Death With Dignity

Right From the Start

In 1994, Oregon’s overwhelmingly Democrat majority approved by a narrow margin Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act. It is euphemistically named thusly as if government approval of a form of suicide makes it dignified. (Not uncharacteristic of liberal/progressive rationale, all other forms of suicide and attempted suicide are still illegal in Oregon.) There is nothing more or less dignified about injecting a lethal dose of chemicals than putting a gun in your mouth and pulling the trigger. But as with most things advocated by liberals/progressives, a misleading title makes up for the cruelty that lies beneath.

Dignity lies within the person and not within the act of suicide. The fact that the government chose to promote this form of suicide over others has more to do with the physical aftermath of a violent suicide than with dignity.

I am seventy-three. Applying my own euphemism, you might say that I have rounded third and am headed for home. The same can be said of most of my friends of similar age. This is a year in which my wife and I have confronted death and dying with increasing frequency. I lost my brother in May. We said good-bye to one of my oldest friends in Seattle shortly before returning to Arizona – he is in the tertiary stages of a cancer that will take his life. And we traveled to Billings, Montana, to attend the funeral of one of my newest friends two weeks ago – he died from a sudden onset of complications following surgery for colon cancer.

My friend Jerry was one of my first clients when I entered private practice in Helena, Montana. We lived in the same neighborhood and became friends almost immediately. He and his wife became godparents to our son. His daughters took turns babysitting our children. As with all of us, there were challenges, both business and personal, each of us confronted and in virtually every instance the other was there for support, advice and commiseration. Jerry was at times, hard nosed, profane, stubborn and dismissive of excuses. But at the same time he was (is) affable, compassionate, inclusive and generous with both his time and his humor.

He is a Christian and a Catholic. He believes in God and a life after death. He recognizes that man exists concurrently as a temporal and a spiritual being. He has been passionate about his life and cherished every moment but he also looks forward to embracing the ultimate reward for his spiritual being.

When we visited Jerry and his wife of nearly sixty years, they had just completed a move to a new graduated care facility. The cancer has taken a physical toll on Jerry and he requires a motorized scooter to get around, but it has done little to stifle his big personality or his sense of humor. We spent time touring the facility, sitting in the atrium and having lunch. We reminisced about our times in Helena, got caught up on mutual acquaintances, filled in some gaps about our lives as careers took us to various places in the West, and had some great laughs about the proud and pompous in Washington, DC.

It is difficult to explain the tranquility that encompasses Jerry. It is the product of a temporal life well lived coupled with the expectations of an after life well deserved. It is a state of peace – of facing death without fear. And most important it is visible, auditory and palpable to those around him. It is the dignity that only a person can find for himself.

I left Jerry. I told him that he has been a good friend. I walked away hoping that I can achieve a similar dignity when confronted with the inevitable.

And the same is true for our friend Bob. Although Bob and his wife grew up with my wife in Havre, Montana, I did not meet them until we bought a home in Arizona. We had even stayed at their home in Arizona while looking for ours but they were still in Montana and it would be another year before I met them. Bob was like Jerry – big, gregarious, outrageous, and full of that oddball sense of humor that mirrors my own. He was a successful businessman and left behind associates, suppliers and competitors who thought the world of him. He opened his door to us when we moved into our new house, introduced me to his friends and neighbors, and invited me into his golf group. As I got to know the twenty some men who were a part of our golf group I found that almost all of them had a similar experiences where Bob was the pivot upon which our new lives in retirement began.

Bob was also a Christian and in the 80’s found himself born again in his believe in God. This was not a moralizing transformation for Bob, rather it was a deeply personal one. It did not change his personality, did not demand that others conform and did not create a sense of moral superiority. It was a personal path for him. It was a recognition of the wonders of Creation that made his temporal life burn brighter and his journey to a spiritual life more profound. He was another man at peace with whatever life would bring him vested in his belief of an even better spiritual life that awaited him.

When the original surgery to remove a cancerous section of his colon turned into a major problem, Bob knew – even before the surgeons – that he was at the end of the road. As each successive surgery produced additional problems Bob asked that they stop and said that he was ready to “return to Jesus.” He faced the end without fear and without remorse. That is the dignity that a man achieves when recognizing and embracing a Being greater than himself.

And again, in the aftermath of his funeral I found myself hoping that I can achieve that same peace – that same dignity.

In the end I realize that such dignity comes from one’s spiritual believes and blessed by the Creator. It does not come from a contraption made by a man and blessed by the government of Oregon.