choosing death

Before sitting down for dinner I had to show my dad my hands, palms down, so that he could check to see if I was biting my nails. Our hair had to be brushed and, in winter, he’d make sure we were all wearing undershirts to keep from catching cold in our drafty house.

Dinner conversation between the eight of us ran the gamut from silly jokes, school, sports, teasing my mom about her bad memory or her cooking, unfinished chores and the like. One occasional subject I remember, however, was my parents’ plan in the case that either of them ever became a vegetable. “Pull the plug,” they’d cheerfully pipe. It became clear to me that neither one of them wanted to be a burden on the other, or on us kids and that, in certain cases, they’d choose death.

My dad died far too early but never became a vegetable, just thin as a thread, zoned out on morphine, and terribly feeble, a shock to witness having known him to be a pillar of strength and agility his entire life. My mom survives him, though she often has no memory of their union due to her advancing Alzheimer’s. Sometimes she’ll recall him and say, “how did he die, again?” and then, when I tell her, she outrageously mutters something like, “rats” or "dammit."

In the early years after Mom’s diagnosis she spoke about “offing” herself at some point. “I have a chemist friend,” she’d spout, implying that she could easily get her hands on some lethal aid if and when she reached the stage where she didn’t remember people anymore. I always respected her desire, having grown up a firm believer in the right to die. Some religions believe it’s a sin. Even as a kid I remember thinking, how odd that god would punish someone who wanted to die because they were suffering, whether physically or mentally. That kind of god doesn't exist for me.

These past couple of weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about my friend who has been at his dying mother’s side. She’s in her eighties and has advanced stage breast cancer and, rather than endure radiation and chemotherapy, she’s chosen to die by fasting. He sends word through email, updating me on her mood, her level of comfort, her gradual progress toward death. He told me she is grateful for every little kindness and tells me she says things such as, “gosh, it’s all going so well,” and, “I’ve had such a wonderful day.”

Though I believe in my heart his mother is happy with her decision, having never met her I have only my imagination and my friend’s written words to rely on. When I think about her incremental perishing from lack of food and water—save rolling ice cubes on her tongue—I get a hollow, almost nauseous, pit in my stomach. I tell him as much—that I can’t completely understand my feelings on the subject though I am grateful for his sharing of such an intimate experience. But as soon as I focus on the end to her suffering—knowing that her life is in her own hands, her beloved son seated in the chair next to her bed holding her hand as she reads, showing her pictures of the people she loves, reading to her—the queasy feeling in my gut melts away into great peace of mind and body. It makes me think of my own parents and their end-of-life views.

I remember the last conversation I had with my dad. I was in New York City for business. When he picked up the phone I was surprised to learn that he was at home alone, something that hadn’t occurred in months since he’d been in and out of the hospital battling pneumonia. “Whatcha up to, Dad?” He told me he’d brought in a small load of wood, swept the garage and checked the oil in the car. His voice sounded strong, smooth and upbeat. “Wow,” I remarked, “that’s a lot ... feeling good today, huh?” He paused for a moment before saying, “Yep, I think I’ve finally turned the corner.” At that moment I wondered which corner he meant—wondered if the cancer that was eating him alive would finally take him out of his misery, the painful misery that I’d seen literally bring him to his knees at Thanksgiving. I wondered if he knew the irony in his words. Before dawn the next morning the phone rang in my dark hotel room. My dad had died.

Although I was grieving I wasn’t shocked at all. Instead, I felt relieved that he didn’t have to suffer anymore and that he had died on the best day he’d had in weeks, on the first night in months that he’d slept alone in the house with my mom. To me, it seemed right. He had fought a terrible battle and had finally given up to be at peace. His death seemed in keeping with everything he used to say around the dinner table when we were kids. Though all my life I knew him as a fighter, perhaps he chose death, maybe he met his match.

And at night when I fall asleep, I've been pondering this choosing of death, which takes me then— inevitably—to images of my two friends whose young sons live now with terminal syndromes, and of Calvin whose dangerous seizures hold sickeningly constant. These boys cannot choose nor can they understand, I say to myself, at which that familiar, hollow pit in my stomach returns, so I take a gulp of water hoping, choosing, to fill it all back up.

I learned of my friend's mother's passing a few hours after having written this. He wrote, "We had Mom’s funeral today and it was beautiful.  She is now at rest, 'sleeping under the ivy,' as she viewed death."

photo of his mother by Macauley Lord

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