Brittany Maynard has ice-climbed in Ecuador, kayaked in Patagonia and climbed to the summit of Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro. Last week she and her family took on Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge, though through less strenuous means. “We had a beautiful day of driving what’s called the Fruit Loop out here,” says Maynard, 29. Next up? “She really wants to see the Grand Canyon,” says her mother, Debbie Ziegler. “So we’re going to try.”
The Grand Canyon should have been one of dozens more adventures. Instead, a heartbroken Ziegler calls that hoped-for trip her daughter’s “last hurrah.” Because on Nov. 1, if all goes as planned, Maynard, surrounded by her husband, Dan Diaz, Ziegler, her stepfather, Gary Holmes, and her best friend, will pull apart 100 capsules of the sedative secobarbital, dissolve them in water, drink it—and slip into a final, irreversible sleep. That life-ending act is perfectly legal in Portland, Ore., where the family moved shortly after Maynard was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor last spring. “I don’t want to die, but I am dying,” Maynard tells PEOPLE. “My [cancer] is going to kill me, and it’s a terrible, terrible way to die. So to be able to die with my family with me, to have control of my own mind, which I would stand to lose—to go with dignity is less terrifying. When I look into both options I have to die, I feel this is far more humane.”
In going public with her controversial choice earlier this month, Maynard, a former teacher, became the unexpected face of the right-to-die movement (see box). Her emotional 6-minute video for the advocacy group Compassion & Choices has 7 million views to date. In a column that ran on CNN.com, she wrote, “I would not tell anyone else they should choose death with dignity. My question is, Who thinks they have the right to tell me that I don’t deserve this choice? That I deserve to suffer for weeks or months in tremendous amounts of physical and emotional pain?”
Becoming a national symbol of anything was the last role Maynard imagined for herself. Growing up in Orange County, the only child of public school teacher and single mom Ziegler, Maynard “was a very good little girl and wanted to excel at everything she tried,” Ziegler, 56, says. A natural athlete and straight-A student—Maynard called her mother, upset, after getting her first B at the University of California, Berkeley—she got joy out of helping the less fortunate. As a teen she volunteered with the homeless and after college with orphans in Nepal.
Her big heart was a big attraction for lifelong bachelor Dan Diaz, whom Maynard met in San Francisco. “She’s a great person to be around—attractive, energetic, outgoing,” says Diaz, 43, a manager for a food company. Married Sept. 29, 2012, in the Sonoma Valley, they danced to Nat King Cole’s “L-O-V-E” and kayaked by glaciers in Patagonia for their honeymoon.
This year should have been their happiest: The couple had been trying for a baby. Instead, on New Year’s Eve, mysterious headaches that had started on and off in April 2013 and that she’d seen a doctor about—she was told they were migraines—became unbearable. On Jan. 2, after a series of tests at a local hospital, she learned she had a “large” brain tumor. Doctors initially gave her three to five years to live and removed part of the tumor. But two months later it had grown back with such a vengeance they revised their prognosis, saying they thought it was a glioblastoma and giving her only six months.
With her family she searched desperately for a treatment that could save her life. “I’ve read more scholarly articles on my disease than anyone would care to,” Maynard says. “We had stacks of paper everywhere. We were searching for a miracle and willing to travel out of the country. But there was nothing.” The full-brain radiation she could opt to undergo might be brutal, possibly causing blindness and mental and physical impairment—and destroying her quality of life in the hope of maybe getting a few extra months. “It’s not life-saving,” she says, “and it’s torturous.”
In her research she had come across articles on “death with dignity” states like Oregon. “I could request and receive a prescription from a physician for a medication that I could self-ingest to end my dying process if it becomes unbearable,” she later wrote. “It made sense to me.” With her decision made, she approached her mom and got the expected response. “I was still making my big filing cabinet of things we were going to try,” Ziegler says. “I would cry if she brought it up. Finally she said, ‘Mom. You have to talk to me about dying.’ And I told my husband, ‘She’s right. We have to open our eyes.’ ” In June, Maynard and her family moved to Oregon, the first state to pass a right-to-die law. She selected Nov. 1 as the day on which she will likely put an end to her suffering—since it will be after her husband’s birthday, on Oct. 26, and before her own 30th birthday, on Nov. 19. “The idea of celebrating my 30th birthday after getting this diagnosis,” Maynard says, “would be difficult.”
Since then her condition has gotten worse. Swollen from medication she takes to control the inflammation in her brain and often fatigued, she wakes up every day with a mild-to-excruciating headache. “There are days she is nauseous,” Diaz says. “There are days she has seizures. When they come on, she loses her ability to talk, and for 10 minutes after, she is talking gibberish. How much does one person tolerate?”
Maynard says it’s easier to bear the pain now that she knows she is in control. By making her decision, “I’m choosing to suffer less, to put myself and my family through less pain. It’s an enormous stress relief.” That’s left her space to make the most of her remaining days. In August a group of her girlfriends came up for an emotional visit. “She’s been giving her things away,” Ziegler says. “She gave her car to one of her friends and a special necklace and bracelet to another.” She’s also talked to Diaz about his life after she is gone. “She’ll say, ‘I want you to find joy—and please take care of my dogs,’ ” Diaz says, breaking down. “I know I’m going to be heartbroken. But to dwell on that today means I’d ruin today. I just want to be with Brittany and enjoy our time now.”
Maynard knows nothing is set in stone: If Nov. 1 is a good day, she’ll hold off. But she is a realist and she is ready. Christmas gifts for Diaz and the family are already wrapped and stored upstairs. And she has spoken with her mom about how they will meet once again. She’s asked Ziegler and Holmes to visit the 15th-century Incan site of Machu Picchu in Peru. “It’s a very sacred spiritual domain,” Ziegler says. “She knows if we can feel her, it will be there.” A peaceful thought—and one of the many things bringing Maynard comfort in these precious, final days. “I feel very fortunate,” Maynard says, “to go surrounded by love.”