No, this is not a post about Jack Kevorkian or assisted suicide. Although, in many ways it should be. There is something unappealing about the idea of assisted suicide. The concept at “wanting” to help a friend or relative kill themselves is eerie. This is a story of my personal journey of death and the “right to die.”
I always believed, naively, that my parents would live forever. That they just would always be there. After all, they always were. At every turn of my life, 60+ years, they were there. The thought never occurred to me that they would not.
I was always obstinate, difficult and unbelieving. If you were to ask my mother, she would tell you that I was her “bad child.” In her eyes, I was. I just would not do what I was told, act the way she wanted, or be what she wanted me to be. We were never close. Always fought. I was bad. My mother was old school. She was reared by immigrant parents from Greece and instilled with old country values. This was the 50’s, 60’s and beyond. Girls were to be a certain way, and it was more pronounced in our family. You were just supposed to do what you were told. I didn’t. I was bad.
I moved away, to Chicago. I finally was to have a life of my own. When my father died, I still did not accept it. I thought it wasn’t real. Many years passed, and in ways I can’t explain, the guilt of my uncaring, ignoring, treating my father’s illness and death as unimportant in my life finally found me. I just had no time for it.
My guilt brought me home in 1999. I was fully aware that it would change my life, that it would mean the end of my life as I knew it. I did it anyway. I have no regrets. My mother and I came to an uneasy truce. I discovered we were very much alike in many ways. Strong, stubborn, opinionated, loyal, outspoken and religious.
She began to talk to me as if I were a real person. I did not notice she was ill. In 2005 she refused to go to the doctor. She always said: “In 1951, the doctors told me that I would die. I’ve lived all these years. The doctors were wrong.” In those years she had thalassemia, and they told her she would not live. Because of this, she refused all medical tests. My mother finally agreed in March 2005. It was ironic. She was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. She was dying. She was going to need a feeding tube.
I said ironic. While she was still resisting the insertion of a feeding tube, the Terry Schiavo fiasco was unfolding on television, before my mother’s eyes. She watched as her government tried to play God. As they pandered to the Religious Right, or so-called Christian Right, for votes. “They don’t care about her. If they really cared, they would let her die in peace.” She then turned to me and said: “Will you take care of me? Will you do what I want?” I knew what she meant. She had a living will, a Do Not Resuscitate [DNR], and I was named.
I thought it would be hard. I thought I could not do it. “I want to come home to die” she kept saying. “I will not die in a hospital.” She agreed to the feeding tube on the condition that I would bring her home to die. I brought her home.
She died peacefully in her own bed at home. In her last 18 days of life, she was surrounded by friends, former students she taught in grade school all of them. She said in the beginning that she didn’t want my friends to help, but they were the best days she had. They laughed and talked about the old days. She was young again.
For the excruciating pain of her cancer, the drug of choice was morphine. I was instructed to give it to her “at will.” “It can’t hurt her,” the doctor told me. I would inject it via her feeding tube.
Again, I thought it would be hard. When the hospice nurses told me that the doctor said the feeding tube was serving no purpose any longer, and that it should be turned off and removed. I said, “Okay.” I waited. Then they told me I was the only person who could turn off the machine. I thought it would be hard. It wasn’t.
Three days later, on April 30, 2005, the Eastern Orthodox celebration of Holy Saturday, she died. The next day, Sunday, May 1st, was Easter and my late father’s birthday. She had gone home.
On the day she died, I asked the hospice nurse if she wanted to take the morphine back. “No,” she said. She flushed them down the toilet.
Damn, morphine has no sell-by date, no expiration date. I should have kept some in the drawer, against the day.
In the years since Terry Schiavo, and Jack Kevorkian, hospice cars has grown, physicians are more sympathetic to their patients and their pain, and are willing to relieve it. Living wills have grown. Kevorkian was tried and convicted of murder for assisting suicide. But was it really murder?
The real question is simple: If I can live my live precisely as I wash, why can’t I die as I wish also?