I was talking to my friend Dirt Boy (he owns a plant nursery, and I never shake his hand that he doesn’t have to wipe it off first) last night about Beta Culture, and we got onto the subject of death.
If you’re an existing reader here, you probably know about my Cowboy Dad. For you others: I grew up in Houston, Texas, moved to a little mountain town in California when I was 22. I met this guy there who became my mentor, teacher and eventually, “Dad.” We were both mule packers and wilderness guides — cowboys, that is.
So: Cowboy Dad. And I wish you could have known him. He was the greatest, kindest, toughest, most magnificent single human I ever knew. Hell, he put up with ME for 35 years.
I sat with him in the hospital for the last four days of his life, sponging off his forehead, talking to him, telling him everything I needed to say: Your life mattered. The world was a better place for having you in it. I wish we were anywhere else right now, maybe reining in at Duck Pass and looking down at the lake, or setting up camp in Horse Heaven. I will never, ever forget you. I wish I’d been a better son. A thousand times: I love you, Old Man, and I always will.
Anyway, he died. He was conscious and in control for most of those four days, and he was emphatically clear that no tubes or wires were going to be connected to him. Though he couldn’t talk, the fury on his face when a nurse tried to sneak one in on him was eloquent as hell.
He was neither drinking nor eating by the time I got there, so essentially he was starving and thirsting himself to death. The peaceful breathing on the day of my arrival gradually ramped up over the four days to the rasping breath of a marathon runner, and he crossed the finish line as I sat with him.
Though they gave him morphine every few hours, I have no doubt that the whole thing was agonizing. Part of his end was some sort of septic reaction that made his legs and feet swollen and black — so painful they put a little arched rail down by his feet so the sheet wouldn’t touch his toes.
I asked a doctor, and later a nurse, flat out: Is there anything we can do to end this? Their eyes slid away from mine and they voiced standard platitudes: Well, we can make him as comfortable as possible in the time remaining.
Though his dying was no fault of anyone’s, he was still, by the nature of the situation, being tortured to death. And damn, I hate knowing that.
You know, there were moments when I would have liked a final hug from him, more than the one squeeze of his hand and the one smile that accompanied it. But I understood this was HIS time, that he was BUSY, and that I would have a whole lifetime more to see to my own needs. I was there for him, and him only, and so were the doctors and nurses.
Except in this one way: None of us had the power or the will to let him go painlessly.
I know for a fact that he didn’t want to be lying there in pain, dying in a bed. Hah — more than once I heard him reveal his ideal end: “I want to be shot by a jealous lover right after making love to identical twin redheads!” But he would just as well have wanted to die in his sleep while camping in his beloved John Muir wilderness.
I don’t want that sort of boundlessly-painful in-bed end for myself. Or for anybody who doesn’t choose it. But it’s what we’ve got, and there is no possibility of that changing.
I suppose some small part of the problem is our screwed-up language. For the elderly person who seeks an end to intractable, never-ending pain, we have only the one graceless word, the same one we use for the vengeful adolescent who jumps off a bridge to get back at his parents for being grounded, or for the cornered killer who shoots himself to escape arrest.
And as we all know, “suicide” is ALWAYS wrong. It’s crazy, it’s sinful, you go straight to Hell.
As you might guess from the title of this piece, I know there really are people out there who would seek to quietly and conveniently do away with Granny, or even Mom, to speed their inheritance on its way. The thing is, most people WOULDN’T. But as Dirt Boy describes it, “We make the rules for the dumbest kid in class.” Or the meanest, the most evil, the most greedy. And everybody else, though they’ve done nothing wrong, suffer from it.
The result: For all those who might, with great love and compassion, assist in the death of a loved one, it’s just plain old murder. We’ll put your ass in prison if you do it.
We’ve all heard that old argument: We treat our pets better than we do our old people. But yes, in fact, we do. I’ve sat with two dogs, Ranger the Valiant Warrior and Tito the Mighty Hunter, hugging them and dripping tears into their fur, as they died. Tito died at home, on the grassy hillside of his own yard. Ranger died in a vet’s office, but I insisted he be given a shot of painkiller before he got the death shot, so I’d know he didn’t die in pain. And both times, I was talking to them, telling them what great friends they were: You’re the best, Ranger! I love you, good boy! I love you T-Buddy (Tito)! I’ll never forget YOU.
Oh, shit, I’m crying as I write this. But … it’s a good cry. Memories of those friends will be with me always, and damn, I hated to lose them. But I know I did the RIGHT thing to let them go painlessly. Ranger lived to be 12.5 — a very advanced age for a pedigreed German shepherd. Tito, my big malamute-black lab mutt, lived to be 16.5. They were OLD. They’d lived their lives. And in both cases, we extended their time in every way we could, until we couldn’t do any more. Neither could walk. Ranger was bleeding internally and in pain, Tito had some sort of cancer and was finally too weak to stand up. It wasn’t murder; it was mercy.
When the “I can’t bear to lose him” inside me was finally beaten out by the “Don’t be selfish, he’s suffering,” in each case, I let them go — painlessly, peacefully, and with all the tear-soaked love in my body.
In ugly contrast, what we have for people — mediated by cops, courts, lawyers and distant legislators — is … well, LEGAL.
Not loving and compassionate and pain free. Legal.
I’d bet good money that if you could do a brain scan of almost anyone dying in a hospital of advanced age or serious disease, you’d find that they were suffering hellish pain — at least part of the time, and some of them the whole time.
But hey, on the bright side, the rest of us don’t have to feel it. And at least we’re keeping safe that small percentage who might otherwise be murdered by greedy heirs. Because screw the rest of those old gummers, right? We can torture them to death by default, then walk away and forget the whole thing.
Merciless. Ugly. Crazy. Uncivilized. And forever. Unless …
Speaking for myself, I’d like to live in a society, in a culture, that will treat me better when I’m close to death. I don’t want drugs, I want dignity. Self-determination. Freedom. I want to be in charge of my faculties and my life, and have some say in the moment and manner of my ending. I damned well demand it.
It’s one of the many things I think could be changed, if we create this new thing.