Maud is dead. I didn't stop her: She was a sweet little old lady. But also angry, as Kate James, a neighbour, discovered

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Indy Lifestyle Online
SHE WAS 78 years old when she committed suicide on my patio. Dear, sweet Maud threw herself from her sixth-floor balcony and I found her body still warm.

Should I have stopped her? Could I have stopped her? For I knew she was going to kill herself. I thought it would be an overdose in a secluded hotel room, an almost anonymous end.

We had talked a lot that spring about the right to die at a time of one's choice. To die with dignity. And, in spite of a lifetime of service in the church, Maud made her view clear: it was a personal matter between her and her God. And that was how I felt, too.

Maud, a tiny person dressed always in pink, silvery hair waved immaculately under a fluffy hat, seemed outwardly all that was gentle and kind. One of that band of elderly ladies busy with church rotas, charity committees; her flat strewn with embroidered garments made for the annual church bazaar. Going about it all quietly, without fuss.

I hadn't realised how much anger was bottled up underneath the sweetness. Depression such as Maud's was, I had assumed, a solitary emotion: its extreme, a solitary end. Clinical depression, I know now, can be anger turned inward upon the self: a powerful, vigorous emotion. Maud had frequent bouts well concealed under that delightful exterior; her suicide was, perhaps inevitably, to be in violent anger and not in her bed.

She spoke often, over tea and home-made scones, of a frustrating year in India in her late teens, in the days when young girls were sent out to catch a husband. Maud failed; the only one of her group to remain a spinster. It was a failure that mattered in her circle. The anecdotes she told that spring were vivid and bitter; as fresh as the humiliation more than half a century earlier. It was on my birthday that Maud had sat quietly with a glass of sherry in my garden flat.

'I didn't throw myself out of the window last night,' she suddenly said. 'I managed not to.'

I failed at that moment to take such threatened violence seriously and made some light response. Maud changed the conversation.

Next morning, dusting in my sitting-room, I noticed a dark crimson cardigan on my patio slabs. Thinking I had dropped it when bringing the washing in, I went to the door. Maud's crumpled body lay there in a stream of moving blood. I rushed out to help, thinking she had fallen down the garden steps, not realising she was dead.

She wore her pink silk dress under the cardigan so like mine, with cotton stockings and polished shoes. There was a gentle smile on her lips, her wide-open eyes seemed happy, her face at peace. At that moment I knew she had made the right decision.

Two days later her closest friend came round. 'She was perfectly all right at church on Sunday,' she said accusingly. 'She'd have told me if anything was wrong. She always did.'

This was a sturdy, sensible woman, from one of the caring professions, so I told her of Maud's depression.

'But if you knew she was contemplating suicide you should have gone to her doctor. He's only down the road. I can't understand it,' she chided.

My reply, that I respected Maud's decision and her confidence, brought a stern comment that she must have been temporarily unbalanced, that I should have heard it as a cry for help and acted accordingly. Anti-depressants would have cured her.

Death was what Maud wanted. She and I had agreed that death was a private and personal affair. But I came to realise that this was no quiet overdose, it was violent self-murder . . . Police breaking into her flat; ambulance men; gawping crowds outside peering at the spot; TV cameras and reporters - this was not what Maud wanted. Or was it?

Puzzled friends, white-faced neighbours; the postman in tears, the home-help in hysterics.

'But why?' asked local shopkeepers. To all, she had been a kindly little old lady, comfortably off, with a wide circle of friends. And the church.

I tried to explain her heart problem, her impatience with a failing memory. She had money problems, too. The doctor had advised her to move into a nursing home. Maud had reluctantly agreed, although she had a dread of communal living, I said. In a home, she realised, she would have lost her privacy and her fierce independence. At 78, she had no taste for change. It was better this way - and she really had looked happy in death.

'But if you knew, you should have done something]' The protest was echoed by almost everyone I met.

Maud had already sold her flat. Most of her furniture had gone. Her room overlooking the garden when I went up that last weekend, was impersonal, dreary, full of echoes. Patches on the wallpaper where bookshelves had been. She gave me her rocking chair, a locket with her portrait and a charming ornament.

'I've booked into a hotel for a short rest,' she told me. 'I don't want to go straight to the nursing home.'

I guessed that was where she planned to take a peaceful overdose, comfortably and tidily in bed, alone and among strangers. Maud would never want to cause trouble in dying.

'But how utterly wicked of her]' my family commented. 'To take her life on your patio so violently and so full of self-hatred]'

Gentle, sweet Maud; everyone said she had been so cheerful that week. Perhaps she had already taken the decision, the conflict between life and death resolved, the tension relaxed.

Should I have told her doctor? Would I have done so if I had realised exactly what she planned? If death is actively, purposefully sought, have we any right to interfere? But then, did Maud have any right to murder herself on my patio that spring morning?