I’m sitting on my back deck feeling the warmth of the sun on my face and shoulders, listening to a cardinal call and his partner respond—and thinking about death.
Not in what happens after all this is over sense. Not about what it might feel like. I’m thinking about being terminally ill and making the courageous choice of leaving when you’re ready versus when, after a long painful battle, your body finally gives up.
I have a friend who got to make that choice. He was brave.
There is a lot of controversy over assisted death, and I’m sure many of us have opinions about it. Those arguments against it typically include:
- It devalues human life. It implies life is unimportant. By choosing assisted death one contradicts the value of life, thus cheapening it for others.
- It’s a slippery slope regarding the limits on euthanasia. If physician-assisted death is legalized, what comes next? Legalized euthanasia for anyone and for any reason?
- The terminal patient’s pain can be managed. With the availability of palliative care—medical caregiving aimed at enhancing quality of life and reducing suffering—a patient’s pain can be eased, along with other associated symptoms.
- The relationship is precarious between a physician and the patient. A physician’s role is one of healing, offering care to the sick and vulnerable. Physicians are asked, and expected, to uphold a number of professional and ethical standards. Asking that same physician who is caring for a patient to end their life could risk trust between the patient and their physician.
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At this point are we really sustaining life or prolonging death? Where is the dignity in that?
I’ve seen death. I’ve watched my father, unexpectedly on a ventilator, struggling to breathe before he died. I sat with my grandmother for days, rubbing lotion into her pale thin skin while they shot her full of morphine to ease the pain. Sitting, waiting for her to take her last breath. It wasn’t about if she was going to take her last breath, it was a matter of when.
And there have been other loved ones. Those whose hand I held, while sitting on the cold hard chairs next to the hospital bed. The hospital beds with the rails that can be lowered or raised, a mattress that can be cranked up and down, listening to the constant background noises of rattling trolleys and whispered voices.
I’ve been there for them. And I can say with certainty, it’s not what I want for my loved ones when my time in this earthly form expires.
My best friend’s husband, Dr. T., made the brave decision to plan for a graceful exit after his cancer diagnosis. Arrangements were made well in advance. The date TBD.
It wasn’t kept a secret. We all knew and certainly had a variety of reactions. But it was his decision and we all supported it. Friends and family traveled in for visits, live music at the Saxon Pub became a weekly outing. Then, to cap things off, there was a good old fashioned southern crawfish boil.
Chemo treatments ran just over 12 months before it became clear things were at a point of no return. They scheduled their appointment, booked their trip, and departed on a Saturday—my friend with a round-trip ticket and her husband with a one-way.
I was very sad to say goodbye to my good friend this week. I will miss his wit, his wisdom, and his crankiness. I will miss him reading the New York Times out loud whether you wanted to hear it or not. I will relive the memories of the Siracha fight (think cafeteria food fight but with Siracha hot sauce) and all that other stuff that made him, him.
In the end, I am grateful that he found a legal path to reduce not only his pain and suffering, but that of his family’s.
As I sit here on my back deck, the sun setting and the warmth dissipating, I’m reminded of my mother. She has always believed that cardinals are messengers of departed ones. Maybe that’s what that handsome bright red cardinal is doing down there on my bird feeder.
You may be gone Dr. T., but you will not be forgotten!