… to help him die as he wanted to … to let him go
I have my own story in that, while healthy, strong, and sane I have created a very strong statement about how I want to get to the end of this gift called Life.
It all began 20 or so years ago, when my husband and dearest friend learned he had prostate cancer that was quite advanced. As a physician himself, he had known something was wrong but had chosen not to find out earlier. The news of the diagnosis was devastating for him. He felt invaded and violated by the cancer. He abhorred the idea that people would PITY him, that he would become an object of pity. He was scared that when things got really bad he would lose “himself” … the proud, successful, brilliant, self-sufficient, charismatic, African-American leader gone as his identity, dignity, and personhood was being destroyed by the ravages of pain, suffering, and loss of control. It was stunning to me to see and hear this deeply personal and emotional reaction.
Without thinking at all, I told him that it didn’t need to be that way, that people in old cultures seemed to know that “today is a good day to die” and they did just that, and that we could find that way together. He became peaceful … as did I.
We only once spoke about this again directly. As we both gave up our positions and prepared to move to a quiet place together for as long as he had left to live, out of the blue he asked “So what are you going to do, Jeannie? Are you saving up pills or something?” I said that I had no specific plan but that we were going to work it out every step of the way. Some big crucial decision had been made right at the beginning that settled both of us. Even though I had no ideas, no plans, no specifics … he trusted me, in some deeply fundamental way, with this.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was really fully prepared for this path by an event years earlier … and I really know it now.
He had had a heart attack 10 – 12 years earlier. As a part of his rehab. he went to a clinic to get help to stop smoking. He did stop for several weeks. Then I found him “sneaking” a cigarette out in the garden one evening. I didn’t say much … wondered how long he had been “cheating” … he was upset at himself and bothered. I wrestled mightily with my conflicting feelings for some time but arrived by myself to a very clear position viz. it was not his job to stay alive FOR me and for the children, if he wanted to stay alive it had to be for his own self. And if he wanted to engage in risky behaviors he had 100% right to do just that. He had shown us over so many years that he actively cared for and about us in such hugely responsible ways; it was a central core of who he was to us.
But with that decision, I had put myself in the position of eventually walking alongside him on a path to death that he wanted.
As the cancer progressed, it was interesting to discover how the big choice of Do Not Resuscitate gave way to many much smaller decisions that truly counted. On the way home, after a doctor’s office visit with the offer of going on an experimental drug regimen, he said “I’m done, Jeannie, no more efforts to cure. Oaky? ” … I replied “Okay, Love.” And then “This is my last blood transfusion; I want no more. Okay?” .. my reply “Okay then, Love.” Finally to “I do not want to be rehydrated with an IV, and I know that I will slip into a coma soon.” This last was hard and I tried so hard not to cry … but never once wavered in full support of what he had chosen … just worried if the children could get to us in time.
We had talked about cremation, about no funeral but a Memorial service, about what he was most proud of, we had all the conversations and we had the incredible help and support of hospice.
In the end he died as he wanted, at home, just me and the children – and hospice – no machines, no tubes except the catheter. He slipped away. The hospice nurse said later she had never been at such a peaceful death.
This is my model of how I would like to die myself as far as this is possible, as a gift from those I love to me and as my last gift to them.