The HBO special "You Don't Know Jack," with Al Pacino as Dr. Kevorkian, brings to mind my own experience with assisted suicide:
It was December 2002, a year after my husband Chaim died, and I was rattling around alone in my cold, stone house in Pocantico Hills New York, trying to get my life back together.
My younger son said, "Go out already. Go on the internet and meet somebody." So I did, and we talked for about a month before I flew down to meet him. His name was Rick, and he lived about half an hour from my Florida condo, and he would call me when the snow was falling on the skylight and I was sitting in front of the fire. This was before Skype, and he'd ask me to describe the setting, and he'd say it reminded him of those old movies where Katherine Hepburn or Cary Grant were living in Connecticut.
Once he called me from a business trip in Prague, as a surprise. And we spent the turn of the year on a three-hour phone date.
Rick looked exactly like Mitt Romney. (In fact I have clipped a photo of Romney and put it next to his and when I show it to people they think that it's the same person.)
He had been a semi-pro football player and an alcoholic, a heavy smoker and a womanizer and had grown up in some fundamental Christian group. And he watched Fox News.
And he had beaten cancer, on some experimental program at Sylvester Cancer Center in Miami.
On paper he was certainly not a promising boyfriend for a vulnerable widow, and I knew it. But he had reformed, and we had a charming way of flirting and communicating. And I wanted a romance.
In January 2003, when he picked me up at the airport to take me to my condo he said, "you decide when we start a real relationship." And I did, pretty quickly. And we traveled to Italy and to New York, and spent weekends together by the pool at his bungalow in Miami with the flowering vines.
He was friendly and funny. He named his power boat "Spilkes," the Yiddish phrase for 'ants in your pants.' He loved art glass and history. My friends liked him, despite his politics and rakishness, and so did I.
About nine months into the relationship his cancer came back, and it was terminal. I remember that he saw the same neurologist that my late husband had gone to. When she recognized me she said, "Oh no. Not again."
He asked me to live with him through his last weeks. And I said yes, even though I wasn't really in love with him. How could I not? It would be profoundly difficult for me, but would offer him great comfort for the time that remained. My husband had died alone at 3 am on a ventilator in the ICU. I could do better for this man.
Rick's son came to stay at his house near the very end, and his brothers visited, but I was the one who was with him all the time.
The hospice nurse came twice a week and the social worker arrived once a week and they taught me how to run his oxygen machine and give him his pills and discuss his fears.
And the nurse of his famous doctor at the cancer center had fallen for him (women just did) and she came whenever she could --ostensibly to help-- and talked too much and he would go into the bedroom and whisper, "Ask her to leave. Please."
And he spent his remaining time talking to family, friends, and former girlfriends. I invited one woman over and she still loved him after 10 years and had faded so from the visage in her photos. And I talked to one who had his love child and put that son up for adoption and he apologized to her after 40 years and she didn't seem to care much one way or the other.
And my sons came down to meet him and talk football -- he loved the Eagles and they loved the Giants-- and there was much friendly banter.
And the medications bloated his face, and his neck became as stiff as wood.
From the beginning he had collected fentanyl patches and the hospice nurses looked the other way. And on the last day of his life, when he was gasping and agitated his son called Rick's brother, a fundamentalist minister, and the minister told him to do what Rick wished and that it was alright.
And soon Rick relaxed and breathed slower and slower and a few hours later he died in front of me, as if he had just fallen asleep. By his side was his son, and a neighbor he used to talk with daily across the fence.
And the hospice nurse said that his was "a good death." He had lived fully until the last few days. He had accepted what was happening.
And we had a service and I wrote a eulogy and took my belongings home and decided I'd rather live by myself than endure another loss. And I did, mostly, for the next seven years.
But I also learned that suffering can be eased. And that dying can be a terrible struggle or a peaceful slipping away.
There is often a choice. More often than we realize. And people often look the other way while the patient makes it.
Or even help the patient to make it.
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