Debbie Ziegler says her daughter's Christmas gifts, a planned trip to Peru and keeping her legacy alive are helping her heal

By Nicole Weisensee Egan
Updated May 09, 2017 11:06 AM
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Credit: Courtesy Debbie Ziegler

Not long after Brittany Maynard found out she was terminally ill last January, her mother wrote her a letter.

“I told her, ‘I will not let this turn me into a bitter old woman,’ ” Debbie Ziegler tells PEOPLE in an exclusive interview.

“It was the first time in writing that I basically acknowledged to her that I knew what was going to happen and I was going to make her proud,” says Ziegler, 56, of Carlsbad, California.

“She called me and said, ‘Mom, I’m crying,’ ” says Ziegler. “I said, ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t want to make you cry.’ She said, ‘No. It’s good crying.’ ”

Ziegler has done her best to keep that promise – and others – to her 29-year-old daughter, who legally ended her life Nov. 1 under Oregon’s Death With Dignity law.

On Wednesday, Ziegler and Maynard’s husband, Dan Diaz, are scheduled to appear at a news conference with lawmakers in Sacramento, California, to announce the introduction of a right-to-die law in the state, similar to the one Maynard relied upon when she took a fatal dose of the sedative secobarbital to end her life.

“She said, ‘I’m not leaving children, Mom, but I am leaving a legacy and if you are feeling strong and want to work on this I would like you to keep my legacy alive,’ ” she says. “And I said, ‘Well of course I will.’ ”

Last June, Maynard, who was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor last January, and her family moved to Oregon from California so Maynard could have access to the state’s Death with Dignity Act.

On Oct. 6, Maynard launched an online video campaign with Compassion & Choices, an advocacy organization, to get similar laws passed nationwide. Maynard wanted to start with her home state.

“There was a peacefulness in Brittany knowing that she had this plan,” says Ziegler.

Though Maynard suffered seizures and headaches that grew worse as time went on, knowing she didn’t have to die the tortuous death that had been described to her gave her a peace of mind that allowed mom and daughter to make many precious memories together – from a “beautiful crazy boat” ride in Alaska to quiet hikes in the forests of Oregon.

“That’s what keeps flashing back to me are those minutes, those hours,” Ziegler says, tearing up. “We were given them as a gift, because she couldn t have done any of that if she didn’t know that she had her plan.”

Maynard also had a plan to meet up with her mother at Machu Picchu in Peru, a “very spiritual, sacred” 15th century Incan site where Maynard herself had traveled with a friend, says Ziegler.

“She said, ‘Mom, you go to Machu Picchu and you’re going to know I’m there,’ ” says Ziegler.

But Maynard wanted to make sure her mom kept that promise.

For one of Ziegler’s Christmas presents, Maynard bought her a pair of shoes that say “Live your dream” to wear on the trip and left her photos of her own trip there and the Galapagos Islands along with a note that said, “While you’re down in that part of the world, go to the Galapagos Islands,” says Ziegler.

The friend Maynard went to Machu Picchu with also gave her the travel book they used for Christmas, she says.

“When I got that my heart just felt so good, because I thought ‘Oh, we can actually travel in their footsteps,’ ” says Ziegler.

Ziegler also says she and her husband, Gary Holmes, are planning to go this spring – which means she has to keep moving forward and not allow grief to take over.

“I promised her she would know who I was and what I was going to be by the time I met her in Machu Picchu,” she says. “I want to make her proud.”

Another Christmas gift from her daughter was a very special pink shawl.

“It’s got all this writing on it about how thankful she is that I was her mother,” she says. “I had to leave the Christmas tree and go cry. It was the hiccuping, shuddering kind of crying.”

After her daughter’s passing – which Ziegler describes as peaceful – Ziegler got a tattoo on her right foot that says, “Be soft,” with the date of Brittany’s death below it.

“It’s there, always telling me to find reasons to be grateful,” she says.

In the end, though, what’s keeping her going is simple.

“Love,” she says. “When you’re in a situation like this, it just comes down to you loving that person and loving them through it and them loving you even though you stumbled around in denial for months – forgiving each other for not getting it right every minute of every day and just knowing that she exuded love and her last words were about paying it forward.”

Husband Dan Diaz Recounts Brittany Maynard’s Last Day

For more from Ziegler on Brittany Maynard, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday