After the accident in 1991, Bradley saw no quality in her son's life.

Randy, the youngest of her three children, was always so playful, so full of zeal. He loved to wrestle, to water-ski, to pump up his biceps to impress the girls. In the sunroom of her Topeka home, Bradley holds up a photo of her son. He stands waist-deep in water, muscles bulging out of his yellow life vest, grinning and blowing a kiss. That was Randy, alive.

In the nursing-home bed, "he was living, breathing, pulsating, but it was a life sustained only by technical means," his mother says.

"There was energy, of course. But it wasn't life."

The doctors advised her to wait; they told her it was possible he could recover some function. So Bradley waited. She and Randy's father -- the couple had divorced several years earlier -- visited the nursing home daily. Bradley talked to Randy about silly memories: the chocolate cake with caramel icing she baked for his birthday, the treehouse he built with his father, the endless games of Sorry with his two older sisters.

She hoped he could hear her. She never saw any sign that he did.

Instead, she saw his bedsores fester. She noticed bruises caused when his caretakers dropped him as they struggled to prop him in a wheelchair.

He got sick with bout after bout of pneumonia. The antibiotics gave him diarrhea so constant, the skin on his bottom began to peel. Randy had trouble coughing up phlegm, so nurses would suction it out with a tube that made him gag. "I kept thinking: Why are we doing this? Why are doing this?" his mother said.

After several years of fighting to get good care for him in Topeka, Bradley moved her son to a nursing home near his sisters in North Dakota, where she thought he might get more attention. His sisters visited him often; she flew up to see him several times a year. His care did seem to improve. He stopped getting pneumonia.

But his mother noticed a rigidity in his face, in his body, that convinced her he was in pain.

One day, she says, she saw in her son's eyes a plea for help.

"I hesitate to say this, because people won't understand, but if there was any life in that body at all, it was as if he was saying: 'I've had enough. I've had enough.' I knew then that I couldn't stop until I brought him peace."

Bradley told Randy's doctor what she wanted to do.

The doctor convened an ethics committee; they studied Randy's case for months. Meanwhile, Bradley talked with other family members, gradually earning their assent. She also put herself through therapy. She wanted to make sure, she says, that she was acting only out of the "purest intent" -- doing what was best for Randy, not what was most convenient for her.

In January 2003, the doctor agreed to stop feeding Randy, and Bradley flew to North Dakota, to her son.

"I told him what was going to happen. I told him how much I loved him. How much we appreciated the gift of him. I told him it was time now to bring him peace."

For six days, Bradley sat by her son's bed, watching him die.

Blisters pocked his mouth and tongue. His frail body shook with muscle cramps. It was agonizing, she says now: "gruesome, prolonged." But in the dying, "there was also something sacred, something beautiful."

At the end, she recalls, as he gasped for every breath, she wrapped him in her arms and whispered: