Father, Mother, and Dweezil took very different roads to death. All three were along in years and suffering as their ends drew near, but Dweezil the cat got the best deal by far. A vet solved his problems in seconds, and there were no dubious religious ethics to make a mess of it.
My parents had been out of the religion loop all their lives: they were not atheists, not agnostics, not humanists—just out-of-the-loopers. They eventually divorced and remarried—Mom to another “religious disassociate” and Dad to a cafeteria Catholic who viewed ethics as a menu and sent whatever she didn’t like back to the kitchen.
God Created Quacks, Too
Cancer eventually claimed Dad, but it was alternative mumbo jumbo that pushed his treatable cancer past the point of no return. God would add a twist of the knife near the end.
My father was emotionally vulnerable after his divorce from my mother and ripe for easy answers. He found them first in a paperback on home remedies by a New England physician who advocated apple-cider vinegar as a cure-all; second, in Psychocybernetics and I’m OK, You’re OK, two early tomes from the psychobabble industry; and third in the welcoming arms of his married, Catholic secretary.
Dad believed in the benefits of apple-cider vinegar because the fellow prescribing it was a doctor. Later Dad switched to vitamin C because Linus Pauling, who had won a Nobel Prize, said it was good. Next came comfrey (a relative of the dandelion), then megadoses of wheat germ, then a nonwheat diet with a mysterious exemption for his beloved pasta, and on and on with an assortment of nostrums and immortality potions from Prevention magazine.
He’d avoided real health care for decades, which only reinforced his mindset. By the time pain forced him to consult a medical professional, it was too late. He had delayed diagnosis to the point where his prostate cancer had become untreatable, yet he still found time to get to a Laetrile charlatan in quack-friendly Nevada and then receive shark cartilage treatments in Mexico. He wasted away in the predicted time frame, but not before quacks succeeded in fleecing him out of $15,000.
The final twist came when God and my step-mom talked him into a deathbed conversion to Catholicism. Dad confessed his sins and was baptized so they could both be buried in a Catholic cemetery and be reunited in Heaven. Thus he died, another poster child for death with indignity.
The New Facts of Death
Mother’s approach was very different. By 1991, she was a widow and in reasonably good health when she read Final Exit by death-with-dignity advocate Derek Humphrey. We’d often discussed the pros and cons of Humphrey’s suggestions for checking out of life’s hotel. She’d had minor strokes, but her main worry was that a big one would prevent her from voluntarily turning in her keys. “If that happens,” she said, looking at me as someone does when dispatching a person on a critical mission, “you’ve got to take care of business.” I promised that I would.
The big one came in 1996; she lost her powers of speech, mobility, and cognition. In the hospital, doctors and physical therapists flocked to her side, but they were offering hope and sympathy more than the prospect of meaningful recovery. Luckily, my mother had prepared a document disavowing life support, which proved invaluable for keeping medically sanctioned hope-pushers at bay. Without this document, the law allows the medical community to be as rapacious as the quacks when death comes a-knocking.
At first I pressed the doctors to carry out her wishes for deliverance. They stared back like zombies, unable to pursue any goal other than that for which they’d been hardwired. I finally found a sympathetic MD who filled me in on the new facts of death. A few years ago, he told me, he could have dispatched my mom without a ripple, but this was 1996, and God’s warriors were raging against a hero who had put everything on the line. With torches and pitchforks raised, the sanctimonious were clamoring for the head of Dr. Jack Kevorkian. Kevorkian had done right by over a hundred fatally ill people but made the mistake of making a show of it. Kevorkian’s media spotlight had the unfortunate side effect of chasing medical practitioners who agreed with him into their bunkers.
Mom was transferred to a hospice where I kept working to fulfill her wish, to no avail. I was ready to put a pillow over her head, but I was assured that this would lead to a murder charge. When I learned that she was being given morphine, I told a sympathetic nurse, “Mom likes morphine. Lots and lots of morphine.” She smiled and assured me that she and Sister Morphine would keep mom dreaming happy dreams. I had failed to execute my mother’s dying wish, but at least I could send her off riding a decent buzz.
We live under laws that forbid our loved ones the same mercy that we show our pets. The threat that those we love can be coerced into last-minute religious conversions only adds to the misery. Isn’t death tough enough? Do we really need such a pitifully low ethical bar to make it tougher? Recalling a verb fashionable in the 1990s, a just society should “kevork” all restrictions on death with dignity.
Please, when my time comes, kill me kindly, strip me of all needed parts, deliver my leftovers to an anatomy class, and I’ll die happy knowing that in a few billion years our Sun will repossess my atoms anyway.