Remembering Lynn Margulis

My brother, Dorion Sagan, has published the eulogy he gave at the private memorial service we had for the family when my mother died.

My mom had a intracranial brain hemorrhage on November 17, 2011 and she died at home five days later.

She was working upstairs on the third floor, in her attic, when she collapsed.

Earlier that day she had mailed me a package and bought tickets to come visit. A week before she’d been in Mexico speaking and doing scientific research.

It was so sudden, so unexpected, and so surprising.

At 73, my mother was very healthy. She had no risk factors for a stroke (except that her mother died of the same thing when she was 63 years old.) She bicycled to her laboratory at UMass, she swam across Puffer’s Pond, usually naked, on summer mornings before the birds were awake, and she walked a lot. She did not smoke. She was a little on the overweight side but she was not obese. She did not have diabetes.

I’m grateful when people ask me about what happened. When we were in Ithaca last month I talked to my best friend’s parents–who are the same age as my mom–about it. I want to talk about those last days with my mom, though I hardly ever do. But I won’t be able to tell you about how she looked when I finally got to the neurological ICU (we live 3,000 miles away. I took the first flight out Friday morning, my baby in my lap, but it took us until after 7 p.m. that night to finally arrive) without crying.

The doctors told us she would probably never walk or speak again, that if she made any kind of recovery it would be long and painstaking. My mother lay there in a medically induced coma, a huge bleed in her brain, a respirator breathing for her. The arm that was not paralyzed was tied to the bed. She kept lifting it feebly to try to pull the tube out of her lungs.

Get me out of here, Jenny, she told me as she lay there mute and paralyzed. Take me home. I don’t want to be in this hospital. I don’t want to die like this.

For twenty years my mother had been telling me she never wanted to be paralyzed, she wanted to work until the day she died, and she did not want to be resuscitated for any reason. She made me her health care proxy when I was 25 years old because she knew she could trust me to carry out her wishes. “My sister, the grim reaper,” Dorion joked.

Saturday morning, thanks to an angel of a hospital social worker who helped me fast track the paperwork to get hospice, my mom was strapped to a stretcher and put into another ambulance, like a loaf of bread being slid into the oven. I climbed in beside her and we sped towards home.

They told me she might not survive the ride. The EMTs, my other guardian angels that day, promised they would ignore the protocol that required them to take her to the nearest hospital and bring her to her house even if she died.

I held my mother’s hand during that hour and a half ambulance ride. I cried harder than I’ve ever cried in my life.

“I’m here,” I told you. “I’ll take care of you. I’ll take care of this. I’m so sorry this happened to you. I don’t want you to die.”

Thank you for taking me home, I heard her say in my head. Stop being so emotional, Jenny. Everything’s okay.

It hurts so much. I miss her every day. I lived far away but we talked often (My mom: “Honey, I love you, but I’m busy. Can I call you back after class?”). I still haven’t opened the package she sent me. I’m still not ready to say goodbye.

Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism. Her new book, The Business of Baby: What Doctors Don’t Tell You, What Corporations Try to Sell You, and How to Put Your Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Baby Before Their Bottom Line, will be published by Scribner in April 2013.

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Categories: Lynn Margulis.


  1. I have no words, really, just teary eyes. I am not yet at that point in my life where I think about my parents dying but my parents are. My grandfather died on May 1st of this year, and watching my mother deal with it was heartbreaking. I was suddenly confronted with the reality of parents being mortal, which is just horrifying to me and something that I will continue to ignore until I can no longer can.
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    • I’m sorry about your grandfather Nancy. Thanks for reading. I still can’t quite believe that I’m a motherless daughter. It’s not like I’m a spring chicken or anything. It’s just so hard to shift from the they’re-not-really-mortal to my-mom-actually-died mindset. I don’t wish it on anyone, really, though I guess it happens to most of us at some point.

  2. Sue

    You are the best daughter ever!!!! What a difficult, kind, generous, heartbreaking and sad thing you had to do – and your mom knew you’d be able to rise to the task. That is why she specifically chose you.

    Love you lots. Wishing I could ease your pain.

  3. Very touching, your account of Lynn’s last few days. It made me remember my mum death, a few minutes after I left the hospital where she had been recovered the previous night. I did not realize she was to die so soon, otherwise I would have stayed with her. In the case of my father, I stayed with him the night he died, I was holding his hand, talking to him, moistening his lips from time to time. It was sad but at the same time I felt glad to have been with him his last few hours.
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  4. Myra

    I am so glad you were able to write about your mom. Thanks for sharing your love and your grief with us. You were able to honor your mom’s wishes, and be there to say goodbye, that is so special Jennifer.

  5. Sheryl

    Jennifer, This is heartbreaking yet so beautiful. You gave your mother the best gift at the end of her life. I can’t imagine how difficult it had to be for you – and still is. You were so fortunate to have each other.

  6. Laura

    Wow. What a hard responsibility. My parents, too, are adamant about living a full life, at home, active, and dying without interference. They’ve chosen me to carry out this wish. So, I may be in the same situation someday. Your story gives me strength to help with their choice. Thank you.

  7. Patty Allen

    Reading and crying, feeling her presence and remembering her voice as if it were yesterday and not ten years since I last saw your mother. What a remarkable daughter you were and are. I was blessed to have known your mother and met your family through Tonio. I can still see your Mom in my mind, on the deck beneath the wisteria…

  8. Ryan

    Your article is very touching and I can’t even imagine having to go through what you had to. I don’t know if I had the chance to tell you, when we met last month, but I am truly so sorry to have heard about your loss. Lossing someone that is part of your world, especially your mother, is devasting to put it lightly. I also know there is nothing I can say that will help. But my thoughts and prayers have been with you and your family since I heard the news. I never met your mother, but in the brief encounter I had with you, I know she must have been something very special. You are an incredible mother and its easy to see your passion.
    Sending our love,
    Ryan and Christian

  9. jerry sullivan

    i am a great admirer of you mother….i would like to know if she was cremated and what was done with her remains?…is there a place marked for where her remains were scattered?….i have read most of her works and have a picture of her with her microscope at my desk at home….i will truly miss reading any future work that she might have written…i have her “Microcosmos” by my bed……i have read it at least 4 times….i hope this note does not disturb you, but i really want to know about her remains…i have relatives living in massachusetts and when i visit them i would like to visit your mothers resting place….jerry sullivan…

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