The Sanctity of the Dying Room

Let's pull the plug on playing politics with Terri Schiavo.

I remember the late-night phone call from my mother.

My father lay dying at home in a living room that had been converted into a hospice for the man with terminal cancer.

He was a physician. He'd seen much of life and death and everything in between as a doctor in war and peace. He'd been a resident at Virginia Mason. He'd run a hospital high in the Peruvian Andes. During World War II, he had cleaned up after aircraft accidents. At dinnertime, he often told gruesome stories—some funny, some horrifying.

As a healer, he'd often felt the agony of his own inadequacy as a single human being fighting for life. He once described standing on the tarmac at an Army Air Corps base while in front of him a planeload of GIs burned to death in a crash-landed transport. He'd heard soldiers screaming for their mothers as they were consumed in the flames while he and the rescue crew stood by, unable to extinguish the fire.

That image symbolizes for me the ultimate intimacy of death. At some point, when we are beyond saving, we call out to the ultimate life-giver.

My father's dying was not so dramatic, nor agonizing, but it wasn't easy. The forces that were drawing him toward the end were not extinguishable, either. Neither was his suffering. He asked that nature be allowed to take its course, and my mother and sisters kept him as comfortable as possible.

Fortunately, we knew his preferences. Between painkillers, my father was cogent. He believed in the relief of suffering— and that included hastening the end when it was inevitable and the pain was unendurable. He did not want to suffer as he had seen so many patients suffer; he did not want to linger with spreading bedsores; he did not want to drag his family through a spectacle of suffering.

So that night, my mother called.

Nature was moving too slowly. My father was begging her to finish him off, to relieve his pain, to stop further decline. A nurse by training, she had plenty of morphine to give him. But he begged for the coup de grâce—a lethal dose.

I believe assisted suicide should be legal. I believe that each person has the right to decide when their health care ought to start and end. I believe in the right to life and death. I understand that the issues are complicated, personal, and spiritual. I understand there are— and have been—slippery slopes that humanity has slid down.

But these are abstractions in the dying room, where a dying person's wishes carry a special weight; where only those who know you most intimately can be stewards of your fate; where none of the choices is acceptable.

Despite my belief that my father's wishes should be honored, I could not bring myself to advise my mother to grant him this wish. I wanted him to die, but I did not want my mother to be his killer. I hated his suffering, but I also resented his asking my mother to do what no partner should be asked to do. I was angry that we have no system in place so that people can take matters into their own hands if they so choose, as they do in Oregon.

Oregon's assisted suicide law is under attack. As a parting gift, outgoing U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft asked the Supreme Court to strike it down. Despite the scary concept of doctors helping patients to die, relatively few terminal patients in Oregon avail themselves of the prescribed drugs you can use to take your life at the end. And many of those who request and receive the "death with dignity" drugs never use them. They seem to take comfort in simply knowing the option is there. To me, it seems an immensely civilized law, one that would have allowed my father to do what he impossibly asked those who loved him to do.

And which we didn't do.

My father lived a while longer, and we endured his pain and the pain his pain caused us.

I don't know whether or not Terri Schiavo's feeding tube should be pulled. I don't know whose wishes her husband or parents are trying to honor, other than their own. A husband sees his wife in an irreversible vegetative state and naturally wants to end such suffering; her parents see the child they gave life to and aren't ready to give up hope. There is nothing unique in this struggle or the pain it causes—it happens to thousands of families every day. The courts say the responsibility for the decisions about her care fall to her spouse, which seems right.

What is a travesty is the exploitation of her case for politics. The dying room has been invaded by grandstanders fueled by polls, political memos, and fundamentalism. Tom DeLay doesn't belong in there. Congress doesn't. Neither does George W. Bush, a man who once signed a law in Texas that permits hospitals to withdraw "life-sustaining treatment" from poor folks—without family consent.

You cannot be "on the side of life" without also facing up to the responsibilities of contending with the dying. It is not enough to say you are "pro-life" if that doesn't include respecting the intimacy and tough moral decisions that are made in the privacy of the dying room, a place where politics should never show its face.

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