I wrote this in response to Rick Fromm's Jan. 26 article ("If pets can die with dignity, then why can't humans?") and Irv and Jane Forster's Feb. 9 letter to the editor ("Dying should have some control over their own end").
In 1985, my mother learned that, despite a mastectomy, weeks of radiation, months of chemotherapy and four and a half years of "remission," her cancer had metastasized - not to the other breast, but to the bone (the spine), and it was becoming more excruciating by the day. Upon learning that she had nine months to "live," she decided to end it.
She knew that suicide was illegal in Illinois, and were her husband, my father, to assist, were he even just to sit and hold her hand, she knew that he would be convicted as an accessory to murder. "Self-murder" is what suicide means, after all. I have wondered whether she also might not have feared that he would try to talk her out of it, sweet-talker that he was.
So she stuffed towels under the bottoms of the doors of our attached garage, sat in her car with a wastepaper basket between her feet in case she threw up, turned the key and died of whatever it is cars spew out their tailpipes.
She had learned to drive late in life; Chicago's superb public transportation system had eliminated the need to learn, but when we moved to the suburbs in 1970, she had no choice. Even after 15 years, she still hated driving, though it no longer terrified her. So she died, alone, ready to puke, in a seat that had scared her to death most of her adult life. My father and I were at our respective jobs that day, blissfully unaware, when she did it. Although my father might have had an inkling in the secret of his heart, I sure didn't.
She was 54. I was 25, still living at home, and had just given two weeks' notice at the downtown law firm where I worked, so I could take care of her.
I remember reading somewhere that when you commit suicide, you leave your skeleton in somebody else's closet. When someone asks me why my mother died "so young," I say cancer, rationalizing that lie in my mind with the excuse that, in nine more months, it most certainly would have killed her.
I do that because the words, "she killed herself," are a real conversation-stopper. I don't like to make people feel that awkward in the course of casual conversation. They don't know what to say to that bit of information; heck, they don't even know how to react inside their own heads, much less what to put into words.
St. Ambrose said, "Death ... is not to be dreaded. It is not bitter to the needy, nor especially grievous to the rich, nor oppressive to the old, nor cowardly for the brave, nor eternal to the faithful, nor unexpected to the wise ..."
On the whole, I agree with St. Ambrose. But he never intended his words as encouragement for assisted death. I, on the other hand, lean heavily on the side of not only "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," but "death, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
Wouldn't it have been better if my mother could have had the swift death she desired while we held her hand and told her we loved her? I like to think so, but truth is, she wasn't all that keen on sentiment, so maybe she wouldn't have wanted that anyway.
Here's the problem: St. Ambrose doesn't make the laws. Wise people (obviously) don't. Neither do suicidal people. Politicians do. And if politicians are scared just of losing their seats, they'll be totally freaked by the topic of death.
The statistics cited in Mr. Fromm's article indicate that 70 percent of U.S. adults - (70 percent? Ye gods, the only higher numbers are probably the percentage of voters who favored the repeal of Prohibition, the percentage of Catholics who use birth control, and the landslide that elected Ronald Reagan) - as I was saying, 70 percent of U.S. adults think that the terminally ill should have the right to end their own lives. Why, then, do so few places allow euthanasia or assisted suicide?
First of all, small minority or not, some people think it's morally and spiritually wrong. Secondly, and more to the point, most of us, in the fullness of life, prefer not to face death. (How many of you have your wills up-to-date, hmmm?) Thirdly, most politicians do not have the bragiols to tackle an issue like this. Lastly, it's because these things are not simple, and laws try to make things simple.
The issue of suicide is complicated by the whole concept of intent, just as homicide is. Is it ever justified? Gibran said, "Perhaps a man may commit suicide in self-defense." Religious people would disagree; but what if you're not religious? Shouldn't the secular law allow for these secular people as well? Or allow for extenuating circumstances? Or give religious people the freedom and option, as does God Himself, to disobey their own religion's laws? (I am not so bold as to claim that all our religious laws are necessarily God's own.)
And even further complicating the issue is the horrible specter of Hitler's Germany, even after all these years. How many people were "assisted" out of existence even before the gas chambers were built? How far can a simple law be taken before it becomes abused into a bona fide evil?
Is it an evil?
The current simple law forbidding all suicide creates scenarios like my mother's death - is this an evil? Or just a sad, unintended consequence? But a simple law allowing it could create an equal but opposite problem. By making self- or other-assisted death legal for the terminally ill, would we inadvertently bestow a sanction of sorts upon it for the terminally unhappy or temporarily miserable as well? Would this be an evil? Or just a sad, unintended consequence?
Would loop-holes eventually be found for "assisting" the departure of people who are just disliked? Now, that would be an evil. But I have never heard even a whisper of any such things happening in recent times in any country or state where euthanasia is legal.
Is the quality of mercy ever strained? Is it more merciful to assist death, or to prevent it at all costs? And by "assist," I don't mean facilitate; legal drugs and legal hospices make death easier. I'm talking about an active assist, here. In refusing this assistance, are we, the caretakers, being merciful to the dying, (who may prefer to go and be done with it), or just to our own selves?
Why does death scare us so? You can't have life on this earth without death, can you? If life is sacred, why isn't death?
Who is more fearful of death? The suicide, or those who pass laws against her? What is suicide? A true embracing of death? A fearful flight from life? A flight from the fear of dying? Is it the ultimate act of courage or the ultimate act of cowardice? Was my mother's death noble, like that of an ancient Roman falling on his sword, sparing herself useless agony and her family the pain of watching her suffer? Or was it just one more neurotic ploy to retain total OCD-based control over an event most of us cannot control? Or was it a little of both? Where do you draw the line?
These questions are very real for me and near to my heart, but I have no answers. Even Montaigne, in his 1573 essay, On a Custom of the Island of Cea, goes back and forth and back again in his usual fashion on this question, with plenty of examples and quotes supporting both viewpoints. He finally - and somewhat grudgingly - comes down in favor of a limited justification for suicide: unendurable pain and fear of an even worse death. (I guess technically my mother's suicide would fall into this category.)
At any rate, I feel that until society as a whole can agree on whether death is a good, or an evil, or just part of life without any moral aspect at all, the act of assisting the death of any living being is going to be a hotly disputed topic. But more likely, it won't be addressed because it makes people uncomfortable. It's all well and good to bring it up if you're the one who wants to die, but often the ones who want to die are not necessarily in a position, health-wise, to lobby Congress, and the ones young enough to do so don't want to look as if they're trying to kill their parents.
My father also had cancer, and actually died of it, at age 63, in 1989; but he went, as he did everything else, naturally and very fast. I was blessed to be present at his bedside when he died, and the actual moment of his death was so simple, it was beautiful. My father grew up dirt poor and lived life to the fullest, and did not fear death. It was my father's passing, not my mother's, that showed me what it looks like not to fear death, how easy it can be to die, and how to die well.
My mother's self-assisted death might have taught me those things too, but unfortunately for those who might prefer to shuffle off this mortal coil a little early, our culture and laws do not allow them to die well by their own hand, or by the hand of a loving family member or friend. Until the culture and the laws change, the exit of decent, wonderful people who simply wish to hasten the inevitable will always seem a furtive, even shameful thing: the skeleton in somebody else's closet. And that's a shame.
I am three years short of my mother's death-age. When I face the moment, when the family diagnosis comes for me, will I follow my mother's path or my father's? I guess I'll find out myself when the time comes. I'll let you know. Or not.