Yesterday, I had the opportunity to share with my congregation my thoughts regarding Massachusetts’ proposed ballot initiative (known as Question 2) which asks voters whether the Commonwealth shall permit physicians to prescribe a lethal dose of medication to terminally ill individuals who request such assistance. My perspective on this is deeply personal.
It was in July, 1993 that I got the phone call from my father. After months of mysterious muscle weakness, stumbling, falling, thinking that it was the result of a fall off a ladder the previous year that had resulted in cervical fractures, he had received a diagnosis of ALS, or Lew Gehrig’s disease. A death sentence for most people – the question was when, and how.
I was pregnant with Abby. My mother was overwhelmed with trying to care for my father, and I have no siblings. Dad asked whether Ben and I could talk to his doctors and find out if they would write a prescription for a lethal dose of medication that would allow him to end his life. Ben and I talked about it, as I recall for a while, but not for long. Because we knew we would do what Dad asked.
We got in the car and drove to New Haven, having made appointments with Dad’s primary care physician and neurologist. We prepared ourselves for a fight. We had all the arguments at hand about why this was the humane thing to do, the thing that would fulfill the wishes of the person who would never recover from his disease. We had done our homework: Rev. Ralph Mero, the Unitarian Universalist minister who had led the effort to pass a death with dignity law in Oregon, had provided us with information on options, given us some talking points, and had offered compassionate, sensible help to us at every step of the way.
We arrived at the doctor’s offices on the Yale campus, and began our meetings. We were astonished to find no argument coming back from either physician. Were these my father’s wishes, they asked? We asserted that they were. Then yes, of course they would write the prescriptions.
We were stunned that it had not taken an argument, and we were deeply grateful. Our next visits were with my father’s best friend, an eminent psychiatrist at Yale. He confirmed that he would be there, with my father and mother, while my father took his last breaths. Steve Fleck would not fail, we knew, and we were deeply appreciative of his courage and strength. Finally, we saw my parents’ minister. She confirmed that she, too, would be there and would support the decision. We felt that we had a plan. The prescription was filled at a local pharmacy and picked up.
The last part was administering the medication. My Dad had lost the ability to feed himself, to move his arms more than a little. So administering the medication was a real concern. I didn’t want to ask my mother to do this, and after considering the question, I decided that I was prepared to act. Helping someone you love to spend the last part of their life in as dignified a manner as possible is high on my list of promises I will keep. I was ready to drive to New Haven and feed my father the medication.
Abigail Soule was born in the early morning hours of October 5, 1993. Three weeks later, we brought her to Connecticut to meet her grandfather, so that he could pronounce her ‘perfect’ and be at rest, knowing that this great wheel of life had turned once more.
On October 30, with his breathing growing more difficult as fluid built up in his lungs, my father developed a bladder infection which we had decided we would not treat with antibiotics. He announced that he was ready for the medication: life was just not fun anymore, and even his quips and jokes were not enough to keep him going. Pneumonia set in. He saw the next door neighbor’s children in their Halloween costumes on October 31 as they came to the house to Trick or Treat, and then, on November 1, he passed, as he had said he would, “quietly into the night.” As sometimes happens in these situations, fate had intervened before action was required.
In the face of such difficult decisions, our family was lifted up: by the compassionate physicians who were willing to support my father’s request; by the friend of decades who was willing to stand by; by the minister who – while acknowledging her own belief in the value of life until the last breath is taken – was willing to honor my father’s last wish. We were lucky.
I hope that Question #2 passes on November 6 — because I don’t want people to have to be lucky about having the nerve to ask the difficult questions we asked, relying on the compassionate physicians, ministers, friends who we were fortunate enough to have, or be left to hope that a family member would have the guts to administer medication to a family member if she or he couldn’t lift up the medication to their lips. We don’t need luck, we need a law that will help to ensure that people have as good a death as possible.
My father died on All Saints Day, a day of remembrance and celebration honored in different ways in Christian, Celtic and pagan communities. A hymn that we sing in our Unitarian Universalist congregations, “For All the Saints,” says, “Thy name most holy, be forever bless’d,” in speaking of the departed. I would offer that same praise and blessing for those who have stepped forward, in different times and places, to compassionately help those who we love exit this life in dignity and peace.