When my 91-year-old father was in his final weeks, he wanted me to draft his obituary so he could make sure I got it right. He believed he had had a fortunate life. Despite being under hospice care in a good nursing home, we did not know he was heading for an atrocious death.
Eugene had a nearly photographic recall for facts, figures, stories, names, jokes, and personal experiences, right up to what he had had for lunch the week before. Our family liked to say that before we had Google, we had Gene.
Born in Chicago to immigrant parents, he shot up early, to over 6’3” at age 14, a kind of giant in those protein-scarce days. He became captain of his citywide champion high school volleyball team, but left them early when, at age 16, he was admitted to the University of Chicago. While he was doing graduate work in accounting, he met a young Northwestern student. The month after Pearl Harbor was attacked, he signed up, eloped with the young woman — to whom he remained married for 66 years — and after, finishing his service as a second lieutenant in the army, became a successful businessman in the Midwest.
In his later life, he looked a lot like Red Auerbach, though his victory cigars came out mostly for Chicago teams, with a special one waiting for his beloved Chicago Cubs. (Needless to say, it is still waiting.) He and my mother came to Sturbridge to live with my family for last five years of their life. Although patience was never his long suit, he cared for my mother devotedly and patiently as dementia began to overtake her. “Hey,” he said. “It could just as easily have been me.”
After my mother died, his legs stopped working, and when we could no longer care for him at home, he entered a nursing home. One of his legs grew gangrenous; he had to have it amputated at mid-thigh. When he returned from surgery, though, and the reality of his situation sank in, he decided enough was enough.
He wondered wryly if Dr. Kevorkian were still making house calls or whether we might move to Oregon where they could carry out his wish to die. He began to use the punch line to one of his favorite jokes to let us know how he was: “Guy jumps off an 80-story building. Some folks in the offices below see him dropping and yell out to him, “Are you all right?” He yells back, as he continues falling, “So far so good...!”
“So far so good” was his usual report when he was not in pain.
Finally, after talking with us, he made the determined decision to refuse all of his many medications and to stop eating. We supported him in this sad decision, though it was clear we could not have changed his mind in any case. He told the rabbi who came to visit him that he believed in God and was spiritually comfortable. The rabbi and the doctor supported him.
It took three long weeks for him to waste away.
At 3 p.m. on July 10 2010, he began to suffer difficulties breathing. I called the nurses. They gave him morphine for pain and medication to dry his lung secretions. These medications had no visible effect whatsoever.
He began to scream, loudly, over and over, that he wanted to die, someone help him. I implored them to give him more medication, to call the doctor and the hospice supervisor. The nurses were not authorized to give him any further medication without permission. His breathing became steadily worse, and his agitation increased.
My father screamed for another 45 minutes until his agonizing death from cardiac insufficiency. Those were the last 45 minutes of his life and the longest of my own. The helpless nurses were apologetic. The doctor never called, and the hospice supervisor did not appear until a quarter of an hour after his death.
Whether or not we want to be, we are all of us on that journey down from the top of a building, and while we perhaps hope the journey is long, we ought all to be granted greater control about what kind of landing we make when the inevitable end comes.
A “Compassionate Death” bill is pending in the Legislature, with public hearings scheduled for December, that will accomplish this by allowing a medically expedited death. Please support it. No one should have to die the way my father did.
James Glickman, a Sturbridge resident, is a novelist and short story writer who teaches at the Community College of Rhode Island.