I occasionally flip my car radio to the right wing AM station to get my blood pumping and to keep up on what people with a different worldview are thinking. When I did this last week, I wasn’t too surprised to hear the topic of the afternoon call-in program was Brittany Maynard, a terminally ill California woman who moved to Oregon to take advantage of the state’s death with dignity law and end her own life.
The fact that an attractive young woman made this decision and shared it with the world had caught the media’s attention and reignited debate on the issue of physician-assisted suicide. Her story also caught my interest, having gone through the slow and painful cancer death of my own wife.
Listening to the call-in program last week, I felt empathy right away for the first caller, a widower who had recently lost his wife to heart disease. But then the caller said that Brittany’s husband should have talked her out of her decision. He was sure that her husband would regret losing her before the last possible moment. The caller said that he would give anything to have one more hour with his wife. I’m sure that is a common attitude, especially if the loved one has died suddenly, but it is not my experience. I would give anything to not have experienced the last week of my wife’s life.
As I see it, Brittany gave her husband a gift. She gave him a gift by preventing painful images from being burned into his brain. He will not have memories of his beloved gradually losing her mind and control over her bodily functions. He will not have memories of watching the person he loves most moaning in pain, and not being able to do anything about it. He will not have memories like the ones I have—of vomit and bedsores and things so horrible that I cannot bring myself to type them into this keyboard. He will not have memories of reaching the point where he started wishing that his wife, his partner of 38 years who he loved with all his heart, would die. Those memories don’t go away; they come back in dreams and nightmares.
I’m not sure that my wife would have taken advantage of a law like Oregon’s if it had existed here in California. Her method of coping with cancer was to ignore it as much as possible. She did not talk about the disease, and certainly did not make any plans related to dying. If I tried to bring it up, she would quickly cut me off with: “Are you giving up on me?” This may seem like foolish denial, but I don’t think it was. She realized that her time was short, and decided to eliminate unpleasant things from her life as much as possible. Thinking or talking about disease and death were unpleasant, so she didn’t do it.
Instead we went on camping trips to our favorite remote areas of the Sierras and the Mojave Desert. We spent time with dear friends and our first grandson. The summer before her death in October 2008, our two daughters rather hurriedly put together lovely weddings for themselves. To the very end, she stayed in our home surrounded by people who loved her. In spite of chemotherapy and intestinal obstructions, the last year of her life was a good time. The last week was not.
Nobody really tells you about death. You learn about it as you go along. The hospice nurses are wonderful. They prepare you, in a way, and are good about answering questions, but by the time you know what questions to ask, it’s too late. You also hear half-truths and little white lies, like: “We can keep her comfortable by just upping the dose of morphine.” They don’t tell you ahead of time how you are supposed to do that when she can no longer swallow, nor do they mention that the dose of morphine necessary to keep her “comfortable” is eventually the same as the dose that will stop her breathing. They don’t tell you what to do when she asks for a pill to “just get this over with.” They do reassure you that those horrible moans and gasps are worse for you than for her.
They are probably right. By then, I was sure that her essence was gone; she did not know what was happening. Still, it was horrible for me, and for what purpose?
From my wife’s death I did gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be human. One surely does not understand the full human experience without going through a great loss. I learned that grief is a physical pain that is built into our biochemistry. I learned how important good friends are when you need them. I learned that a family can come through truly bad times, that a life can be put back together after being uprooted. I would have learned all of this without that last week.
I thank Brittany Maynard for showing the world a better way. It took bravery on her part, and it was a gift to her loved ones. It will also be a gift to all of us if it gets us to think about how we want to die, and what memories we want to leave behind.
John La Grange is a retired commercial fisherman living in Solana Beach, California. He met his wife while they were students at UCSD. After 38 years of marriage, she died of ovarian cancer in 2008. He wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.