Sunday, April 26, 2015

A Beautiful Death

Florida would say that years ago I committed a crime there, probably some variety of homicide: out of love, I helped someone have a beautiful death.

Which, coincidentally, is the title of an important symposium at NMSU on Friday.

NMSU remains steadfastly neutral on the end-of-life issues the symposium will cover. NMSU has simply noticed that we all die; that longer lives and scientific advances create both options and horrors; and that people should think about end-of-life issues and plan accordingly.

The conference runs from 8 to 5 at the Las Cruces Convention Center, with workshops and a keynote speaker. A maximum of 350 may register. Check with Kimberly Hill at NMSU.

Even if you don't attend, use this as a reminder to get around to certain tasks.

Fill out and sign an Advanced Directive. Under what circumstances do you want extraordinary means used to keep you “alive”? Under what circumstances should your loved ones pull the plug? Can people who need them use your organs when you're finished with them?

Inform yourself about the issues. Compassion & Choices is one source of information – and is showing the film “How to Die in Oregon” at 2 on Friday at the College of Health & Social Sciences Annex.

My father's death was beautiful.

He was adamant: he wanted to die on his terms. “It's been a great party, but it's time to leave,” he said.

He had congestive heart failure. He had a short time to live. During that time he would lose mental and physical capabilities. He loved reading the New York Times, playing bridge, and being with the new girl friend he'd met in the Florida retirement community.

My mother, to whom he'd been married nearly 50 years, had died of cancer. A long, miserable, painful death. During the final week she was often completely confused about who and where she was.

He asked me to help. A medical source confirmed that Father had enough pills to do himself in. A kind doctor donated a little morphine, saying, “I've been saving it for when I'll need it myself.”

One morning he noticed I look sad, and asked why. “I understand, but I'll miss you,” I said. “I'll miss me too, but it has to happen,” he replied.

His last night, we ate supper.  He ate little.  Then when we went into his bedroom he asked me to help him to the basin in the bathroom so that he could brush his teeth.  Then I helped him back to his bed, and we started to leave.  To me, his brushing his teeth suggested he'd changed his mind, because it hadn't occurred to me that one would brush teeth with just an hour or so left on Earth.  He called us back.  "Aren't we going to . . .?"  So we did.

Finally we sat on his bed, holding his hand, talking with him. His last words were playful: when I asked, “How are you doing?” he replied, “Fine. I could still beat you at chess.” Trash-talking.

He put down his head to rest. At some point he stopped breathing. We didn't know just when. We sat by him, loving him and glad for him but we also worried: what if he suddenly woke up and had changed his mind? What if he didn't die but survived as a vegetable? I'd violated Florida law. During those moments I was angry at the State, for the anxiety we felt and for the pain of many who couldn't find someone to break the law and help them die.

Freedom to choose a beautiful death is high on the list of things I care about: when there's no medical hope and I'm sure it's time to go, why must I exist in pain or desperation or humiliation, just so some medical institution can play with its technological toys and charge someone a bunch of money? (To be clear: I don't advocate euthanasia, mercy-killing of folks who don't or can't intelligently articulate their wish to die.)

Whatever our choices, we should all think honestly and deeply about the end of our lives, make sure our wishes are clear; and put those wishes in a legally adequate writing.
[A condensed version of this post appeared as a column in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 26 April.]
[By the way, noticing it's the 26th I should note there's a lot to do today, including the final day of the NMSU Rodeo, a musical benefit tonight for Mr. Jazz, Bob Burns (from 6 to 8 at the Rio Grande Theater on Main Street ), and from 3-5 a poetry reading at Nopalito's (326 S. Mesquite, next to the restaurant -- might have to have an early supper there after the reading) to help launch the new issue of La Frontera.  (I'm among the readers, I guess because I published a poem in the previous issue.)  Other readers include Joe Somoza and Claudia Ortiz Franzoy.  Joe's a wonderful poet, Claudia was my favorite columnist at the Sun-News and has a great new book  out, and I've heard most of the other readers and much enjoyed their poetry.  
We won't get to go to Sunday's rodeo events, but further back in this blog are some images from a rodeo in two posts.  I used to love shooting photographs at rodeo practice too -- though Mel Stone's black and white images from the same practices are better photography than mine.]  
[Meanwhile, on the column: I don't mean to imply NMSU agrees with my father's solution to the end of his life; but whatever your choices may be (or your parents') it's important to think about the issues ahead of time.  
Unfortunately, in our country more than most, death is a much-avoided topic of discussion, and people who visit the dying tend to avoid it, even when the dying person would prefer to discuss it.  I recall from 35 years ago my uncle's death from cancer at a relatively young age.  He was bed-ridden for months.  When I saw him, he said he thought he would live a few more weeks, but couldn't see past the end of the month.   He had frequently discussed his imminent death with my father, whose stint as a Marine pilot in World War II had given him a practical awareness of death; but after my uncle's death I was shooting pool with another uncle, who mentioned that "Everytime I visited him he wanted to talk about death."  With that faux shiver that's meant to communicate that something was creepy, he added, "I kept trying to cheer him up."

As to the right to die, I'll discuss in a future column the progress toward establishing that right in New Mexico.
There are two types of opposition to legalizing assisted suicide under very restricted circumstances: folks who think God wouldn't like it and folks who worry about what law students called "the slippery slope."  As to the first, I respect their view and their choice, as I would hope they would respect mine.  As to the second, they have a very legitimate concern, which I share: that if assisted suicide were legal, old and frail individuals would be subject to strong pressure to kill themselves -- or worse.  Some of the strongest opposition comes from people who are severely handicapped and fear that a society where suicide were legal would lead to pressures on them to disappear themselves.  Others fear that heirs and offspring might hasten a parent's death for money or emotional reasons when the frail parent was unable to express his or her true wishes.  Those are serious possibilities that any legislation on the subject should address seriously; but they are not insoluble problems.]

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