PHYSICIAN-ASSISTED SUICIDE, PRO AND CONPHYSICIAN-ASSISTED SUICIDE, PRO AND CON
Why Cling To A Life Without Savor?
I am not in a hurry to emulate those old Eskimos set adrift on ice floes, nor do I envy folks who retire only to disappear into the couch. Born in 1930, I’ve already outlived my life expectancy, but I don’t intend to slow down now—not with so much to do, and not while I’m having such a ball living my life.
After twenty-three years in the Navy and another twenty-two as an insurance broker, I can do what I choose. That mostly involves work of some sort, but work I enjoy. I did standup comedy for a few years, but quit because I was funnier than the audience realized. I also taught defensive driving to folks who had received tickets. Surely it wasn’t a coincidence that a decrease in traffic deaths coincided with my teaching. Now I’m a columnist for a national weekly newspaper and make it into print elsewhere often. My research for recent articles has included running a marathon and hiking up the highest mountain in California.
I’m not alone in my enthusiasm. One friend, age eighty-eight, has been a journalist, a television and radio newsman, and a politician. Today, he is a syndicated columnist, a freelance writer, and is one of the first people television interviewers head for when there’s a political question to be put into perspective. Another friend, mid-seventies, is a leading scientist, runs a international research institute, teaches regularly in France and Japan in the native languages, and is up to his ears in projects. The list is extensive. Six years ago, a group, mostly gray-haired people, founded an organization dedicated to rational thought and to reason. Today that group, now with many young people, is alive and well. Folks of all ages are sharing ideas. Everybody is learning from each other.
Why then would I suggest that Dr. Kevorkian is on the right track? Isn’t he the one who tries to shorten lives?
I postulate that living is not merely breathing. It’s not living as we know it when the ability to communicate is no longer with us, when the love of those close to us has turned to pity, and when waking up simply means another day to be lived in pain.
We who have been making hard decisions for so many years must have the right to make that final decision, the hardest one of all. Sometime back I wrote the following for
the Los Angeles Times:
An old friend back in Indiana is now at the point where a needle in one arm provides the sustenance to keep him breathing and one in the other arm gives him the morphine to keep him asleep. He’s been like that for more than a week. When I talk to his other friends in Indiana we often slip and refer to him in the past tense.
It’s been a painful few weeks. Less than a month ago I made my last call from San Diego to Ft. Wayne to talk to Freddie. It was one of several dozen conversations we shared over the past year. The first call was made because Trudy, his wife, asked me, “Keith could you call Freddie? He has just been diagnosed with cancer and really needs someone to cheer him up.”
Wow! Talk about a rough assignment. I didn’t want to make that call, but Freddie had been my friend for fifty-five years, and I couldn’t refuse. Happily, it turned out to be a piece of cake. We chatted about his illness. Then he remembered something funny we’d done and we laughed about it. The banter continued and, sure enough, I cheered him up just like Trudy asked. Better yet, he cheered me up. Friends do that. We had so many wonderful memories that maudlin thoughts were crowded out of our minds.
Freddie was ill, no doubt about it. The doctors removed his bladder. That didn’t do it. He still had cancer in his lymph glands. The only option left was chemotherapy. That wouldn’t do. Freddie had seen a friend suffer horribly from the stuff. My old friend turned down this slim chance to gain a few months, perhaps a year, at the cost of excruciating pain.
So far as I could tell, he made the right choice. He was always upbeat and he managed to avoid slipping into despair like so many people facing death. He made a trip to Florida, a few excursions up to a gambling boat on Lake Michigan, and was even talking of coming west for one more get-together.
Neither of us pussyfooted around the subject. He still had the cancer and nothing was going to stop it—nothing except a heart attack perhaps. He had one of them too, a big one. Fortunately he was with a friend who also had heart disease and carried nitroglycerin. He gave a pill to Freddie and my friend lived to await the ravages of the cancer.
Later he told a mutual friend, “I wish that had done it for me. You know I didn’t miss a thing in this old life. If I had it to do all over again I wouldn’t have changed a bit of it. I just don’t want to finish up a pathetic sick old man.”
Yet, that’s what he is doing. He spent something like three weeks in the hospital, the last week unconscious in intensive care. I called Trudy and tried to tell her, “If he wakes up, tell him I called.” Septuagenarian men aren’t supposed to cry, but I didn’t make it. Trudy cried along with me and said, “I will.”
Both of us were sure he wouldn’t wake up, but I needed to say something. Everybody I talk to now is concerned for Trudy and the hell she’s going through with her husband of thirty years now merely a diapered breathing body, far removed from her world. We wonder how much money she’ll have left after paying all the bills.
He’s home and still unconscious. If they discontinue the morphine he’ll wake up and scream until he dies. Or, they can sever a nerve and he might wake up without pain but he’d know he was paralyzed.
Despite all the flowery words on pretty get-well cards, and the high flown religious sentiments, death seldom is dignified. Doctor Kevorkian has the answer. We will just have to recognize it.
My article was pure emotion, a catharsis. My friend had been one of the happiest guys I ever knew. He deserved much more than this in his final days. Mercifully, Freddie died even before the article ran in the paper.
Then the letters rolled in, most of them from folks about my age. A few claimed I was playing God and only God could take a life. Most felt that we should be in control of our own lives, even to the extent of being able to end them if we wished.
I insist that if we are to have free will, that free will should include not only how we live our lives, but how long we live them.
Keith Taylor was an early member of the San Diego Association for Rational Inquiry and served as its president for five years. Semi-retired after careers in the Navy and as an insurance broker, Taylor is now a freelance writer with a regular column in Navy Times, a Gannett weekly.