I’m Ready for My Inheritance, Granny — Would You Kindly DIE??

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.

He committed suicide. She committed suicide. Shameful. Disturbing. Bad.

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.


Beta Culture: Seeing The Brackets
Beta Culture: Being Grownups on Planet Earth
Race and Culture Again: Bessie and Lois
Catholic Church Flexing Muscle in U.S. Hospitals
  • Karen

    Hank, you’re right. If my life becomes one of unbearable and incurable physical or mental pain, I want to opt out with dignity. I’ve taken my share of pets for that final visit to the vet, crying all the way, because it was their time and I owed it to them. It’s outrageous that I don’t have that option for myself.

    • Hank Fox

      One of the many things I want to change with Beta Culture. And … maybe it can happen.

  • Cathy W

    Even beyond “the rules for the dumbest kid in the class” – there’s a strain of religious thought (*coughMotherTeresacough*) that teaches that suffering is in and of itself spiritually beneficial, so there’s no such thing as “pointless suffering”, and ending Granny’s pain is actually bad for her.

    If we can clean up that particular cow-pie, we will have done the world a favor.

    • Hank Fox

      The idea is unspeakably nasty, isn’t it? I wonder how advocates of the idea would feel if they were treated to a great deal of suffering. You know, as a FAVOR to them.

  • c2t2

    Crying many tears. The Last Trip To The Vet is pretty much the worst thing ever. I cry even if it’s not my critter, even if I’ve never met the critter in question.

    I think the way we treat dying humans is easier on us and harder on the ones actually dying. After watching someone’s endlessly drawn-out agony, the grief we feel is mixed with relief that the horrible process is over. I’ve never actually held a human at the moment of death. They were always locked away in a hospital or a room I wasn’t allowed into, but I’m no stranger to stroking a beloved dog’s fur as the vet gives him the shot.

    The more I think about the euthanasia situation, the angrier I get. Is it seriously illegal to help someone who’s begging for death? Someone who can speak coherently and is willing to sign a damn legal document if you put in front of them? In some places, euthanasia can be prosecuted as murder… and risk the death penalty.

  • Renshia

    Hank, don’t think I have read you blog before. But I will more often now.

    I completely agree with you. we need to have regulation that will allow a person to die with dignity.

    This is one of the most inhuman concepts contrived completely in the bowels of religion.

    Thanks, it is good to read others voicing how I feel. It’s feels almost as good as when I discovered atheists on the internet. I say almost because, that, was truly a phenomenal moment for me.

  • Hank Fox

    Even people who are cogent enough to make their intentions clear have zero choice when it comes to ending their own lives. We still essentially torture them to death. There have been a number of cases in the news of people who know they face long years of pain and disability, but who have no legal choice to end their lives.

    As to taking on the moral decision, certainly nobody could force others to perform the deed of ending one’s life. But to me, the moral decision would also include THIS bit: Your dearest friend is helpless and in endless pain. He begs you to push a button, or to unplug something, to end the pain. Comparing your emotional pain against your friend’s intense physical agony, I would think moral gravity would weigh more heavily on the side of your friend.

    As to people whose minds have slipped away, one imagines that if the choice was legal, and common enough that we all became aware it was an option, many of us would weigh in on it at some point with friends and family, with a definite opinion in one direction or the other, long before we started to slip.

    The point isn’t that any part of the thing is easy, it’s that we must have the choice. What we have is brutally inhumane, and continues mainly through the momentum of religious thinking. We torture oldsters because goddy people stop us from considering the reality of the situation.

  • Hank Fox

    “As for those with dementia, what you are really saying is the loved ones will simply figure out whether it is worth it to keep the person around. I find that a rather disturbing prospect on a moral level.”

    Yes, “loved ones.” As I said earlier, we make rules for the dumbest kids in class. The assumption built into your paragraph here is that some majority of “loved ones” will casually kill granny or mom, because she’s just become too bothersome.

    I strongly doubt this is the case. I suspect most of them, the huge majority, will agonize over the decision, continuously second-guessing themselves, until they agree as a group that they can’t bear to see her like that anymore, that she wouldn’t have wanted to live like that, and that the more merciful path would be a painless end.

    As to imposition, who says the survivors have to make any choice? Letting Granny suffer through a prolonged “natural” dying will always be an option.

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.moriarty.395 John Moriarty

    14 years ago I was there as my father peacefully breathed his last, in a hospital bed post heart attack. 11 years ago my brother expired painlessly when they pulled the plug; he was brain dead after a fall. Later that year, my father-in-law died in some pain, of emphysema. 15 months ago it was my mother-in-law’s turn, old age, peacefully and painlessly. 3 months later her sister, writhing in discomfort, kidney failure. 7 months ago my mother, painlessly, cancer. 6 months after that, her sister my aunt, same thing, painlessly, then their brother my uncle likewise, also his wife. I was immediately present for 6 of these 9 deaths. It was indeed emotive to see a dying person writhing in the bed. Other than that, I am happy, if happy is an appropriate word, with the comfort level of those people who died as I have described.

    Contra your position, I too would bet good money, that those sufficiently anaesthetised had zero pain, due to effectiveness of anaesthesia for an operation. If you feel nothing with fairly good prior health and alertness, it is perfectly reasonable to project the same level of oblivion and hence comfort, in those painfree cases I described. I only wish they gave the suffering ones more morphine. Our doctors reckon there is no pain for them, once they get enough from the drug delivery pump. From these my experiences, I fail to see why it is ethically necessary to help the dying to kill themselves in these cases, except for our emotions. Hank I think you project your own feelings onto others without good evidence. Ideally I would need a bigger sample size that I’ve given, then again I don’t have a research grant either;).

    They were all religious. I am a proud atheist who respects the old medical ethic to do no harm, and think it best to stay that way. In a political sense, I think it best for atheism to avoid involvement with suicide, as it further brings into question our ethics in the eyes of those we don’t agree with. As if there are already not enough points of contention, without opening us up to debatable accusations of despair.

    Having seen what I have seen, and with my genetic predispositions, I will probably choose to go as they did if things transpire for me same as them. I will keep my own counsel, and let others do the same. I wish not to be part of any suicide, but would willingly assist with life shortening painkillers.

    • Hank Fox

      Probably I do project my own feelings onto others, but I do it in an attempt at connected compassion. I suppose the medical ethic in my head goes beyond “Do no harm,” coming out instead as “Allow no harm.” Meaning pain, distress.

      And again, I’m slightly less interested in killing people than I am in allowing those who are already dying to do so without pain, and if they wish it, ahead of the “natural” schedule.

      One of the afterthoughts that came out of my Dad’s death: I wish there had been an enlarged keyboard and/or touch-sensitive drawing pad on an arm above the bed. Days after he could talk, he was still responding to me and nurses with facial expressions and gestures, and I wish we’d been able to give him the opportunity to “speak” any last words he might have wished to convey.

      Any inventors in the crowd, get busy on the Critical Care Patient Com-Panel for people like my Dad.

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