Bucky, a beloved 4-year-old rescue dog belonging to my children and grandchildren, was suffering for months from an unidentified and seemingly incurable intestinal illness. Last November, the family made the difficult decision to put him out of his misery. They took him to the veterinary clinic where he had been treated. They spent some time with him in a quiet room. The doctor then administered the shot that gently and quickly ended his life.
A year earlier, Peter, my husband of 53 years, decided that a number of progressively worsening health conditions had diminished his quality of life to the point where he didn’t want to live. He was a man of words, and his fingers would no longer type them accurately. For the first time, at a meeting with his neurologist, he’d had trouble counting backwards and couldn’t remember at the end of the visit the three words she’d told him at the beginning. It was becoming obvious to us both that his ability to function was eroding.
This was a man who completed the Boston Marathon several times and rode thousands of miles on his bicycle (with me) on summer vacations. Even when his only way to get around was by Rollator, he managed to sit in on classes at Harvard. A friend spotted him on his way home one day, pushing his Rollator and carrying a bouquet of daisies for me.
Eventually, although his mind was still (mostly) sharp, he needed help with just about everything. He began to talk about choosing to die on his own terms before his mental capacity deteriorated to the point where he couldn’t make such a decision. Unlike in 10 states and the District of Columbia, in Massachusetts, the Legislature has consistently turned down proposals to allow physician assistance in ending life when death is expected within six months, so Peter was not permitted to seek medical aid to ease this process.
Our children and I persuaded him to take a month to be sure of his decision. To our friends, he managed to put on a good face. But it wasn’t easy for him, and it was heartbreaking and stressful for me.
During that time, our son Jeremy came to town and bought Peter a lunch of his favorite foods, including bagels, cream cheese, smoked salmon, and sinful pastries. Peter devoured it all. He even wolfed down Jeremy’s share of the pastry before our son could grab it.
Was this a man ready to die?
On a Sunday evening shortly thereafter, I made a “spectacular” (according to Peter) new swordfish recipe. Either he hadn’t decided yet or he just hadn’t told me, but the next morning he refused to take his 6 a.m. pills. He told me that he was “done.” No pills, no food, no water. He was ready to to end his life on his own terms.
That was the beginning of the worst eight days of my life. The past couple of years had taken a toll on me, his primary caretaker, as well as on him. Friends tell me now that they could see that I, too, was suffering. But this was very different.
On the first day of his not eating, I lay next to him on our bed. I tried to imagine what he was thinking. He didn’t speak much, but he told me I had been “magnificent” and that he should have brought me more flowers.
When we informed our Ugandan helper about Peter’s decision later that morning, she quit on the spot, unable to support him in a decision that violated her strong belief that God decides when one dies.
But hospice came to our rescue. They had a hospital bed delivered. They explained how and when morphine was appropriate and supplied it and other necessities for end-of-life care. Hospice will not help people die, but they will do everything they can to relieve the inevitable pain as the body shuts down after someone voluntarily decides to stop eating and drinking.
Our sons, Seth and Jeremy, came home. We played Mozart CDs for Peter all day long while we took turns reading to him even when he was no longer responsive, because we knew that hearing is the last sense to go. A day or two into this dreadful journey, Peter begged me for his favorite lemon soda. I reminded him of his decision and didn’t give it to him because drinking only prolongs dying. Instead, I swabbed his lips with water, then left the room and wept. We just wanted it to be over.
And finally, it was.
His suffering did not have to happen. It wouldn’t have elsewhere in this country. In Switzerland, not only does it not have to happen, but organizations like Dignitas, as beautifully depicted in Amy Bloom’s memoir “In Love,” exist solely to help very sick individuals die with dignity.
When a doctor in those states where it is legal confirms that an individual has less than six months to live, he or she can be eased into death just like my children’s dog was. It is nothing less than cruel to prevent anyone from having some control in their most difficult hours as life comes to an end.
Of course, there must be safeguards. Usually, there are state residency requirements and a mandate that two doctors affirm that the person is terminally ill. The person may have to be able to self-administer the drug. And those conditions are as they should be. Sometimes people change their mind. But for those who choose to end their suffering and for the families that support their decision, the death with dignity option should be available.
For at least the last 10 years, the Massachusetts Legislature has either refused to consider bills to allow physician-assisted death or voted them down in session. The End of Life Options Act is coming before the Legislature again this year. Governor Maura Healey has indicated that she would sign such a bill if passed.
A week or so before Peter began his terrible journey, I suggested that he write about his feelings at that moment. He sat at his computer and produced a beautiful essay that is now framed on my bedroom wall.
Here is Peter’s essay:
I’m planning to end my life. I’ve entered hospice, and in a few days, I’ll stop eating and drinking.
I’m happy with much of my life. I have a wonderful wife, two accomplished sons, and two lovable grandsons. Judy and I have been happily married for more than half a century. We live in a condo that overlooks the Charles River. We can walk to Harvard Yard where I sat in on classes (or more recently Zoomed in).
But my advancing Parkinson’s disease and a stroke-impaired left leg are limiting my mobility. You have to have lost your mobility to appreciate what that means. When I gave up my driver’s license, I couldn’t go many places alone. Now I must call for help to use the bathroom.
I am not in pain, but being helpless hurts. I realize that dying may be uncomfortable, but it won’t be as bad for me as it was for my mothers’ parents who died in Auschwitz.
When I think about the trouble I am having at the tail end of my life, I worry that Judy may have trouble in her golden years without my help. That may be largely in my imagination. Not having my help may be an advantage.
I’m sorry I’ll be missing half of my children’s lives and most of my grandchildren’s lives.
I think I am making the right choice, but if I haven’t, I won’t have to live with it.
Deciding to end one’s life because of a terminal illness is the most personal decision that one can make. Many people would not dream of doing such a thing, and if you are one of them, that’s fine. Just don’t stand in the way of those who feel differently.
Judy Kugel blogs twice weekly at 80-something.com and is the author of “70-something—Life, Love and Limits in the Bonus Years.”