to decline.
Six years after his cancer treatment, Charlie was further diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, an illness that he’d shown signs of for some time. The condition is a degenerative disorder in which the brain gradually ceases to function over time. Through it all, though, as always Francie was right there with him.
But then, early in 2017 Charlie’s doctor informed him that he had only six months to live. Maybe less. Moreover, his wife’s physical condition wasn’t great, either. Although Francie sometimes seemed to be in fine form, in truth her energy now came in short bursts following years of her own health issues.
In 2009 it had been discovered that Francie had lymphoma. Despite her chemotherapy being a success, however, that year she had suffered the first of several heart attacks. And although it would take more than cardiac arrests to knock her down, her heart grew weaker and weaker over the years.
Francie was no longer able to care for her husband due to the severity of his illness, so the couple had moved into a care home. And, upon learning of his prognosis, Charlie pondered the idea of aid in dying. According to Time, he told himself, “You keep going, Charlie, you’re going to get worse and worse and worse. The other can’t be worse than this.”
The couple had been members of the Hemlock Society, an organization in the 1980s that supported people’s right to die with dignity. So, being well educated in the subject, Francie expressed her husband’s wishes to his doctor. And with her own failing health also in mind, she conveyed her desire to take the same course of action.
In 1997 Oregon had passed the Death with Dignity law, allowing terminally ill patients to receive medication under prescription that will aid their own deaths. The law is very specific, however, and Francie’s desire alone to join her husband was not enough to qualify for the treatment.
Indeed, Francie admitted that she might still have a few years left in her. Her own mom, in fact, had lived to the age of 93. But, as Francie simply put it, she didn’t want to. In the Vimeo footage, she says, “Charlie and I have a rather unique relationship in that we have done and been so much to each other for 70 years.”
With their minds firmly made up, the couple reached out to the charity End of Life Choices for its help. Francie sought the relevant permission from her doctor, with a second opinion from a third-party medical expert and advice from a cardiologist, as well as an ethics group. And, as fate would have it, she qualified.
The Death with Dignity law dictates that two doctors have to agree on an outcome of six months or under left to live. In an assessment that takes around two weeks, the patient must confirm their intentions multiple times and have the ability to administer the prescribed medication themselves.
Francie was 88, and her physical condition wasn’t about to improve. Meanwhile, the health of Charlie, 87, was rapidly declining. His Parkinson’s disease was making it difficult for him to swallow, in fact, which would have put an end to their plan. They knew that their window of opportunity was closing.
On April 20, 2017, around two weeks after their 66th wedding anniversary, Francie and Charlie Emerick took the medication that would see them pass on peacefully. As they held hands for the last time, Francie slipped away 15 minutes later. Charlie followed after another hour.
The final days of Francie and Charlie were captured in a documentary filmed by their daughter, Sher Safran. “They had no regrets, no unfinished business,” Safran told The Oregonian. “It felt like their time, and it meant so much to know they were together.” Originally intended as a family keepsake, the documentary was made public a year later.
The video shows Charlie saluting as he’s pushed away in his wheelchair. Sher gives her mother one last tearful hug before the couple take the medication and clasp hands. Sher asks her mom, “What are the feelings that you have when you think about dying?” Francie replies, “At this point, it’s rather exciting. What will we find on the other side? As I’ve often said to friends, I think it’s going to be great. But if it isn’t, we won’t know!”