Quaker Theology #28 - Spring-Summer 2016


The Death of Peg Morton:
A View from Eugene Friends Meeting

Dina Wills

I

The small, beautiful wood-paneled Meeting Room of the Eugene Friends Meeting (EFM) was packed with at least 150 people, many of them standing around the walls. The hand-made wooden benches were crowded, with chairs anywhere a chair could fit. The door to the Memory garden was open, even though the weather was chilly. It was December 6, 2015. Peg Morton was there to tell her Friends and friends and family about her decision to die by not eating or drinking for two weeks or more.

The Friend who clerked this meeting wrote, “We of course have no precedent for the meeting and what to call such. I believe I termed this ‘a Called Worship by and for Peg Morton,’ which I ‘convened’ by opening and closing it. We didn’t call it a Meeting for Worship as it wasn’t ‘sponsored’ by EFM’s Worship and Ministry [Committee] or the Meeting as a whole, not having been asked to offer or having come to unity on this. I talked. . . with Peg, who invited me (commanded is closer to conveying her sense of conviction and urgency) several times to try to get [a] sense of the gathering, at Peg’s invitation. Peg essentially invited Friends to assemble, worship and hear her address on her path, laying open her Spirit led concern.”

The knowledge that Peg had decided to end her life on her own terms had filtered through the activist community in Eugene, Oregon, and through the Eugene Friends Meeting, for about a week. The clerk opened the Meeting by telling us that it would last an hour. Peg would speak first, after which we would go into silence, out of which others could speak. After an hour, three Friends would start to sing a song Peg had chosen, to close the Meeting, and everyone was invited then to go out to the Memory garden to sing another song Peg had chosen.

There was a very brief silence after the clerk had spoken and sat down. Peg stood, from where she sat on the north bench, facing most of the people in the room. She was a small woman, with short iron-gray hair and a wrinkled face that could look stern, smile brilliantly, look incredibly sad as tears flowed, or wait expectantly to see what someone else had to say.

Today she was in charge. There was a wicked little gleam in her eyes that said she knew that nobody was going to stop her from saying exactly what she wanted to say now.

Everyone in the room knew her long history of activism, in the U.S. and in Latin American countries. They knew she had gone to federal prison for three months for civil disobedience at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, and had been tear-gassed at the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle. She had earned the right to say and do whatever she chose.

    She spoke for about ten minutes. In this Friends Meeting where controversies are often not spoken about if any person in the Meeting might feel hurt, Peg spoke of one of our most taboo subjects, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She gave a beautifully crafted plea for all the people involved in that conflict to stop inflicting damage upon each other in the disputed lands. She did not take a side, but spoke of the need for all Palestinians and all Israelis to realize what they were doing to themselves and each other. It was her last public political speech.

    She turned then to the issue of her voluntary death. She explained her reasons for dying, on her own terms, at the age of 85. She sat down. There was silence.

     But not much silence. The first speaker stood up almost immediately. For the next hour, people asked Peg not to die, or told her they supported her in this decision she had made. They spoke with much emotion. One woman finished her short plea for Peg to live with the shouted word, “DON’T!”

At that, voices from all over the room were heard saying the Quaker sentence, “That Friend speaks my mind.” A man who had known Peg in undergraduate college at Oberlin and had reconnected with her in Eugene said why he believed she was making the right choice. Other voices said, “That Friend speaks my mind.” People cried quietly, whichever position they supported. Peg’s eyes were filled with tears, but her face was serene and determined.

At the end of a moving tribute to Peg’s life, given by a long-time friend, the hour was up, and three Quaker women began singing a song that most in the audience knew. We all began to sing. 

          Then Peg sprang to her feet. What she cried out was that all her life she had not felt loved, but now, at this moment, she did feel loved. She sat back down on the bench, surrounded by people, crying quietly.

People moved toward the single door that led to the Memory garden, but it was forty-five minutes at least before Peg was able to make her way through that door and join us. We tried to sing the song she had chosen, which most of us didn’t know. Even if we didn’t know the words, we could sing the melody, and we did. It was a sacred moment, as we shivered and sang with Peg.   

II

Peg Morton was born in 1930 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her wealthy family had deep roots in the history of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, which young Peg was very proud of as she was growing up.

In her recent autobiography, Feeling Light Within, I Walk  [Cedar Row Press, Eugene, Oregon, 2013], Peg tells two sides of her childhood memories. On the one hand, she describes Christmas, with close family friends and their children sitting by the fireplace as Peg’s father read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, followed by a feast and carol singing.

Yet she also recalls feeling lonely throughout her childhood. She remembers playing by herself in the back yard, watched over by the laundress. She doesn’t remember dolls or other toys.

     When she went to kindergarten, her feeling of loneliness and not understanding what she was supposed to do continued. “I remember feeling a kind of discomfort. I didn’t know how to play with children or things, she wrote.”

Later her mother decided that Peg should repeat the fifth grade at her private school, because, “I was passing everything, but was socially behind. In addition, the class behind was a much better group of children. I was devastated and hurt. I felt like a failure, and wondered why I should learn all those things all over again? But Mother’s decision was undoubtedly a good one.”

    Throughout the book, Peg, as an adult, continues to report problems socializing, and times when she misunderstood the emotional intentions of other people. “I think I grew up with a feeling of unimportance,” she wrote. “My sisters were important, I was not, and this affected my self-esteem and my self-confidence. One thread of my life has been social difficulties, and learning to grow in self-confidence and in social abilities. Making friends and facing the world with confidence has only come slowly. The fact is that this has been hard and good work, and I am proud of how far I have come.” (p. 14)

She attended Oberlin College, a very progressive college, graduating in 1953. She had attended the Religious Society of Friends there, and applied for membership through the Oberlin Meeting. She was accepted, becoming a life-long Friend.

In 1955, she became re-acquainted with Lee Stauber, whom she had known at Oberlin. She writes, “Lee and I began to see each other regularly. He was a totally polite person, and I loved that. Other men had always treated me much more casually. I enjoyed our intellectual discussions, and appreciated that he thought I was intelligent.  During spring of 1956 we became engaged. I truly do not know if I was in love with him or not. I thought I was.” (p. 32)

The marriage lasted until 1980, when Peg was almost fifty years old. Along with her divorce, she received her M.A. in Rehabilitation Counseling, and worked in that field for ten years.

By then also, Peg was meeting with a small group of activists to talk about peace, justice, and other issues, and she helped to found the Peace Coalition of Southern Illinois. She began attending noon demonstrations and Saturday vigils in support of solidarity with what native peoples in Central American were experiencing. She traveled to many countries as a witness to what was happening in those countries.

By 1989, two of Peg’s daughters had moved to Eugene, OR. Her third daughter was in college in Minnesota. Peg decided to move to Eugene, where she found a spiritual home in the Eugene Friends Meeting. Here she found continuing support for another aspect of her activism – her resistance to paying taxes that would be used to finance U.S. wars. In 1982 she had written a letter to the IRS, members of Congress, and the local newspaper in Carbondale, Illinois that outlined how she would use the tax money that she would not send to the IRS, and the reasons for her action. She sent the IRS about half of what they would normally collect from her, and sent the remainder of the money to causes she believed in.

The IRS did come after the money, and about a year after her taxes were due, they took it from her Social Security and from the accounts in which she kept the stocks and bonds she had received from her mother, her father, and her aunt upon their deaths.

When people asked her why she went through this each year, if the IRS was going to get the money, plus penalties, she told them that she would not voluntarily pay the taxes.

There was significant money involved when Peg made decisions about her tax resistance. Her parents had left her about half a million dollars. Trying not to pay federal income taxes while attempting to give that money to causes she believed in caused her great anguish.

Peg got help in resolving this unease from the McKenzie River Gathering. It is an Oregon organization of people with large amounts of money that they want to give away.  Through that organization, she met Charles Gray, who had had much money but was now living on several hundred dollars a year, with some help from friends who let him sleep in their basement, saw that he had food, and took care of any travel needs for him. He challenged Peg and others to reduce their income by 10 per cent a year.

Over time she gave away most of the money to her daughters, and to many Quaker and social justice groups. About a year before her death, she moved into a low-income housing complex for older people.

In that building, she saw the people of whom she said, “they wish they were dead, wish they could just die, and they don’t know how.” But there were two other dear friends of Peg’s who are in worse shape than her neighbors were.
One is a woman who, when she was healthy in the 1980s and 1990s, was a lively, abrasive friend of Peg’s. Now she lives in a wheel chair, with one leg amputated, and a mind that is so gone that she recognizes no one, even though she is brought to her church every Sunday. The other friend, who had led a rich, full life, considered fasting to death six years ago, as she felt her body and mind begin to fail. She was talked out of it by a Christian relative who thought that such an action would displease God.

But now she is little more than a physical shell, who doesn’t know where she is or who is with her. She talks as though she is revisiting her childhood. She can do nothing physical for herself. One Eugene Quaker believes that this person is still doing a great service to the people who take physical care of her, that she is giving these caretakers a long last gift.

Others see this differently; Peg was one of those. The last chapter of her book is titled “Dying in the Light.” She considered what political message her dying would give, as well as the values that sometimes lead a person to accept medical advice that will probably lead to a life that is not worth living.

When Peg wrote that last chapter, those women may have been on her mind. By leaving this life on her own terms, she could make her last statement, which was both political, and a witness to her personal values.

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