This I Believe

Joel - Birmingham, Alabama
Entered on March 2, 2007
Age Group: 50 - 65
Themes: death
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This I Believe

I believe most of us allow our dogs and cats to die more humanely than our mothers and fathers. In my case, I’m sure of it.

Our fifteen year old Beagle, Willie, was a good dog. Near the end of his life he was deaf, partially blind, throughly feeble and lost in the throes of irreversible dementia. When he became paralyzed, and the time was right, I took him to a veterinarian who first administered a powerful sedative, then gave him his “knockout drops” – a syringe of Phenibarbital. That powerful duet gave immediate relief to an animal that loved me unconditionally and with all his heart. I recall vividly the moment when Dr. Nall looked up at me from his stethoscope and pronounced,

“That’s it, he’s gone.” Almost as an afterthought, he added, “There’s no charge for this, I think we made enough off Willie before today.”

At death’s door, my father didn’t fare as well as Willie. His well-metastasized cancer allowed him to linger in an excellent hospice program for six weeks. A morphine “clicker” and two saintly hospice nurses were a godsend, evoking from him a sweetness unlike any my mother or I had ever seen, but they couldn’t bring death closer for him. He suffered mightily, and my mother and I did little more than watch and pray for God to please hasten his final breath.

Two years after my father died, my mother’s own well-metastasized cancer left her in an end-of-life posture similar to his. Because my father’s death had been better than the grisly hospital deaths of my grandparents, I thought she would choose similar hospice care. I was wrong. Instead, she put away half a bottle of scotch one night, placed the muzzle of her .38 caliber pistol over her beating heart, and pulled the trigger. The scotch must have served a purpose similar to the sedative Dr. Nall gave Willie. I have no doubt that she planned her suicide earlier in the day, when she was sober, calm and lucid.

I believe Willie’s death was better than my mother’s, but I also believe my mother’s death was vastly better than my father’s. I believe the deaths of all three were better than the deaths of my grandparents, who died in hospitals. And I’m confident that Willie and both my parents had better luck than my mother’s dear friend Isabel, who was stuck in a nursing home, in a persistent vegetative state, for more than a decade.

I see my mother’s suicide not as an act of cowardice, but as and act of courage. I see it not only as the blessing that it must have been in her eyes, but also as a blessed in the eyes of God.

I know that in Oregon my mother’s suicide could have been assisted by a physician, and that some instrument of death other than a handgun would have been available to her. But like my father and my good dog Willie, she lived and died in Alabama.

Alabama won’t be following Oregon’s assisted-suicide lead anytime soon, and I believe that’s wrong. I believe Alabama, and the other forty-eight states, should allow men and women like my mother and father to choose to die whenever they’re ready, and afford their deaths the same grace and beauty that were the essence of the death of my good dog, Willie.

This I believe.