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Tucson Weekly Suicidal Tendencies

In Praise Of Dr. Death.

By Jeff Smith

DECEMBER 7, 1998:  THE DAY BEFORE my mom died, she and Dave and I had a heart-to-heart-to-heart talk about what would be the most expeditious way to kill her without any of us landing in the slammer. As you might imagine, it was a hard conversation to have.

But not for the reasons you might suppose.

Sure, I loved my mother and so did my brother, and she loved life, and we're all sentimental and all that, but we'd seen this coming a long way off and had come to terms with it. No, the reason we were having such a tough time with the final arrangements, now that it was time to make them, was that Mom had a stroke the morning of her penultimate day and she couldn't talk.

So Dave and I sat there trying to figure out everything we ought to be asking her--and anticipating what she might want to be asking us--and getting her to blink once for yes and twice for no. This is a pain in the ass.

Pauline Smith began veering to the left in 1985, three years before she died. Literally. She noticed it one night shortly before Christmas when we went for a stroll through Winterhaven to see the lights. A couple weeks later the doctor told her she had Lou Gehrig's disease and would be dead within two years and crippled and helpless well before that.

She took it like a trooper, toughed it out for two years, then another, and we all had time to contemplate what it would mean for her to gradually lose control of her body, while her mind remained mercilessly aware of how horseshit her world was turning. We discussed the Hemlock Society and medical suicide. We talked to her doctor, who told us how hospitals could unofficially assist the terminally ill in making as painless and stressless an exit as possible.

Then it comes down to the last scene of the last act and mom goes mum on us. Terrific. We call the hospital and ask for the doc who's been in on the joke and he's away on vacation, out of the country. Swell. But a couple hours later Mom gets her voice back and we can get some decisions made in earnest.

She does not want to die at home in her own bed. Some perverse streak of Yankee Puritan pride will not let her rest, knowing that her two boys are going to have to deal with her mortal remains. Essentially she wants the dirty work subbed out to the contractors who make their living in dying. All we can really tell her--and tell her to tell any doctor, nurse, candy-striper or med-student in scrubs who might happen to ask--is never to turn down a hit of morphine, and always speak, nod or bat her eyelashes in the affirmative if they want to know is she in pain. The narcotic, we have been taught by our studies of assisted suicide, will ease pain, relieve anxiety and, most importantly, suppress respiration. Short of lethal injection, it's the shortest, easiest route out of here.

Mom understands. She's ready. The wetness welling up under her eyes is from having to say goodbye and mean it, to everything that's familiar and fond to her.

I've thought about that day, and the one that followed, often these past 10 years. I dream about my mother, and Dad, who died another decade before Mom left. And I thank everything and nothing in particular that I was still on my hind legs the day my father died, and was able to carry him in my arms into the hospital, where he let go of the tail of the tiger that kept doubling back and biting him, and that I was with Mom too, when she left.

And I count myself lucky, because I didn't have to spend days, weeks, months and more trying to find a place to park at TMC or UMC, and watch them suffer the slow inevitability to death, American-style.

Which is why I have no sympathy with people like the editorial writer at The Arizona Daily Star who wrote the recent screed on Jack Kevorkian, and could not impart any discernible opinion on whether Dr. Death is a murderer, a grand-standing egomaniac on an accidental mission of mercy, or God's own agent of common sense.

If you ask me, anything Kevorkian can do to get the American public--and ultimately the American medical establishment and our nation's lawmakers--to recognize the need and humane purpose in assisting the terminally ill in ending their lives of suffering, is justified.

Even if it does look suspiciously like a ratings magnet for CBS Television during the November sweeps period.

Okay, so the good doctor went way beyond guiding the hand of the dying this time. This time he shoved the plunger home. This time he pumped a dying man full of enough lethal drug to kill him. This time he committed what technically might be murder.

Hey: The guy was going to die anyway. Sooner instead of later. Later would only mean he suffered more and longer. And we're all going to die ultimately anyway. Is it wrong, therefore, for one--admittedly non-PC and untelegenic--zealot to keep hectoring the national conscience, daring the legal and medical establishments, until finally we confront and come to terms with the unlovely truth?

I don't think so.

Jack Kevorkian has been helping the sick and dying for years now, trying to force legal issues to the conclusion, and still we have not resolved the question of whether it is legal for a dying person to end his own life, and to obtain the help he may require in exercising this right. I know it is right to do so: we just haven't stated for the record that we as a society under law will sanction it.

And until we do, Jack Kevorkian has made it clear that he will keep jobbing his thumb in our eye. If we don't like it--and evidently we don't--then our remedy is clear:

Recognize and legislate the right of each of us to do with our own life, and death, what we choose.

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