And bending down beside the glowing bar/ Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled…
I am in my car, driving from appointments with one client to another, and I am listening to people on my radio talk about my father’s cancer treatment options.
It’s been almost half a decade since my state passed a referendum allowing medical marijuana, but it’s still not really an option for my father. He’s undergoing an intense regiment of radiation and chemotherapy in the hopes of pushing his surprisingly resilient ailment into remission. The pain and nausea work together against his resolve, tag-teaming to ensure that, should he not win the battle, the last year of his life on Earth will be his worst.
His doctor is hopeful that marijuana might help soften the negative side effects, and very privately hopes that my father might be able to “score” some illegally. Though the State of Oregon has given my father its blessing, the Bush Administration has not — and they are quite clear that my father, his doctor, and the supplier could all face the full weight of the law were they to deviate from the “just man up” approach to cancer therapy. The current Attorney General is adamant about this, as will be his eventual replacement. (Though to be fair, once he’s out of office that replacement will casually admit that he really doesn’t have a problem with it.) The next presidential administration, sweeping into office with promises of Hope and Change, will be pretty much on the same page as this one as to what my father’s potential treatment options should be.
My father has never tried marijuana, and were it not for the cancer treatment he would never consider doing so. A life-long conservative Republican and decade-long subscriber to the Limbaugh Letter, he’s about as far away from a hippie as one might get. Still, the men on the radio and their callers keep insisting that my father is nothing but.
Not that they mention him by name, of course. How could they? They don’t actually know him, and the truth is they have neither the time nor the inclination to meet him. To them, his suffering is merely a thing he is using as an excuse to toke up and listen to rap music. Their rabid insistence that he never try the therapy his doctor recommends is, to them, just gleeful hippie-punching.
Eventually, of course, the standards will soften enough that people suffering (and, to be honest, people pretending to suffer) have access to regular treatment in my state. It would eventually be welcome news for my father, except that he will be dead by then. It might be nice to be able to say that his last years were easy and the very end peaceful, but… well, you know. Cancer and all that.
Still, I get that for many people punching hippies is really, really important.
My mother very badly wants to drink a glass of water before she dies.
She is something of a prisoner now, trudging through her last few days of hospice and life. She has not been out of the bed in which she now lies for several days. She never will leave it again, really, or at least she won’t leave it alive. She has lost use of her arms and legs alike. Nurses come in several times a day to shift her body to keep her from getting bedsores. Not that bedsores matter much at this point, mind you. The physical agony is everywhere, all the time at this point, as if her body were being continuously pushed down through a bottomless container of glass shards.
Slicing through the pain, however, is her too keen awareness that her mind is slipping. The cancer that’s eating away at the rest of her organs is feasting most heartily on her brain. She’s losing more than memory at this point — she’s losing her self. She’s asked that a picture of my father be kept where she can see it, because even though she can remember that she was lucky enough to have married her soul-mate, she is having trouble remembering who exactly that might have been. My mother knows that her body won’t last another seventy-two hours, and she knows that whatever part of her that is still my mother will be gone even sooner.
My mother wants to sleep. She wants to be healed. She wants the pain to go away. She wants more time without being restricted to this bed. She wants to know the women her grandchildren will marry someday. She wants my father to be there with her; she wants my father to never know she could be like this; she wants to be reunited with my father on the other side. She wants a million things, really, but mostly she wants two things. She wants to die as the woman she is and has always been, and she just wants a fucking goddamned glass of water.
As it turns out, she can have neither.
If you’re lucky enough you wouldn’t know this, but in the final days it turns out that a living will and the ability to grant consent does less than one might imagine. By law, the hospice must honor my mother’s wishes and not prolong her life; also by law, they are not allowed to endanger that same life in any way. As it so happens, these two things do not meet along the razor’s edge that one would imagine.
At this point, for example, they cannot by law give my mother water. With her state, the risk is simply too high that she could choke and effectively drown. Astoundingly, I am told, were this to occur it would be over within a few seconds, before anyone knew there was a problem. Because of this, they are required to give her a kind of viscous solution that will slowly travel down her throat and provide hydration for the body should it go down the right pipe, while lessening the odds it will go down the wrong one. My mother despises it. It is painful going down, and even though it can’t drown her it makes her feel as if she were drowning as it slithers through her. Worse, it isn’t refreshing in the way water is to the ever parched. And frankly, she confesses, if she were to quickly drown from it she would be thankful and count it as her last blessing.
She asks for water — begs for it — but they cannot give her any, because to do so would “endanger” her. I try to sneak in cups but am always caught, and the cups are quickly removed.
She finally slips away two nights later. By then, she has forgotten that she was ever married. When my sister talks with her by phone on her last day, my mother tells her that she has no memory of a daughter. I like to think that she might have remembered me at the end, since I was able to physically be with her for much of each day, but I know this is a romantic’s wish. In the end, there probably isn’t enough of my mom left to know who she is, let alone her son. What is likely left is a thing too terrible for me to consider for more than a moment before flinching:
Just the ongoing sensations of pain, confusion, and terror, and no memory that life had ever been anything but.
Over in Off the Cuff yesterday, Kazzy wondered at Dilbert-creator Scott Adam’s angry tirade against those opposed to physician-assisted suicide. Both here and elsewhere, quite a lot of people seem confused by Adams’s tone. I am not one of those people, in large part because of the experience of walking my own mother through her last days.
There will be those who will object to my using my mother’s circumstance, I suspect, on the grounds that when they think of physician-assisted suicide, they are thinking of something entirely different. To which I say: no shit. That’s actually kind of the point.
I know in advance that I will be in the minority here, but to me there’s very little difference between my father being deprived of a viable cancer therapy treatment and my mother not having the option to leave this mortal coil on her own terms:
The objector in each case is largely unconcerned with the particulars of my parents. For each, in fact, my parents’ choices are restricted primarily because of what the instruments that ease their death and suffering “represent” to the objector: the radical 60s hippie, that guy who shows up to work hung over every day, the less likable characters in 1984, some serial killer they saw on a rerun on Millennium, a Bible passage that speaks to them, whatever. And in both cases, of course, any potential decision made by my parents would have zero impact upon the people who would deny them their wishes.
Of course, there are those that simply object to the idea of my mother being able to choose a different way to leave this world on purely moral grounds. And I get that people might feel that way, of course. Mind you, that people would chalk up my mother not wanting to face the terror of losing her very personhood for the odd price of an additional day or two of physical agony as “a moral failing” on her part is part of the reason I can understand Adams’s anger.
In the end, saying there’s no real need for people to be able to legally die on their own terms is the same as saying there’s no real need for cancer patients to be able to legally get a treatment they could go buy illegally if they “really wanted it.” Each position is most often taken with the amazing luxury of having it be little more than a simple abstract thought puzzle.
 Well, I don’t follow suit with Adams’ saying he wants others to die a painful death. But I chalk that up to me being me and Scott Adams being Scott Adams.