INTRODUCTORY NOTE: This is not a philosophy paper, nor done in a model critical thinking manner. It is quite different from other things I have given you which I have written. The purpose was different. This was written a few days after my father died, and I wanted to capture some of the conflicts and frustrations going on within myself. Nonetheless, I think this personal reflection points to some of the important philosophical issues within the euthanasia discussion.
It certainly does what Chris asks: Indicates where I start out on this issue
May 18, 1994
I watched my father die. Not the actual moment, I was perhaps 15 minutes late for his official death, but I watched him die over the nine months prior to that evening. Dad had been in failing health for some time, and the official cause of death was a blood cancer. However, he would have been the first to tell you that the actual cause of his death was the death of Mom some 9 1/2 months before his death. After his beloved Louise died he didn't want to live, and constantly told us how much he wanted to be with her.
From Mom's death, Aug. 1, 1993, Dad began to slip. He was a bit lost, confused, less interested in life. The day of her wake he asked my sister-in-law how one washed one's hair. For more than 50 years Lou had washed his hair, leaning him over the kitchen sink. He didn't know how to do it, so Lucy, my sister-in-law, leaned him over the sink and washed it. Their life was a unit in a way that I've never seen before. Thus there was no surprise, and even as we waked, buried and grieved Mom, we three sons, Tom, John and I, knew and speculated that Dad wouldn't live long.
But in that August of Mom's death, Dad didn't look so overwhelmingly sick. He was sharp of mind, could get around with a small four-pronged cane, and was capable of living alone and mainly taking care of himself. But slowly over the months he began to slip.
Dad's blood cancer prohibited his body from producing blood cells which gave his body force. I never did learn or remember if it was the red or white cells that weren't forthcoming, that was a detail that didn't much interest me. But Dad's body was a machine that couldn't produce it's own energy source, and became much like an automobile which one must regularly take to the gas station for refueling to keep it going. Dad went each 3 weeks to the hospital for infusions of blood, two or three units. After getting his new blood he would usually be a bit disoriented that evening, but by the next morning he was about returned to normal, and certainly a bit stronger and more alert than he had been two days before.
But, again, like an automobile, his body wasn't stagnant save for fuel. It was slowly running down. First he lost his ability to walk outside with his cane and we took him out in his wheelchair. Then inside the house he switched to a two wheeled walker. Finally in January, 1994 we had to hire a person to stay with him 24 hours a day and help him with everyday things.
He still had the power to bathe himself, take care of his toilet functions and most of his dressing, perhaps needing help with his shoes and socks. Gradually he lost some of these facilities too, and by late March he had lost most of his ability to do these things.
He started wearing adult diapers because he couldn't at all control his toilet functions; this was a major blow to his pride and sense of dignity. His mind began to wander more and more and this frustrated him to no end. He kept inquiring when would this end, when could he be with Lou, when could he die.
When one hears stories of the dying and death of elderly people, Dad's story is almost idyllic. He was in his own home, he was not in terrible pain, his three sons all lived within a few blocks and visited him everyday, taking him out in his wheelchair for walks around the neighborhood. His daughters-in-law were attentive and loving, his grandchildren came often. His live-in caregiver was competent, kind and attentive. When we walked him in the neighborhood, the neighborhood of his birth, childhood and whole life, people all knew him, greeted him and truly loved and cared for him. Few people ever have it this nice.
But I was watching him die by inches, knowing that he didn't want this. He wanted to be with Lou. We all heard this so often that it became our phrase for his inevitable death.
Finally one April when I was sitting with him and he was asking me how long was his death going to take, and couldn't' something be done, I asked him if he wanted to quit taking his blood transfusions. He lit up in a way that I hadn't seen in months. "If I do that Dr. Luedke says I'll die, won't I?" "Yes, Dad, you will." "How long will it take?"
Dr. Luedke, his wonderful, attentive and caring physician had been over this with him and us. I helped him work it through in his memory. He would slowly lose energy, and would get very weak. He would probably have some chest pains and shortness of breadth. But the bottom line was that he would most likely die within a couple of weeks to two months at the outside. "This is what I want," he assured me, "this is what I want." I told my brothers about this and discussed it with Dr. Luedke. She wasn't surprised at all. Dad had often asked this question before. Dr. Luedke recommended that if that were his decision then he should enter a home hospice care that would keep him as comfortable as possible and especially monitor pain.
There was a good deal of in-house discussion with my brothers and them with Dad, and Dad even called his parish priest to ask if this was a morally acceptable thing for him to do. But he remained firm that it was what he wanted.
Thus he entered home hospice with the Visiting Nurses Association, a group who tended him those last weeks of his life with concern, kindness and efficiency .
Dad entered home hospice about one week after he had taken blood, thus the first two weeks were just his normal cycle, since he was getting blood about every three weeks. But into the third week we could see him begin to weaken. And it was at this point that our larger family rallied strongly for what we knew was his death watch. We three sons visited everyday unless there was some exceptional reason. His sole surviving sibling, our Aunt Catherine and her husband, Jack, visited often. The grandkids came often, and my son, Bob, became a daily regular. We feted him, took him for walks in his wheelchair until the last two weeks of his life. And he loved it, relished it, and came to expect it. "Where you going?" he would inquire when you had to leave, "When you coming back?"
The Visiting Nurses provided morphine and nitroglycerine to control his pain. Yvon, his live in caregiver, intensified her activities. We clustered around the house to give support and love. But, we all stood around and watched him die. He wasn't keen about this process. The very day that the visiting nurse representative came to the house and discussed the details of what Dad was asking, and while she sat filling out some papers at the dining room table, Dad called me over and quietly asked, "Can't you just give me something to make this happen?" I explained that this was against the law and that we couldn't do it.
That theme, that question came up many times in the next three weeks. I guess I was the one, his oldest, the philosophy professor, the one who talked "issues" with him, the one he could ask such a thing. And I heard it a dozen times in one form or another. "Can't you give me something to make this happen." He wanted to be with Lou. He saw no virtue, necessity nor sense in dying slowly, by inches.
And neither did I nor do I. I watched my father die little by little, day by day. It pained me intensely, angered me a great deal and challenged me to the core.
Dad's story is a best-case story of someone who doesn't die a sudden death. He died at home, surrounded by a nearly ideal support system of loved ones, in very little pain, tended by competent and kind folks, his pain controlled by able and attentive people. And it only took a month or so once he started the process going. Can it get much better?
But this question obscures what he ask of us. "Can't you give me something to do this NOW." Dad loved us. He appreciated our care and concern, he appreciated what his physician, caregiver and hospice people were doing. But he wanted to die NOW. To be with Lou, to end what he took to be a great indignity of his losing control of his body and mind. And we didn't respond, except my lame answer -- we can't do that Dad.
Why couldn't I do this? I didn't know how. But I'm a bright enough fellow that I could find out in a couple of days if no one helped me, and were services available, like the Visiting Nurses Hospice program is for care, then a telephone call could have done it.
It's against the law. Yes. But I've violated laws in civil disobedience in my life-long protesting against various government positions which I have thought were wrong. This surely didn't bother me in the past.
I could be prosecuted. Perhaps. I don't think I ever thought of that. Maybe that was there in the back of my mind and deterred me. I just don't know.
My brothers, the daughters-in-law, Aunt Catherine, the grandchildren wouldn't approve. I don't know. I never really asked, though I did discuss my frustrations at not being able to respond to his wish with my brothers, and they seemed to be in the same receptive state of mind that I was in.
When I mentioned some of these thoughts to a friend of mine at Dad's wake, a person who is intimate with the hospice movement, she told me that often times the death of a love one in hospice is in the interest of the person's family. That WE needed Dad's slow death. That position is so horrible to me I can't even comprehend it. Someone we love and treasure is supposed to lay there INDEFINITELY in great indignity, wanting and asking to die so that I can handle that death? No thanks. I asked a lot of my Dad in his life, but his slow death was something I wouldn't ask or expect of him. My grieving is my problem, not his, especially since he made clear his wants.
But, life is valuable, we have no right to take it. This view makes no sense to me at all. My life, on my view, is MINE. No one else has the right to take it, and all my life I've hated the civilization-sanctioned concept of war which allowed others to take people's lives against their will. And while I've supported the notion of laws against killing, I've never been able to accept the concept of state supported killing in the death penalty. No, I believe I respect the right of someone over his or her life. But, I am one who believes that each of us has a right over his or her own life. If Dad wanted to die, then, for me, he had that right, and I, as a son, and particularly as the one son, the one person to whom he appealed in his dying, I failed him in this moment of his need and desire.
Life, as I see it, it is a fact of QUALITY, not merely BIOLOGY. As a society we are just really beginning to deal with this issue, and Dr. Kavorkian is a powerful figure in raising this question regarding cases like Dad's. He is certainly one of my great heroes, a person putting his foot into the door of personal control over life.
But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Dr. Kavorkian, the assisted suicide movement, touches one tiny aspect. The Hemlock Society has been around for 30 or so years. It has always advocated the right of people who were suffering terminal illness to terminate their own lives. Now they have also expanded their literature into the right of assisted suicide. But even this is not enough to meet what I see as a right-to-my-own-life-or-death.
Both these movements, and the case of my Dad's death, are discussions of the rights of terminally ill people. But what of those who are not terminally ill in a physical sense, but simply do not want to continue living? They do not, perhaps, judge the quality of their lives as worth living. What of them? I find in my heart a great sympathy that goes out to such people. I would wish they could find meaning and importance in their lives, I certainly understand the concept of temporary set backs and the seemingly overpoweringness of them. I know and have read about depression. But I reject the notion of life as being a "gift from on high." Life is a fact of nature. I have it because my parents gave it to me for whatever reason, and, for me, like any other gift, it is now mine to do with as I will. If I deem it's quality not to be adequate enough to bother continuing on, then I demand the right to end it.
I know there are hard questions of legality in all these matters. It is easy to camouflage one's desire to see someone dead, whether the motive be love, hate, compassion, jealousy, greed, vengeance, self-interest or some other motive. It might be easy to plead that the other wanted or chose his or her death. These legal matters are difficult, but not insurmountable. They would need attention and safeguards. Yes.
But my question is not a legal one, but a moral one. Who has a right over my life? I believe we are at a time in human history when we must turn over full rights of ownership of one's life to the person living it.
I watched my father die and I am profoundly saddened. I miss him, I loved him very very much. He was perhaps the most simple, loving and sincere man I ever met. He was my dad, and a profound model of how to be in the world. But I am also saddened at myself and a bit angry with my society at how we deal with death. I'm saddened with myself in that I let our societal standards dictate my response to my father's repeated plea: "Can't you give me something to make this happen NOW?" I'm angry with my society that forces religious values down the throats of those of us who don't have them, and crams theological views down the throats of dissenting religious views.
There is a growing number of us crying out for the freedom to die as we choose. Certainly my father's death at home, surrounded by his attentive and loving family, attended by the competent (and extremely economical) hospice people, is a great improvement over a more sterile hospital death, of tubes, and machinery, and excessive whiteness, limited visiting hours, alien neighborhoods and all -- to say nothing of the mind-boggling cost. But it is not enough. It is only the tiniest beginning.
These are times of a society in social conflict over our notions of death and dying. Confused, conflicted, anguished. Like others, I'm caught in it and suffer for it. What keeps running through my mind is:
Beloved Dad, you had the right to die, and it took you longer than you wanted, and not in the way that you wanted. You asked help from me. I didn't deliver. I hope you can forgive my lack of courage and/or conviction. Perhaps, now that you are again "with Lou" you can forgive me for being me.
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