I lost a friend to cancer this week. I’ve reached that age where it’s happening more and more. In the last three years I’ve lost seven or eight close friends and at least twice that many acquaintances. Dying is a part of living.
When my father was dying of cancer, the doctors wanted to try some treatment that they said could give him as much as another six months. My dad was always a practical man. “Can you give me a weekend where I can play my guitar, or take my grandson fishing?” he asked the doctor, “If you can do that, I’ll do whatever you say. But if all you can do is give me six more months of wearing a diaper and either being drugged out on morphine, or awake and in agony, you’re not prolonging my life, you’re prolonging my death.”
A while back, when my cousin Terry Cook died of cancer, the docs said the same thing. They could keep him alive longer if they did this or that. Terry asked them if any one of those extra days would be better than that very moment and they said no, every day would be a decline. Like my dad, he said, “No thanks, just keep me as comfortable as possible and let me go when the time comes.”
Last summer I lost a man who had been as close as a brother to me for over 35 years. He called me twice in the last days of his life, despondent because his health was failing fast, and after the last phone call I told Terry, “Mike is going to kill himself.” I wasn’t at all surprised when I got the news a few days later that he had shot himself. And to be honest, though it may seem heartless for me to say so, it was the right thing for him to do in his case. He had no close relatives, every day was agony for him, and he was a fiercely independent man who could have never coped with life in a nursing home, which would have been his only option. I always admired the way he lived his life on his own terms, and I respect the fact that he chose to end his suffering on his own terms.
A few weeks ago in the Phoenix area, an 89 year old man shot his wife after she begged him to end her suffering, and in Prescott, Arizona just few days ago another elderly man killed himself and his wife. News reports said both had terminal illnesses. We see this happening all the time, and it’s tragic.
Why does our society give people no other choice than to take such extreme actions? There are some who say that suicide is a sin, but I’ve always believed that the bigger sin is forcing people to suffer when there are ways to allow them to die with dignity. Life is precious. But how precious? What is served by extending a life that has run its natural course?
In Belgium in 2011, more than 1,000 people legally availed themselves of doctor-assisted deaths. Most of them were terminally ill cancer patients. Why can’t people in America, supposedly the most enlightened country in the world, have the same option?
When my dad started to go downhill, my mother asked me to remove his guns from the house, which I did. As things got worse, I told my father I was terrified he would ask me to bring him one, and that if he did, I didn’t know what I would do. “I won’t do that to your mother, and I wouldn’t put that burden on you,” he told me. “But I wish the doctor could just give me some medicine and let me go to sleep and not wake up. I’m so tired of hurting, and of making my family have to see me this way.”
I’m glad he didn’t ask for that gun. I’m still not sure what I would have done.
Tags: assisted suicide, cancer, cancer treatment, death with dignity, doctor-assisted deaths, doctors, dying of cancer, mercy killing, morphine, nursing home, suicide, terminal illness, terminally ill cancer patients